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Nine lives, by William Dalrymple: book review

11 February 2011

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Until I was seven years old I lived in Westvile, near Durban, where Hindu temples were a familiar feature of the landscape, so I have always been curious about Hindu beliefs and practices, and have, at various times, tried to read something about it. I discovered, however, that most books about Hinduism published in the West were abstract and philosopical, and none of them explained those temples that dotted the landscape, or what people did in them. At school I learnt in History classes a little about Indian religion, with things like the life of the Buddha, and the Muslim conquests, but it was very sketchy. The most informative book I read was a work of fiction, Rudyard Kipling‘s Kim, which gave a more human picture.

Gateway to Hindu temple at Mount Edgecombe, Natal

On a trip to Singapore in 1985 I had a stop-over of a few days in Thailand, and visited some Buddhist temples. I discovered from tourist booklets that it was considered rude to point one’s feet at a Buddha statue, but there was still little to say what the temple meant to Buddhists, or what they did there.

So when I saw this book, I thought it could give a more human picture of Indian religion, and I was not disappointed. I had previously read William Dalrymple‘s From the Holy Mountain, and, as an Orthodox Christian I thought he managed to give a fair picture of Orthodox Christianity, so I hoped that he would give an equally fair picture of Indian religion, and that his biographical approach would give a reasonably accurate portrayal of what these religions mean to those who practise them.

“Religion” is itself a Western concept, shaped by the encounter between the Enlightenment and Christianity in the West, and so imposing it on India (or other countries outside Western Europe and its cultural offshoots) is bound to produce a distorted impression. “Hinduism” is a Western perception of Indian religion, viewing it through the spectacles of Western modernity. Western authors (and Indian authors writing for Western readers) find it difficult to avoid this trap. Dalrymple manages to avoid it by his biographical approach, letting his subjects tell their own stories.

The stories that they tell also shows some of the variety of Indian culture and society. Dalrymple explores the byways rather than the highways, the backwaters rather than the mainstream Vaishnavite and Shivite cults. And this probably gives a better picture too, since for the majority of Indians, religion is local, and the central worship is of local gods and godesses.

The book begins with the story of a Jain nun, whose best friend had starved herself to death. One of the qualities that Jain nuns and monks try to cultivate is non-attachment, so the nun describes her feelings of loss of her friend, and the conflict of this with the ideal of non-attachment.

Ceremony at Umbilo Temple, Durban, 1987

Next is the dancer of Kannur. There is a troupe of dancers who travel around villages portraying the stories and activities of the gods, and in the course of the performance they are possessed by the spirit of the god, and become the god, so that the dance is as much an act of worship as a dramatic performance.

The third is one of the daughters of Yellama, one of the sacred prostitutes in the service of the goddess.

Then comes the singer of epics. Like the dancers, the singers tell the stories of the gods in song, in front of the phad, a kind of scroll with illustrations of what the songs are about, which is also a form of portable temple. The songs are learnt and passed on by oral tradition, and Dalrymple makes some interesting points about the differences between oral and written cultures, and the effects of modern technology on the tradition — will people bother to learn the songs when you can get them all on DVD? He also notes how this has been lost in the West, where epics like Homer’s Iliad have long been passed on in written form, and the oral performance has been completely lost.

In the story of the Red Fairy, Dalrymple moves across the border to Pakistan, and speaks to one of the followers of sufi Islam. A woman who was born in Bihar, on the eastern side of India, to a Muslim family, and fled to East Pakistan when Hindu-Muslim hostility grew too great, and had to flee again when East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh. Now the mystical sufis are under threat from the Wahhabis. This reform movement in Islam, often called “fundamentalist” by Western journalists, though “puritan” or “protestant” might be better analogies with Christian history, aims to purify Islam of accretions like the sufi cult of the saints, which the Wahhabis regard as syncretistic superstitions. Wahhabi is the official form of Islam in Saudi-Arabia, and is being spread throughout the Islamic world with Saudi oil money. The people at the shrine of the sufi saint complain that the Arab madrasa students come to make trouble, and blow up the shrines. Dalrymple explains that madrasa students are known as Talibs, from which the word Taliban is derived.

And this takes me back to my schooldays. When I was 14, a group from our school went on a camp in the Western Cape, at Firgrove near Somerset West. It was an evangelical Christian camp, with Bible studies every day, and much singing of evangelistic choruses. One day we went on a walk to Macassar Beach, the site of Sheik Yussuf’s tomb or kramat. But in those days our Evangelical Christian teachers were not Islamophobic, and they explained that Sheik Yussuf was one of the first Islamic teachers in the Cape, and was revered as a saint, and we went in to sit quietly and reverently in the kramat, where the tomb itself was covered with layer upon layer of silk cloths. These Evangelical teachers, whom some would call “fundamentalists”, taught us to respect people of other religions, and to respect their holy places, even if we did not share all their beliefs. But no such respect is shown by the Wahhabis, who blow up such shrines in Pakistan. And the West also had its Taliban, led by the likes of Oliver Cromwell, who behaved in a similar fashion.

Dalrymple manages to explain all this, as far as I can recall, without once using the word “fundamentalist”. He lets his people tell their own stories.

Then comes the monk’s tale, the story of a Buddhist monk from Tibet, who left his monastery and monastic vows to become a guerrilla fighter against the Chinese in the Tibetan resistance, and later in the Indian army. When he retired from the army he returned to his monastic lifeat Dharamsala in India, where the Dalai Lama lives, in a settlement of Tibetan refugees.

The seventh is the story of the maker of idols, who casts bronze statues of gods for the temples, a trade that has been handed down from father to son for generations, but the idol maker’s own son does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps, and is more interested in becoming a computer engineer.

There is the Lady Twilight, the goddess of a crematorium, whose devotees live in the grounds of the crematorium, and use skulls from the cremated remains for their devotions. Grim and macabre as it sounds, Dalrymple find that they believe that central to it all is love.

Fire walking at Umbilo Temple, Durban, 1987

Through the dwellers in the crematorium he comes into contact with the Bauls, wandering minstrels. It goes back to the singer of epics in an earlier chapter, because the Bauls wander from place to place, singing songs, but many of them are agnostic, almost atheist, and they reject the conventional religion of temple and mosque, they reject the caste system, and the conventions of society. They are holy madmen, holy fools. Though Dalrymple does not say so, they could be compared to the hippies of the West.

Nine lives, of people living in different places and having different religious beliefs and practices, yet dedicated to a way of life based on their religion. Some ascetics, some prostitutes, and some somewhere in between. By telling their stories, Dalrymple makes it possible to catch brief glimpses of Indian “religion”, without imposing too much of a Western framework on it.

View all my reviews

One Comment leave one →
  1. 14 February 2011 4:16 pm

    Sounds interesting. I read a book on yoga in Australia that followed much the same approach, albeit from a much more western perspective. Let people tell their own stories.

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