Nine Lives: In Search Of The Sacred In Modern India


Status : Read from March 03 to 08, 2015
Format : Paperback
My rating: 4 of 5
Author: William Dalrymple

An absolutely wonderful book with deep study on people and beliefs of India. Nine lives with nine different biographies of nine people about their belief and the religious path they followed.

Dalrymple tries to find answer to many of his questions: What does it actually mean to be a holy man or a Jain nun, a mystic or a tantric seeking salvation on the roads of modern India? Why does one individual embrace armed resistance as a sacred calling, while another devoutly practises ahimsa, or non-violence? Why does one think he can create a god, while another thinks that god can inhabit him? How is each specific religious path surviving the changes India is currently undergoing?

At Sarvanabelagola, Karnataka, he meets a Jain nun, Prasannamati Mataji who has taken up Sallekhana as her path to achieve moksha or spiritual liberation. Sallekhana: the ritual fast to death, which the jain consider as triumph over death, an expression of hope.

In Kannur in northern Kerala, writer meets a untouchable dalit named Hari Das. For nine months a year he works as a manual labourer digging wells for the rich and on weekends he work in Tellicherry Central Jail, as a prison warder, trying to avoid getting knifed from the war between the convicts and imprisoned gangsters of the two rival political parties, the RSS and the Communist Party of India. But from December to February he become a Theyyam artist in Kerala. Though he comes from an untouchable dalit caste, he is transformed into an omnipotent deity and as such is worshipped as a god. His complete body is painted to represent lord Vishnu, he wears an enormous intricate costume, he dances and sings the songs to invoke the deity to the wild drumming of the music and gestures facial expression to tell the story. The Brahmins who consider him untouchable comes and touches his feet seeking his blessings.

In Belgaum, Karnataka, a lady RaniBai narrates her story about how she was dedicated as a young girl by her parents as a devadasi. They worship the goddess Yellamma. Devadasi means a woman entering for life the service of the god or goddess. Some experts trace the institution to the ninth century. Others maintain it is far old as 2500BC which to present date has converted to commercial sex workers.

In Pabusar, Jaipur, he spends time with Mohan Bhopa, an illiterate goatherd from Rajasthan, who keeps alive a four thousand line sacred epic that he knows by heart. Living as a wandering bard and storyteller, he remembers the slokas of one of the great oral epics of Rajasthan, prasing the hero God Pabuji. Mohan Bhopa and his wife Batasi, though both completely illiterate, were two of the last hereditary singers of a great Rajasthani medieval, the 600 year old poem, The Epic of Pabuji.

Writer meets Lal Pari at a sufi shrine at Sehwan, a rural Sindh province. Lal pari, a girl from Bihar, who had to leave her home after Hindu Muslim riots. She was a refugee in a camp near Lahore. She used to work in the cotton factory and spent her free time visiting shrines in Multan and talking to the fakirs. After her brother’s death she leaves Multan to join the Lal Shahbaz Qalander. Here she does the Dhammal, the devotional dance to the saint, which takes place each evening at sunset and gives water to the thirsty pilgrims and sweeps the floor of his tomb chamber. According to Sufi Islam, all religions are one. They are merely differently manifestation of the same divine reality. What is important is not the empty ritual of the mosque or temple, but to understand that divinity can be best reached through the gateway of the human heart.

Tashi Passang, a Buddhist monk in Tibet until the Chinese invaded in 1959. When his monastery came under pressure from the Chinese, he decided to take up arms to defend Buddhism. Now living in exile in Dharamsala, in Indian Himalayas he prints prayers flags in an attempt to atone for the violence he committed.

The writer visits Srikanda Stpathy, the twenty-third in a long hereditary line stretching back to the great bronze casters of the Chola empire. His workshop is at a short distance away in the great temple town of Swamimalai. He and his two elder brothers make idols of gods and goddesses in exactly the manner laid down by the ancient Hindu religious texts, the Shilpa Shastras, and specifically designed for temple worship.

The writer takes us to the east of India where he meets Manisha Ma Bhairavi, who has made the cremation ground at Tarapith in Bengal her home. Here the Tantric rituals and animal sacrifices are performed in the temple. Here the goddess Tara is said to live and at midnight, Tara can be glimpsed in the shadows, drinking the blood of the goats slaughtered day after day in an afford to win her favour. Manisha was born to a family with seven sisters and one brother with a loving father. She was married off at the age of 16. Her husband and mother-in-law did not like her and was beaten by them regularly. This is when she started getting fits and she realised that she was in possession of goddess. She left her home and headed toward Tarapith. Here she devoted her full time in bhakti sadhana and started learning tantra vidhya. In the night of amavashya, when the goddess is most powerful, a homa fire is lit, the skull is kept at the base with incense sticks. The rudraksha rosary is hung and the thali of offerings is placed for the goddess and goats are led in for the sacrifice of blood.


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