Pic: Dev S Sukumar

The Monkey King and his incomparable climbs

An appreciation of India’s boldest sportsman, Jyothi Raj. By Dev S Sukumar

Dev Sukumar
Oct 9, 2013 · 9 min read

There was something about that summer afternoon — the stillness. The crickets were chirping noisily, but the air was still, a repressive stillness that carried a quiet menace.

It was April 24th, 2013, and I was at one of Karnataka’s most famous tourist sites, Jog Falls. It was hot and the Jog wasn’t at its majestic best — at its prime, four water columns plunge 830 feet down making it a stunning spectacle and India’s second largest plunge waterfall. Still, what appeared to be a trickle from far away was in fact a steady stream that caused a constant roar as it crashed to the rocks below. Meanwhile, a tiny blue speck at the foot of the falls started making its way up.

The sense of foreboding was because of the unfolding of an insane script, dreadful and yet fascinating, an exhibition of a deadly sport — free solo climbing. The practitioner of this sport was Jyothi Raj, the blue speck that was steadily moving upward.

Free-soloists are a rare breed. If rock climbing is a risky sport in popular imagination, free soloists are at its extreme end, for they use no safety equipment. No ropes, no harnesses, nothing to prevent a fall. There are a few famous ones across the world. Alain Robert, ‘The French Spiderman’, is the most famous of them all, for he has made a career out of climbing the world’s tallest buildings.

It isn’t a large breed. It cannot be, for one frequently hears of solo climbers falling to their deaths. Mishaps happen even to climbers using safety equipment, but you couldn’t accuse them of tempting fate. Solo climbers do that every step of the way. They are among the world’s most brazen adventurers, for they give themselves no chance in the event of a slip or any of a thousand other possibilities. Jyothi Raj is probably the only free soloist in India, and he draws admirers across the country. Today the 26-year-old — who used to work as a labourer on construction sites, but now runs a climbing club — is a household name in Karnataka thanks to his climbing skills and rustic earthiness, and some myths that have sprung up around his extraordinary feats; myths that claim he was a monkey in his past life and so on. But his real story is even more fascinating than the myth.

Jyothi Raj was born to a poor family in Theni, Tamil Nadu. When he was seven, he bashed up a classmate and the school dismissed him. Scared to return home, the boy ran away to Bagalkot in Karnataka, where he worked in a sweetmeat shop for five years until he tired of the constant abuse. He started walking, sustaining himself by raiding beehives and sugarcane fields, until he reached the fort town of Chitradurga. Working as a domestic help with a family, his life took another turn when they accused him of stealing money. Bitter and disgusted, he decided to end his life within the vast Chitradurga Fort. He scaled up a massive boulder and was about to throw himself off when he noticed that people standing below were clapping. They were apparently enthralled by his climb up the boulder, and had no idea he was a step away from killing himself.

The applause told him something — perhaps this was what he was meant to do. He began to frequent the fort, befriending the monkeys there, and replicating their stunts. YouTube videos emerged of him performing risky stunts on the walls; foreign media began to interview him. He began to get famous as ‘Kothi Raju’ — the Monkey King. One popular story is that he was a monkey in a past birth; that was the only way they could reconcile to the strange sight of an unemployed young man risking his neck on the rocks for nothing in return. In recent years he has gathered a small group of faithfuls. He talks of the need to open a climbing wall in Chitradurga. More importantly, he uses his skills for public good — he is often called to Jog Falls to retrieve corpses of those who have committed suicide. The Jog holds some strange charm for the world-weary.

This day, April 24th, Jyothi Raj has decided to scale the Jog for fun. He has scaled it before, but on this day he will attempt his toughest route — along the water column. “I think I’m the only guy in the world who will solo under the water,” he said. He will have to contend with, among other things, water cascading on his head, crabs, perhaps the odd snake, falling rocks and debris, moss, and of course… the full scale of the 830-foot chasm that will punish a single error he makes. Nobody has succeeded in what he has attempted.

In 1997, two climbers — Sheetal Jain and Dilip Hombaiah — attempted a roped climb of the Jog. They failed. Sheetal had a hard fall at around 600 feet, and the two had to be helped up by a team waiting above. “It was a hard climb to plan,” recalls Hombaiah. “Sheetal fell about 40 feet and hurt his ankle. I was belaying him. We had a team on top and they helped us jumar up. It was a difficult climb. There was a lot of rain water and we couldn’t get clean rocks. We didn’t know what to anticipate. Anything can come off in those conditions. We were hanging by our hands. You have to be very strong if you have to succeed. You can’t do it if you’re scared.”

Over the last hour, Jyothi Raj has made steady progress. He weaves in and out of the stream; at one point he disappears behind a rock and reappears under a ledge that has him hanging over 100 metres of so of thin air.

His disciple, Mohd Rafi, is with us on the rim above, and appears relaxed. I ask if he’s brought a rope and he shakes his head no. They haven’t contemplated the possibility of failure. But something gnaws at the back of my mind — Jyothi Raj had a serious fracture a year ago at the fort. He was halfway up when it suddenly rained. The fracture required a few months to heal. This is his first major climb after that fall.

From where we are stationed — to the left of the rim and directly opposite Jyothi Raj’s route, the spectacle is awe-inspiring. Gazing down the chasm makes one slightly giddy. The deathly rocks below almost seduce you into throwing yourself off. Jyothi Raj is in the midst of this rocky landscape, a tiny speck on the vertical wall of the Jog, wedging his hands and toes in the cracks, hauling himself up steadily.

Things are uneventful. Rafi, his disciple, looks sleepy under the blazing mid-afternoon sun. It looks like another easy day…

Jyothi Raj is under a cascading stream. He attempts a traverse from the right to the left. He extends his left arm and leg across…

Then, suddenly, disaster. He slips and falls some 20 feet right into a cradle amid the rocks! The water column plunges from there, down another 100 feet or so.

It takes a moment to register. The apparently invincible monkey man has had a fall! He has disappeared behind the water. Rafi, his disciple, is stunned. A sudden chill envelops the air. This was the worst thing that could have happened. The Jog is now suddenly a huge monster that has swallowed him up.

The next minutes are tense. Is he hurt? How can he make it out alive? There is no access to him. The local administration only got to hear of his climb once he’d started out, and the couple of cops on duty are furious, for they have been receiving calls from higher-ups.

After about 10 minutes, he emerges from behind the water. He gingerly feels the rocks. He is surely hurt. There is no way anyone can climb another 200 feet of vertical rock with a damaged leg or hand. So there he is, Jyothi Raj, just a few months after recovering from a broken leg, probably injured again, still some 200 feet from topping the route.

I feel sick in the stomach. There is a fascinated crowd, and more are turning up, but it feels like we’re going to watch a good man die. We can see him but we can do nothing. He cannot hear us over the roar of the water. He has no mobile phone. He has too much pride in himself to give up the climb. But another slip will mean death.

I think about conventional sport and all the talk about ‘risk’ and ‘life-and-death situations’. All that appears laughable now. Even on the biggest sporting stages, those who do not perform can retire to their dressing rooms. They can return another day. They can have a beer and forget all about it. They can quit the sport. They can say they weren’t in form, or that they had some injury niggle.

Jyothi Raj cannot quit. There is no dressing room for him to go to, no substitute he can summon, no coach he can ask for advice, no injury time-out. If he makes it up in one piece — that looks unlikely — he will get a tongue-lashing or worse from the police.

But that is the test of the man, and how he proved himself on the day! He continued making his way up. At one point, he had to do another traverse under the falls, and this time he made no mistake. Some three hours after he started, he topped the rim. His head had a deep cut. He looked shaken.

“That was a calculated risk,” he told me, of the fall. “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.”

The police chastise him, but they can’t do much because the villagers treat him like a hero. After all, he helps them retrieve corpses, and they know he does these stunts for the heck of it, not to make money. They take him to hospital to examine the cut on his head. TV crews conduct interviews. “I will keep climbing,” Jyothi Raj states. “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 else to take the risks I’m taking.”

This man is unique. There is nobody like him in the country, or perhaps in the world. He has been climbing for long but he isn’t good at competition climbing. The other climbers hold him in awe, for he does things they will never dare to. National climbing champion M Shiva Linga admits he would never attempt what Jyothi Raj does as a matter of routine. “He’s a natural,” says Shiva. “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 want to even try.”

What sets Jyothi Raj apart is his inherent disregard for his own 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 says. “But if it’s a major fall, it will be death. I might go missing some day.”

After his latest caper I asked if he had to continue what he did. He believes in omens. “I have a sense of success or failure,” he replied. “If I’m about to fail, I will know. Like the night before the climb, I had a dream. I saw myself returning with a bag full of rocks from Jog Falls. It was a good omen.”

His friends are helping him manage a Facebook account. The latest picture was of him doing an insane solo up a smooth rock face. These days he is inspired by videos of legendary climbers like Alain Robert and Dan Osman. Osman was an amazing solo climber and extreme adventurer; he would do speed solos up formidable rock formations. Perhaps Jyothi Raj, in his own mind, wants to measure up to those titans. But he will also be aware that Osman plummeted to his death at the age of 35.

Post-script: Four months after this episode, in mid-August, Jyothi Raj returned to Jog Falls after being informed of three suspected suicides. He stayed for two days at the Falls, attempting to access the bodies from above and below. He managed to retrieve two.

    Dev Sukumar

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    ...like an owl upon the wharf.

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