Three brothers from a remote village in the Himalayas are driven by poverty to become monks. One becomes a famous masked dancer; the second an accomplished player of the Tibetan temple trumpet; and the third a great Buddhist scholar. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve herself to death. A woman leaves her middle class family in Calcutta and her job in a jute factory, only to find unexpected love and fulfillment living as a tantric in a skull-filled hut in a remote cremation ground. A prison warder from Kerala becomes for two months of the year a temple dancer and is worshipped as an incarnate deity; then, at the end of February each year, he returns to prison. An illiterate goat herd from Rajasthan keeps alive an ancient 200,000-stanza sacred epic that he, virtually alone, still knows by heart. A devadasi - or temple prostitute - initially resists her own initiation into sex work, yet pushes both her daughters into a trade she regards as a sacred calling. Nine people, nine lives. Each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story. Exquisite and mesmerizing, and told with an almost biblical simplicity, William Dalrymple's first travel book in a decade explores how traditional forms of religious life in South Asia have been transformed in the vortex of the region's rapid change. Nine Lives is a distillation of twenty-five years of exploring India and writing about its religious traditions, taking you deep into worlds that you would never have imagined even existed.
No doubt I passed on my confusion to my students. I could have done with Dalrymple’s engaging book then.
Only many years later I learned that “Buddhism” and “Hinduism” were effectively the creation of 19th Century English and German scholars, who had only recently classified Islam and Judaism as “religions”. These scholars cast their eyes across the practices of the teeming shrines of South Asia looking for religious systems. Not surprisingly, they saw what they were looking for and used the suffix “-ism” to describe them.
As Dalrymple knows, the reality is much more complex, and much more interesting, than can be contained in the religion scholars’ enthusiasm for classification. William Dalrymple is a travel writer living in India. He has a particular interest in religious practice. These are the "Nine Lives" of nine exceptional holy women and men up and down the country.
This approach achieves three things: first, it personalises what might otherwise be abstract notions of religion. We meet articulate people who know what they believe. With his travel writer’s eye for detail, Dalrymple sets these extraordinary sages in their setting, and allows them to tell their stories. All have found that it has cost dearly to pursue the holy.
Second, it allows Dalrymple the opportunity to describe faith-worlds of the “lay” folk who still flock to the shrines and their holy people. The 2,500 year old practices of India are not dead. Who knows how many of their proverbial “nine lives” they have had?
Third, it helps the Western reader build a picture of the lived reality of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It shines a light on the difference between a Tamil Buddhist in India’s south and a Tibetan monk in Dharamsala. It lets us see the intertwining in many shrines of Islam and Hinduism. It reveals a particularly Indian expression of Sufism, and it shows the pressure the Saudi Wahabbis are placing on them to conform.
Teachers of religion will find this book to be a treasure. Some may use the nine sections of the book to structure a term’s work and allow students to experience the same discovery as the reader. Year 12 and university students could read each chapter in preparation for class discussion. To use the book in this way for younger students would require more structuring.
Others will enjoy the contemporary update of their understanding of Indian religions. Others, like me, will recognise how India is not a confusion of spiritualities, but a vibrant profusion of faith and ritual.
I recommend it highly.
It is the story of a nun who as a young girl decided to go the way of Jainism. this meant to break away from the family, to live a life of wandering in a very ascetic form, all forms of life (humans and animals) to protect. She was not traveling alone but with an age-matched nun who became ill very early tuberculosis and therefore the path of Sallekhana chose to depart this earthly life. This is the gradual, voluntary and ritual renunciation of ingestion to death and is not considered by the Jains as suicide.
The Dancer from Kannur
This is the story of a Theyyam dancer who belongs to the lowest caste of Dalits. From December to February, he dances with the troops and the remaining nine months, he works as a prison guard and well diggers. His life as a prison guard is very dangerous because the occupants have more power than the director or the politicians. When digging wells, he shows how the Brahmans keep the distance to them, so that they are not contaminated, but kissed simultaneously during the dances are his feet by these same Brahmans because he is a deity. The social classes and circumstances are so clear - ambiguous that they almost bordering on schizophrenia, but this is lived religion.
There are families who give their daughters to the goddess Yellama which already means even as toddlers they are dedicated to her. When these girls reach puberty, they are sold to the highest bidder for a night. From then on, these girls and young women have to work as prostitutes and so support the family income. Many have children and also those daughters are dedicated to the goddess Yellamma, even though this is now prohibited. Most of these women will die today early on AIDS. This story also explains how this deity was.
The Epic Singer
This is the story of Mohan Bhopa and his wife Batasi. Mohan was bard and village shaman. He and his wife, though illiterate, are among the last singers who know by heart the great medieval Pabuji epic that tells of the heroism and honor, struggle and defeat, and finally martyrdom and revenge. A complete presentation of the 4000 verses long courtly epic spans five full nights. The epic is recited always before a Phad, a long, painted cloth on which the highlights of the plot are depicted and which serves as a portable temple for the god Pabu simultaneously.
In this chapter, the storytelling is deepened described and illuminated from different viewpoints.
This is the story of Lal Peri who came from more than twenty years to the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander in Sehwan and since then lives there as a watcher and follower of Sufism. But it is also the long history of the complex triangular relationship of Hinduism, Sufism and strictly religious Islam (Muslim fundamentalists have the tolerance of Sufis towards Hindu practices always rejected as dangerous and deviant). The Taliban have the origin in this region and destroy all cultural property.
This is the story of a Tibetan monk who soon after entry the monastery in Lhasa withdrew his monastic vows since he joined the resistance movement. While he helped Dalai Lama to his escape and arrived in India himself, he tried to remain faithful to the monastic life. So that he could survive, he joined the Indian army, which promised to fight against the Chinese. Unfortunately, this was not the case and he had to fight against the Pakistanis. When he was discharged from the army, he decided to re-enter the convent.
His story, which is true for many of his contemporary colleagues, has touched me very much.
The bronze caster
This is the story of Srikanda, whose family on twenty-three generations (over 700 years) goes back to the famouse bronze casters of the Chola dynasty, which had ruled until the 13th century in South India. His workshop is located in the temple town of Swamimalai, where he and his two brothers after old tradition manufactured gods and goddesses. It also tells the religion of Tamil Hinduism and how the bronze casting is produced according to an ancient tradition.
The Tantrik of Tarapith
It is the story of Manisha Ma and Tapan Saduh those who indulge in Tara cult of Tarapith. Tara Ma regard them as their mother even if it is presented everywhere as a demonic goddess, see the two in her a caring mother, and not one of the wildest and most stubborn goddess. She is the goddess of knowledge and understanding, but also the horrors figure who brutally slaughtering demons and evil yakshis.
Here also the traditional Tantrism is explained, which has nothing to do with the shape as it exerts the Western world.
The song of the blind Bauls
For centuries, the Bauls refuse the conventions of the box-conscious Bengali society. Defiant and seductive, wild and stubborn, they have maintained their esoteric mystical doctrines and a large treasure beautiful, melancholy, often enigmatic songs compiled, which are them spiritual guide. God, they say, does not dwell in a figure of stone or bronze, not in heaven or afterlife, but here and now, in every human being who seeks the truth. This is the story of the blind Kanai and Debdas.
From religious icon makers worried about the future of their trade, to singers of epics facing audiences no longer as interested before in staying up for nights on end listening to the oral classics, to abused women who find comfort in devotion to Tara or to Sufi saints and a Tibetan monk doing penance for violence resisting the Chinese, all are the stories cast a light on interesting and rarely heard aspects of Indian life. And the story of the Jain nun, trying and failing to maintain detachment and her incredibly austere life, as her friend starves herself to death is perhaps the saddest thing I have ever read
The only weak spot is a fairly cursory interview with a devadasi - its as though the author felt he had to do it and didn't really have any great interest in the topic.
Otherwise its brilliant. Buy it now
Should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in spirituality and/or India.
Here are a few of the diverse aspects of the rich cultural landscape of India that are subject to examination not only in their contemporary settings but also their provenance,
The extreme asceticism of Jain monks and nuns. The unrelenting devotion of the the Theyyam performers of Kerala. The interesting and quite tragic lives of the devadasis of karnataka. The nomadic singing bards of Rajasthan who can recount epics like the Mahabharata in marathon recitals that can last a few weeks. The interesting and transforming world of Sufism in Sind and the rapidly approaching threat of radical islam in the form of Wahabbism that is threatening to engulf and destroy this religious treasure. The really tragic tale of the annexation of Tibet to Satan's own country as recounted by an ageing Tibetan Monk who was part of the Group that escorted his holiness the Dalai Lama to exile in India. The Idol makers of Tanjore who are the 23rd in their line starting with their earliest ancestor who started as the chief idol maker to the Cholas culminating with The Tantrics, mystics and Bauls of Benga.
It's not a cheerful or upbeat text in a conventional sense although all the individuals interviewed are living 'religious' lives. Some of the lives were the individual's choice, some were not, and some resonate more than others. For example, after finishing the Jain nun's story of her sadness at her inability to give up her last attachment (an attachment to a friend who dies), who could possibly not understand the pain that must have caused her--to be torn between love of one's friend and one's love of one's religion?
But the chapter that tore at my heart the most in these years of atrocities in the name of religion--villages being raided and destroyed, children kidnapped and murdered, captives being beheaded or burned alive, was the chapter entitled "The Red Fairy" that tells the story of a Sufi believer, one who tried to live the words of his own faith as best summarised in a story explaining how "Both hell and Paradise are within us all": "It was winter and evening...so one day [Lal Shahbaz was wandering in the desert with his friend] and they found some wood...but then they realised they had no fire. So Baha iid-Din suggested that Lal Shahbaz turn himself into a falcon and get fire from hell. Off he flew, but an hour later, he came back empty-handed. 'There is no fire in hell,' he reported. 'Everyone who goes there brings their own fire, and their own pain, from this world.'" (pp 144-5). In short, "Fighting with swords is a low kind of jihad. fighting yourself is the greater jihad. Don't kill infidels, kill your own ego." (p. 144) This is a religion the world needs more of.