Several years ago, young Jyothi Raj was a depressed man – he chose a rock and decided to climb it before plunging to his death. The huge rock presented a dilemma – there was no easy route to reach the top. But Jyothi Raj managed to scale it anyway, by observing and emulating the monkeys around him. And when he got to the top, he was rewarded with cheers and claps from passers-by who had observed his feat. He didn’t want to die anymore. Instead, he became India’s most famous monkey climber.
“A monkey is the world’s best climber. Humans came from monkeys. But I have it backwards. I’m turning into a monkey from being a human,” Jyothi said with a smile.
Jyothi Raj’s story is a rather sad one – he was born to a poor family in the state of Tamil Nadu, Southern India. Fearing punishment at the age of seven, he ran away from home to Bagalkot, in the nearby state of Karnataka, which he made his new home. “I don’t remember how I ended up here,” he said.
For many years, Jyothi Raj was a victim of ill-treatment and abuse. “A man used to look after me and he used to abuse me a lot. He used to ask me why was I alive, why don’t I die? When he said such things, I was very hurt. And I used to question myself about living in such a world.”
He supported himself for a while through a string of odd jobs at various shops, and later worked as domestic help with a family in the fort town of Chitradurga. One day, the family accused Jyothi Raj of stealing money – this was the last straw. Bitter and disgusted with life, he decided to end it all by jumping off a cliff.
“I came to this fort and planned to jump from a rock,” he recalled. “But there is no route to climb it. Then a monkey came and climbed that rock. When I saw that, I thought, ‘I will also climb like that.’ Then jump from the top to die.” He eventually did reach the top, but fate had different plans for him there.
“When I reached the top a lot of tourists who had come to see the fort started to cheer and encourage me. They wanted to know if I was a champion rock climber. And they said they had never seen someone climb such a huge rock. They talked to me with so much love.”
“It was then that I realized that such adventures make it easy for you to find a spot in other people’s hearts. So I continued solo-climbing by observing and emulating monkeys.” Jyothi Raj began to visit the fort more often, made friends with the monkeys and began to replicate their stunts.
Slowly, he began to make a name for himself. Tourists would film his performances and share the videos on YouTube. These videos of Jyothi Raj performing highly risky stunts on walls gained him a lot of attention, and eventually the name ‘Kothi Raju’ or ‘Monkey King’. Rumors spread that he was actually a monkey in a previous life, which made some people believe that was why he could risk his life with such ease.
But monkey climbing is no easy feat, according to Jyothi Raj, who has spent many years practicing the art. “Climbing is very difficult. I’ve been injured a lot,” he said. “I’ve broken both my legs, my hands, my lower back, my head. But I’ve never let my heart break. Now, there is no pain in my heart because everyone is so nice to me. The entire village treats me like a son, so that makes me feel very nice.”
One of Jyothi Raj’s worst falls occurred in April last year, when he decided to scale the Jog Falls for fun. Although he had done it before, he decided to use a tougher route this time, right along the water column. With sheets of water cascading on his head, crabs and snakes along the route, falling rocks and debris, slippery moss, and a 830ft-chasm belong, it’s a wonder that he even made it as far as he did. And he didn’t even bring a rope!
Unfortunately, halfway up the route, it began to rain. The seemingly invincible monkey man slipped and fell onto a hard cradle of rocks. But here’s the astonishing part – while most climbers would thank the stars they are still alive and call it quits, Jyothi Raj just got up and jumped on the rock wall once again! And he made it to the top this time, much to the shock of his spectators and supporters below.
“That was a calculated risk,” he said later. “Unfortunately, the rock I was holding came off and fell on my head. I never had a doubt I would climb up all the way. I will keep climbing. This is nothing. I will do higher climbs. I’m not scared. I will climb buildings in Bangalore. I’m doing this to raise awareness of the sport, and to tell the government to construct a climbing wall in Chitradurga. But I don’t want anyone to take the risks I’m taking.”
What makes Jyothi Raj special is his apparent disregard for life. “When I climb, I always look for something to cushion my fall, like a tree branch, so I probably won’t die on the smaller climbs,” he said. “But if it’s a major fall, it will be death. I might go missing someday,” he admitted with nonchalance. “I have a sense of success or failure. If I’m about to fail, I will know.”
Although Jyothi Raj seems invincible, there’s one thing he isn’t good at – competitive climbing. But he’s made a brand of his own as far as climbing is concerned and it’s hard to find anyone who would try to emulate his style . Not even seasoned climbers like national climbing champion M Shiva Linga wouldn’t take the kind of risks he does.
“He’s a natural,” Shiva said. “He’s not used to climbing on (competition) walls, so that’s why he isn’t used to sport climbing. His solos are unbelievable. For me, they are impossible to achieve. I wouldn’t even want to try.”
Over the years, Jyothi Raj has also used his superhuman abilities for noble purposes. He often climbs waterfalls in the surrounding areas to retrieve corpses of those who have committed suicide. At Chitradurga, he also trains local children in rock-climbing. “You see, a climber never dies. His body may not live, but his name, and his records will live forever. And this is why, I am never scared. Because I will live for a thousand years.”