Book Review

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple

India has an ancient, diverse and complex culture of which most visitors can only hope to scratch the surface. William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (Bloomsbury 2009) takes readers beyond the surface and into the skin of nine different people seeking moksha or spiritual liberation. Dalrymple reveals the extraordinary commitment of these people in maintaining their faith and the often extreme rituals they perform in order to demonstrate their devotion. Nine Lives is a must-read for any traveller intending to visit India who would like to better understand this country’s exotic religious practices.  

Scottish-born William Dalrymple has lived in India for many years. He is founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Asia’s largest literary festival. His first travel book about South Asia, In Xanadu (Flamingo 1989), was published when he was just twenty-two. Since then he has gone on to write several travel and history books, primarily about India, most of which have been nominated for or won awards. Dalrymple has also written and presented a number of award-winning series for television and radio. His latest book is Return of a King: The Battle of Afghanistan 1839-42 (Bloomsbury 2014).

The characters in Nine Lives have been likened to the pilgrims in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It was Dalrymple’s intent in this erudite work that the narrator remains “firmly in the shadows” creating instead, a frame within which the non-fiction stories of his nine characters could speak of their chosen spiritual quests. His interviews, conducted in eight different languages with the help of translators, are unobtrusive and allow the nine people to tell their stories without authorial interference or judgement.

The factual accounts of the characters in Nine Lives reinforce Mark Twain’s belief that “Truth is stranger than fiction”. But while these stories might seem strange to the religious sensibilities of some in the West, in Dalrymple’s hands they are respectfully examined as he weaves relevant historical details with sometimes painful oral histories.

Nine Lives starts in Sravanabelagola with a Jain nun who has embraced the life of an ascetic in order to overcome what the Jain religion consider the real enemies: ambition, greed, pride and desire. The nun tells of the ritual fast to the death, or sallekhana, of a fellow Jain nun, considered the ultimate ambition of an ascetic life and the best path to Nirvana.

Next, readers are taken to Kannur to hear the story of a theyyam dancer who for ten months of the year is a well builder and guard in a lawless prison, but for the other two months this “untouchable” of the dalit caste is possessed by gods and worshipped by the elite of Kerala.

In Mudhol a devadasi, or temple prostitute, tells of how at the age of six she was dedicated to the goddess Yellamma by her parents. She would have readers believe her work in the sex trade is a sacred calling, but there is a tragic subtext to her story, which speaks of another truth.

In Pabusar Dalrymple introduces readers to a bhopa, or shaman, bard and singer of epics. Though illiterate, he is one of the last hereditary singers who can recite a 4,000-line medieval poem, which takes five dusk-till-dawn performances to tell.

Over the Indian-Pakistan border at Sehwan, readers then encounter dreadlocked dervishes who perform the dhammal, an ecstatic devotional dance, to Sufi saints while possessed women are exorcised of spirits.

In Dharamsala a Tibetan monk tells of how he took up arms to protect the Dalai Lama upon fleeing Tibet despite his Buddhist beliefs that he should kill no living thing. To seek forgiveness for his violent acts he prints prayer flags. As part of his penance he makes sure every one of them is perfect.

An idol maker from Tamil Nadu, the twenty-third in a long line of master craftsmen stretching back to the great bronze casters of the Chola Empire, explains how he considers his work an act of devotion not art. It is a father-to-son skill under threat, however, as heirs to his craft show a greater interest for computer engineering.

The final two chapters in Nine Lives tell the story of a tantric from Tarapith who is a devotee of the blood-drinking Hindu goddess Tara and lives in a cremation ground, and a Baul, or wandering Bengali minstrel, ascetic and holy man. Each defies conventional religious orthodoxies – the tantrics for their blood sacrifices and the Bauls for their near-atheism and rejection of religious rituals.

Many of Dalrymple’s characters come from impoverished, violent or marginalised backgrounds. Most are uneducated and illiterate. Their personal narratives are often painful and there is a sense with some that their devotional paths are as much an escape from hardship as they are a commitment to a spiritual quest. While readers might be left questioning the logic of some of these commitments, they need not think they can look to Dalrymple for simple answers. He remains true to his intent of remaining “firmly in the shadows”. It is a restraint not all travel writers exhibit in their work.

Dalrymple weaves contextual passages with personal oral histories in Nine Lives. These histories speak of an extraordinary persistence to faith and ritual in what is a rapidly modernising India. In exploring some of the spiritual practices, which have shaped India for centuries, Dalrymple not only makes an often impenetrable culture accessible to readers but also rewards them with an appreciation for the spiritual alternative to materialism.