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Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

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A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet - then spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the violence by hand printing the best prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve herself to death. Nine people, nine lives; each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story. William Dalrymple delves deep into the heart of a nation torn between the relentless onslaught of modernity and the ancient traditions that endure to this day. This title is longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.

304 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2009

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About the author

William Dalrymple

93 books2,714 followers
William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote the highly acclaimed bestseller In Xanadu when he was twenty-two. The book won the 1990 Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award and a Scottish Arts Council Spring Book Award; it was also shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize.

In 1989 Dalrymple moved to Delhi where he lived for six years researching his second book, City of Djinns, which won the 1994 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award. From the Holy Mountain, his acclaimed study of the demise of Christianity in its Middle Eastern homeland, was awarded the Scottish Arts Council Autumn Book Award for 1997; it was also shortlisted for the 1998 Thomas Cook Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize. A collection of his writings about India, The Age of Kali, won the French Prix D’Astrolabe in 2005.

White Mughals was published in 2003, the book won the Wolfson Prize for History 2003, the Scottish Book of the Year Prize, and was shortlisted for the PEN History Award, the Kiryama Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

William Dalrymple is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Asiatic Society, and is the founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

In 2002 he was awarded the Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for his ‘outstanding contribution to travel literature’. He wrote and presented the television series Stones of the Raj and Indian Journeys, which won the Grierson Award for Best Documentary Series at BAFTA in 2002. His Radio 4 series on the history of British spirituality and mysticism, The Long Search, won the 2002 Sandford St Martin Prize for Religious Broadcasting and was described by the judges as ‘thrilling in its brilliance... near perfect radio’. In December 2005 his article on the madrasas of Pakistan was awarded the prize for Best Print Article of the Year at the 2005 FPA Media Awards. In June 2006 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa by the University of St Andrews “for his services to literature and international relations, to broadcasting and understanding”. In 2007, The Last Moghal won the prestigous Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. In November 2007, William received an Honourary Doctorate of Letters, honoris causa, from the University of Lucknow University “for his outstanding contribution in literature and history”, and in March 2008 won the James Todd Memorial Prize from the Maharana of Udaipur.

William is married to the artist Olivia Fraser, and they have three children. They now live on a farm outside Delhi.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 785 reviews
Profile Image for Petra on hiatus, really unwell.
2,457 reviews34.4k followers
December 6, 2022
The book was beautifully, lyrically written as you would expect from William Dalyrmple. The stories of the people were interesting, but the religion, and it all came back to Hinduism was a lot less fascinating. I find Hinduism, certainly the Balinese monotheist version with their emphasis on partying and beauty, to be more what I can understand, or perhaps it's because I used to go to Bali 3 or 4 times a year (business). I didn't find it fascinating to have the stories of the lives of these 9 people related entirely almost to their religion. And so I gave the book up.

DNF, but not a bad book at all, just one I couldn't really get into and was a bit bored by.

Reviewed 6 Dec 2022. Took three years to get round to writing this!
Profile Image for Flevy Crasto.
23 reviews9 followers
August 8, 2011
When I picked up this book I thought I would be enhancing my knowledge on religion in India and what it means to (or how) these nine individuals are influenced/relate to it. I expected it to be diverse…..considering its about India, but wow! was I pleasantly surprised…..a very simple yet powerful book more about spirituality, truth, belief, complexity, hope, faith, principles, values, conviction and less about religion. I loved it, and would highly recommend it to anyone, even if you are not religious or don’t believe in God. These stories show the struggle of the old and the new and changing face of India, the diversity from north to south and east to west and yet somewhere at the root of it all we are talking about the things that exist in our society, the belief and hopes that make our journey through life and the oddities that may be so obvious and yet we live with a screen on it. One line that struck a cord in me was “God is inside us – it is from our hearts, our minds and our hands that God is formed and revealed”.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
617 reviews767 followers
September 3, 2013
'For three months of the year we are gods,' he says. 'Then in March, when the season ends, we pack away our costumes. And after that, at least in my case, it's back to jail.'

Hari Das is no criminal - he works as a (terrified) jailer at the weekends, which involves walking round the prison with a lathi, trying to avoid getting knifed. His week-day job is digging wells, trying to avoid getting caught if one collapses. But from December to February, the length of the season, he becomes a theyyam artist in Kerala. His face is made up, he dons an enormous, intricate costume, sings the story-song that invokes the deity, and to the wild drumming of the musicians performs the steps, the gestures and the facial expressions to tell a story. And somewhere in this long ritual, a trance-like state transforms him into the living incarnation of a god.

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Hari Das believes. He believes not only that the god enters into the figure he portrays, that it is not he dancing, but god, he also has an unshakeable faith in the power of his performance. For the theyyam turns the world of caste privilege on its head - these gods incarnate are Dalits, the stories they tell are of deities scandalised by injustice perpetrated by the ruling castes, who then immortalise the poor Dalit victim. The theyyam, he says, has completely altered the power structure: he draws his self-esteem from the performances he gives and assumes that this self-confidence has spread to the whole community. And not only that: the villages that neglected their theyyams found that their crops failed, they experienced misfortune; a Brahmin who had been out of work for six months found work after attending Hari Das' theyyam; and now even the two rival political parties have each adopted a deity to sponsor. Even the Communists. And they're meant to be aetheists. At the end of the dance, before a final violent ritual involving a chicken (don't read this over breakfast) the god retires to his shrine and holds a kind of surgery, offering reassuring advice to devotees who come with individual petitions, a bit like Father Christmas promising bounty and goodness.
But when Hari Das takes off his costume and returns to work as a well-builder, the Brahmin who reverently touched his feet just a week before no longer recognises him, offers him food with a long-handled ladle so as to stay at a safe distance, and gives him a plantain leaf as a plate so that he can throw it away when he's finished.
The theyyam is folklore and politics and spiritual revelation and ritual and artistic expression and propaganda and tourist attraction and propitiation of local gods and carnival and traditional and modern (available on DVD) and a good source of income for the dancers. Hard, but well-paid work. And there's no contradiction there, it can be all of those things at once.
This is the Indian way; synthesis.
In another of the chapters Dalrymple visits Srikanda Stpathy, the twenty third in a long hereditary line stretching back to the great bronze casters of the Chola empire. He and his two elder brothers make gods and goddesses in exactly the manner of their ancestors, such as this one from the British Museum, depicting Shiva as the Lord of the Dance:
 photo 320px-Shiva_as_the_Lord_of_Dance_LA.jpg
You can see wonderful pictures of their workshop and methods here.
Dalrymple is intrigued by the question of that magical transformation of a bronze figure into a god. He pushes Srikanda just a little:
'God is inside us,' he said. 'It is from our hearts, our minds and our hands that god is formed, and revealed in the form of a metal statue......Once the eyes are opened by having their pupils chiselled in with a gold chisel, once the deity takes on the form of the idol and it becomes alive, it is no longer mine. It is full of divine power and I can no longer even touch it. Then it is no longer the creation of man, but a god only.'
'It contains the spirit of god? Or is it a god?'
'It is a god,' he replied firmly. 'At least in the eyes of the faithful.'
'What do you mean?'
'Without faith, of course, it is just a sculpture. It's the faith of devotees that turn it into a god.'
It seemed to me that Srikanda had mentioned three quite different ways in which an inanimate statue could become a god: by the channelling of divinity via the heart and hands of the sculptor; a ceremony of invocation when the eyes were chipped open; and through the faith of the devotee. I pointed this out to Srikanda, but he saw no contradiction; all that mattered was that as a certain point a miracle took place and the statue he had made became divine.

No, no contradiction. We shall see but a little way if we require to understand what we see. (Henry David Thoreau), and in this rich cornucopia of sacred practice in India, there is much that can only be silently accepted, but not entirely understood.

Nine lives out of more than 1.2 billion. Nine paths up that high stony mountain of enlightenment, nine divergent devotees of spiritual practice. William Dalrymple, who earned his spurs with eight previous works of travel and narrative history, every single one of which (deservedly) won some prize or other, in his ninth work approaches these nine individuals with an equal measure of reverence for each one. Nine chapters, devoted each to one of the nine, and structured in a clear pattern: he sets the scene of how and where he found each one, gives a potted historical background of each particular variant of belief and then sits down with the person to discover their personal story, allowing each to speak with minimal authorial intervention. A gentle questioner, a respectful listener, he seems to be someone that people trust and are willing to talk to.

The main focus of his exploration of these nine lives is to discover how their faith and the way of life it informs can survive the rapid and radical change that India is undergoing. Each of them seem to be under siege from forces that they cannot withstand: the obvious one of economic ambition, which means that Srikanda's son wants to work with computers rather than bronze; the less likely one of literacy which is on the way to destroying a still surviving oral culture of epic poems; or Sufism under siege from the advance of the Wahhabis in Pakistan who look on it as idolatrous, immoral and a hotbed of superstition.
But this is where doubts begin to creep into my mind. For Dalrymple refrains from judging, and indeed why should he? He shows us, he moves on. Nevertheless it is clear from his chapter on Sufism that he embraces diversity and bitterly regrets, if not condemns, the dynamiting of Sufi shrines by the Taliban, because they disapprove of the use of poetry and music and the way the Sufis welcome women into their shrines. Of course. Wouldn't we all agree that tolerance is better than intolerance? A no brainer. Obvious. Diversity. Life's rich pageant and all that. Everything is to be preserved, everything is worth preserving.

Oh but the devadasis. The word comes from Sanskrit: deva means god and dasi means a female servant. A woman entering for life the service of the god or goddess. A nun? Well, no not quite. Back in the day, yes, they looked after the temple Brahmins, or had honoured roles in the temple rituals, but they were also there as dancing girls for the entertainment of the deity and in a complex pre-colonial cultural tradition that saw the devotional, the metaphysical and the sexual as closely linked rather than in any opposition to each other, they were seen as auspicious for their nubile fertility. Of course Victorian reformers, in their misguided, well-meaning way gave rise to legislation that gradually eroded the links between the devadasis and the temples, outlawing the dedication of young girls and threatening any priest who assisted in such ceremonies with imprisonment. Dalrymple may be correct in saying that the effect of such legislation is only to drive the practice underground, but several thousand girls are still dedicated annually by their parents, usually when they are aged between about six and nine years old. A sacred prostitute. She may still enjoy some privileges over secular sex workers, but this is parents selling their daughters into prostitution for money and the blessings of the god. That's the point where the word superstition comes roaring back into my mind, a rationalisation of ludicrous behaviour by endowing the mundane with spiritual properties.
You can follow any practice you like to find nirvana, whatever it takes for you. But not when you decide and rule over another's fate and see your path to spiritual peace riding on the back of someone else.

Profile Image for Shanmugam.
70 reviews37 followers
January 20, 2014
It is easy for an armchair reformist to say, "..superstition, savages…" in between his indigestion and gastric troubles. It is even more easier for a desk job junkie to 'like' a shitty article named in the lines of 'Uncredible India' and add a comment, "Oh man!, brutal customs, we are going backwards…" To be fair, these 'pseudo intellectuals' are not entirely at their fault, given the circumstances of 'syndicated Hinduism' in urban middle class, as part of the Rama-fication movement in recent years. There must be some intermingling connection and true meaning behind all these chaos and diluted rituals.

William Dalrymple's 'Nine Lives' starts with a nomadic Jain Nun in Sravanabelagola, then it traverses through Theyyam dancers of Kerala, Sufism in Sindh, a Tibetian monk at Dharamsala, bronze idol makers in Swamimalai and Tantrists & Minstrels in Bengal. Nine lives in this book are edited like, nine beautifully crafted short stories. Mr. Dalrymple has consciously taken the back seat as an observer and let characters tell their spellbinding stories. He stops with just giving right contexts and historical background, whenever needed. There is no judgement from his side, no abstraction, no speculation!

Mr. Dalrymple must have made extensive travels throughout the subcontinent to write this book, not to forget about different seasons. Each and every ritual he has recorded, happens only at certain times of the year. Or, he must have compiled this book from the extensive research he had made till then. Either way, it is a commendable effort.

An important primer on sacred India for curious minds!
Profile Image for Daren.
1,328 reviews4,398 followers
August 11, 2019
In this book Dalrymple provides nine stories, of nine very different people, all following the rituals and traditions of different religions in modern India (2009). The author explains in the introduction that he has ”kept the author in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage,”

As the reader, we are drawn into the complexities of modern India – a country advancing in an economic boom, in dealing with ancient superstitions, cults & sects. This makes for a series of fascinating tales, which actively avoid the usual clichés of mystic India.

As a heathen atheist, I enjoyed much more the stories of the people than the explanations of the various religious followings, essential as they were to understand the personal stories.

The nine stories are as follows – with what may be interpreted as spoilers!:
- In The Nuns Tale, Prasannamati Mataji tells her story as a Jain nun. Jain monks and nuns, of course, sweep the ground before they walk to ensure they don’t kill any animals or insects, but there is much more – for example constant travelling in order not to make bonds, and not being permitted to beg for food, but relying on food being given. In a strange twist, Mataji feels guilty for forming an attachment with a companion. Now she still struggles with the loss of her friend and fellow nun, who completed sallekhana the ritual act of starving oneself to death. It is a ritual with strict rules – the progressive removal of certain foods, and periods of fasting which increase to the point where no food or water is taken, and is seen as an enlightening process – the moving on from this body. It is the aim of all Jain munis First you give up your home, then your possessions. Finally you give up your body.

- The Dancer of Kannur tells the story of life of Hari Das, a Theyyam performer in Kerala. For nine months of the year he works as a labourer, digging wells and on weekends as a warder in a prison. For the other three, he becomes a God-incarnate - possessed by the deity - while performing at temples. For this three month period, he is respected and worshipped, for the other months of the year, he is simply and untouchable. In this story Hari Das explains his childhood introduction to performing, following his father, and the possession he goes through, from which he wakes with no knowledge of what has happened.

- In the Daughters of Yellamma, Rani Bai tells of her life as a Devadasi (literally God’s Female Servants) – a prostitute, but a prostitute recognised as incarnations of the deity, especially during the festival of the Yellamma, when they receive gifts and are prayed to. This was probably the most predictable of the stories – poor parents, a young girl sold as a virgin for what to her parents was a large sum of money, and then sold to a brothel, where the seduction of money meant eventually that she became a willing participant in the dedication ceremony which gives them their Yellamma status. Now against the law, the process now takes place in a more discrete way.

- Mohan Bhopa tells his story in the Singer of Epics. Living in Rajasthan, he is a traditional bard, singing the Epic of Pabuli, a 600 year old poem, taking five nights of eight hours each. As well as Mohan’s story, Dalrymple in this chapter gives a quite in depth history of oral epic storytelling – Europe and India, and the family traditions. More than just a poem, Pabuli takes on a Godlike role, worshipped by the villagers and asked to assist with the well being of animals and lifestock.

- The Red Fairy tells the story of Lal Peri, a Sufi Fakir, following Lal Shahbaz Qalander, and Shah Abdul Latif in Sindh, Pakistan. Her background makes an interesting story, from Bihar in India as a child at the time of the partition, her father died and then her stepfather was killed in the fighting. With an uncle the family crossed the border to East Pakistan (Bangladesh), where again violence began, with West Pakistan and East Pakistan fighting. With the offer of land in the south of (West) Pakistan, the family split and Lal Peri and her brother left and ended up in Multan, in Punjabi Pakistan. Instead of free land, they were given jobs in a factory, where they worked 8 hours for Rs 15. After 10 years, she left to follow her plans to become a wandering Sufi.

As interesting as her story is – the really gripping part in this story for me is described by Dalrymple as ”the complex three-cornered relationship between Hinduism, Sufi Islam and Islamic orthodoxy – in which the determination of the Sufi’s to absorb Hindu ideas and practices has always clashed with the wish of the orthodox to root them out as dangerous and deviant impurities”.

- Tashi Passang is a Buddhist monk, and tells his story in The Monk’s Tale. Like many other monks, Passang put aside his vows, took up a rifle and fought the Chinese after their invasion of Tibet. In telling his story he explains his early life and becoming a monk , the Chinese invasion, and of being one of those who accompanied the Dalai Lama in this departure from Tibet to Dharamshala, in Himachal Pradesh, India. There he joined the India Army, where he was trained in expectation of fighting the Chinese, only to be sent to Bangladesh to fight. In penance for the killing, Passang has spent years making prayer flags in Dharamshala, and late in life he has returned to his vows as a monk.

- For 700 years, the art of bronze casting Hindu Idols has been passed down in the family of Srikanda Stpathy. The Maker of Idols tells his story. Set around the Tamil New Year, in village in Tamil Nadu, Southern India, Srikanda tells of his Brahmin family line, the method, the technique, but most importantly the requirement to create idols "in exactly the manner laid down by the ancient Hindu religious texts, the Shilpa Shastras, and specifically designed for temple worship."

- The Lady Twilight tells the story of Munisha Ma Bhairavi, who lives in the cremation grounds. Animal sacrifice, tantric rites, blood rituals, and skulls all play a part of her role as Ma Tara – follower of the goddess Tara.

- As a Baul (bard or minstrel) Kanai in his tale The Song of the Blind Minstrel, tells of losing his sight from smallpox before he was one, and leaving his family to seek training as a bard. The Baul believe that God doesn’t reside in temples, or statues or rituals, but in joy, and singing and dancing. In this chapter we also have the story of Debdas, companion to Kanai. This story takes place at the Feast of Makar Sakranti on the banks of the Ajoy River in West Bengal.

Throughout the stories, Dalrymple follows a similar recipe - an introduction to the person or religious following, then an initial meeting with the person, then the background of the religion, then the life story, coming back to the current time- often a festival of religious event.
It shows that there are not simply four religions in India (Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity), but a much more complex mixture, with links and crossovers.

Great writing, in which the author offers no judgement or opinion, just presents the story.

Comfortably 4 stars.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews17 followers
August 27, 2015

Description from the Dust Jacket: A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet-then spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the violence by hand printing the best prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve 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 skull feeder in a remote cremation ground. A prison warden 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 4,000-line 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 now 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 over a decade explores how traditional forms of religious life in South Asia have been transformed in the vortex of the region's rapid change. A distillation of twenty-five years of exploring India and writing about its religious traditions, Nine Lives is a modern Indian Canterbury Tales.

Opening: The idea for this book was born sixteen years ago, on a high clear Himalayan morning in the summer of 1993. I was corkscrewing my way up from the banks of the river Bhagirathi, along the steep sides of a thickly wooded valley.

How many ages of Kali has it been since I picked up a delight from Wee Willie? Too long, that is most certain.

Kedarnath: [..]'one of the principal homes of Lord Shiva and so, along with Mount Kailash in Tibet, one of the two candidates for the Hindu Mount Olympus.'

Sravanabelagola: 'For more than 2000 years, this Karnatakan town has been sacred to the Jains.'

Official symbol of Jainism, known as the Jain Prateek Chihna. This Jain symbol was agreed upon by all Jain sects in 1974

Should India's Jains be given the choice to die?

Watch Theyyam here Did you spot any females at all in this melee?

'For many centuries Kerala was the Indian terminus of the Spice Route, and the most important trading post in the great mediaeval trading network which stretched from Venice through Egypt down to the Red Sea and across the Gulf to India.'

Aide Memoire:

1. The Nun's Tale - Jain - suicide
2. The Dancer of Kannur - Hindu - possession or escapism
3. The Daughters of Yellamma
4. The Singer of Epics
5. The Red Fairy
6. The Monk's Tale
7. The Maker of Idols
8. The Lady of Twilight
9. The Song of the Blind Minstrel

5* City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi
4* Nine Lives
5* In Xanadu: A Quest
6* From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East
5* The Age of Kali: Indian Travels & Encounters
5* Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan
WL Begums, Thugs, and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes
Profile Image for Dmitri.
202 reviews157 followers
March 5, 2021
Like the mythic reincarnations of a cat these nine lives will live in the future thanks to the writing of William Dalrymple. In 2009, he published this counterpart to his 1997 journey through the lands of Byzantium, "From the Holy Mountain". Twenty years since his first 1989 travelogue "Xanadu" his art had evolved, and he was no longer the protagonist within his own adventures.

This search for the sacred in India is told through the voices of modern seekers: an ascetic nun, Dalit deity, temple prostitute, bard of epics, Muslim mystic, militant monk, sculptor of gods, crematory witch doctor and ganja smoking minstrel. Each of the nine has one foot in the present, and the other in ancient tradition. The author is nearly invisible, a field researcher of religious folk life.

The underlying theme is how rapid modernization has affected their lives. In this regard the book is less convincing. Each life is mostly rooted in the past. The question is asked, but changes in the world appear to have limited effect. Some worry about the future of traditions. Only a monk caught in the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet had a collision with recent events.

The book offers a trove of details about lesser known sects within Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Jain fasting rituals, Tamil idol rites, Tantric sacrifices and Sufi ceremonies are described through first hand observation. This is unusual in more academic studies of religion, and is a welcome feature. His travel writing pedigree gives the feel of a spiritual roadtrip down India's rural backroads.

While conceptually sound, this work could be seen as an orientalist exercise by an upper class British expatriate. Luckily Dalrymple is no cultural voyeur. A mix of wonder and humor, innocence and sincerity absolves him from such sin. Any fault to be found might lie in the eccentric choice of lives he examines. Without this aspect it would be a different and less interesting book.
Profile Image for Asha Seth.
Author 1 book317 followers
February 4, 2019

Nine Lives is a book you need to be sure what you're signing up for, when you plan to read it. It is not your regular book, nor is it something that will let you off the hook any time soon. It is the distressing unveiling of paradigm shifts in the lives of few people the author has encountered over a span of 25 years; people who left such a strong enough impression that he felt compelled enough to immortalize them in his words.

What does faith mean to an Indian and how far would one go to establish themselves in the faith they follow is what this book is about. Religion being the over arching theme, it casts focus primarily on that segment of the society that is struggling to hold grounds amidst a rapidly transforming modern India. Life in the inner circles of the lesser-known crowd of this vast landscape called India still largely tilts on their beliefs; whether that is superstition or myth, and forms their basis of livelihood, in most cases.

The 9 stories:

Prasannamati Mataji, a Jain nun suffers in vain watching her best friend succumb to death.
Life of Haridas, a Theyyam dancer, is spent nine months as a labourer and prison warder, and rest three enacting as incarnation of God, possessed by the deity.
Rani Bai, a prostitute, recognised as incarnations of the deity Yellamma who is then worshipped and offered gifts.
Mohan Bhopa is a Singer of Epics who is worshipped by villagers for their own and their cattle's well-being.
Lal Peri is a wandering Sufi fakir who beliefs she doesn't really belong to one land since being uprooted from Bihar, then In Pakistan, finally landing in India.
Tashi Passang fights alongside others in the Chinese invasion of Tibet and later serves penance by making prayer flags in Dharamshala.
Skanda Stpathy, the maker of idols, tells of his life as an idol maker and the art and requisites of idol-making as per Hindu shastras.
Munisha Ma Bhairavi talks of her life, living in a Hindu cremation ground, amidst animal sacrifices, blood offerings, skulls, as a worshipper of Goddess Tara.
Kanai is the singing minstrel who loses his vision to smallpox very early in life. He abandons his family to seek the almighty for he believes one can meet God through singing and dancing.

The Review:

The author doesn't narrate but lets the characters tell their tales with absolutely no hint of prejudice played on his part and that makes this an interesting read, if it ever tries to be one that is.

Deeply descriptive, “Nine Lives” is the author's 25 years of travel (through different parts of India) summarised into a travelogue. Despite being modestly inspiring, this is perhaps, my least favorite book of the author simply because I couldn't take away much from the book; unlike Kohinoor or City of Djinns or The Last Mughal. But then, maybe this book is just for the reader to sink into the lives of the people captured within the pages and then leave them behind as you close the book. Although, this is travel journalism at its best, there isn't much to appease a reader's heart.

Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,115 reviews112 followers
May 19, 2020
This is a documentary that tries to illuminate the changing religions of India by telling stories of nine persons from the subcontinent. The author is a well-known historian, but this book is more a contemporary journalism. His goal was to avoid imposing myself on the stories told by my nine characters, and so hope to have escaped many of the clichés about ‘Mystic India’ that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion.

The stories and persons are:

Mataji, a woman follower of Jainism, a religion for which all life is saint, but which nevertheless practices what westerners (like me) may see as a suicide: Sallekhana, voluntary starving oneself to death

Hari Das, a man hindu, who work as a jailer and digger of wells, but during festival time (theyyam) takes an image of a god. He is from a low caste, Dalit, and while during theyyam Brahmins can wash his feet, during an ordinary day they won’t even allow to draw water from the well Hari Das had dug for them.

A woman, who had been dedicated to the goddess Yellamma as a child. While formally such dedications are devadasis (‘deva’ means god and ‘dasi’ means ‘a female servant’). At the heart of the institution lies the idea of a woman entering for life the service of the god or goddess. The nature of that service and the name given to it have wide regional variations and have changed through time; only recently have most devadasis come to be working exclusively in the sex trade. They support their families, which de facto sold them to the sex slavery and usually die young from STDs.

A man, who is one of two of the last hereditary singers of a great Rajasthani medieval poem, The Epic of Pabuji. He now competes with cinema and TV, and has problems when people say that he is wrong, when he cites the local and not ‘canonical’ version – there is an attempt to create a more homogeneous epics. His singing assumed to have healing properties, like prayers in the West.

A woman, who run all her life, persecuted as a Muslim and driven out of India into East Pakistan after Hindu–Muslim riots in the late 1960s; then as a Bihari driven out of East Pakistan at the creation of Bangladesh in 1971; and finally as a single woman taking refuge in the shrines of Sindh. She is a rare female Sufi, and is disliked by ‘educated’ mullahs.

A man, Buddhist monk, who took arms when Chinese occupied Tibet and then served in Indian army in special forces.

A man, who makes bronze idols of Hindu gods, whose age-old trade is endangered both by cheap imitations done without true faith and by the fact that his sons prefer to go to study IT instead of the family trade.

A woman living at the cemetery and using skulls for divinations and other rituals, a follower of Tantra, which is more known in the West for the Tantric sex, but which is much more than that

A man, blind singer, or Bauls – the word means simply ‘mad’ or ‘possessed’ in Bengali, some equivalent of ‘blessed feable-minded in the West, people who are outside the cast system

Overall, a very interesting insight in modern India religion and society.
Profile Image for Cornelia Funke.
Author 336 books12.7k followers
November 12, 2015
Unforgettable, haunting, enchanting, deeply moving...questioning Western concepts and goals, confronting our materialism with a spirituality that challenges everything we were brought up with
Profile Image for dely.
439 reviews223 followers
February 21, 2017

This is a must read for everyone fond of India and interested in the many religions, rituals and traditions that we can find there. The subtitle of this book is „in search of the sacred in modern India“ and this is excatly what the author does with his nine stories. India manages to keep alive, despite its progress, religious rituals and very often sacred and profane are mixed and accepted by people. The various cults in India are very complex but also interesting and it’s a country full of contraddictions. It is precisely all this complexity and depth that strikes me and attracts me.
Every story is dedicated to the life of a person and we can read how these people continue with their religious rituals, sometimes full of superstitions to the eyes of other people, in a country that in these last decades had a strong economical growth. We can see that there isn’t always a neat line between modernization and old rituals. It was interesting and fascinating to read, for example, how also politicians go to sacrifice goats to the goddess Tara in order to win political elections. Thanks to the author we also understand how deep traditions are in India and that modernization and ancient rituals can, and in my opinion must, live together. Well, not always. For example in the story about the Devadasi, I don’t think that this is something that should go on seen that it has to do with child prostitution. But there are still many people who think that Devadasi have something sacred and these prostitues can ask more money respect to common „colleagues“.
The reader comes to know also about old traditions that pass from father to son for many generations. There is the story about an estatic dance, Theyyam, and how the dancer is possessed by the god he is representing. The possessed dancer is considered like the real god and people go and ask for advices or blessings. We read about Stpathy (foundry workers of idols) and the creation of idols that must be done following a precise procedure written in sacred writings in order that that god goes to live in his statue.
We have also stories that talk about other religions, like the one of Prasannamati Mataji that talks about her life as a jain nun, Lal Peri Mastani who is a female sufi or Passang, a Tibetan monk that renounces to his vows in order to fight the Chinese when they invaded his country. He then fled to India and after many years in the Indian army he takes again his vows and lives again as a monk.
The last two stories are dedicated to Kenai, a bengali Baul, and Manisha Ma Bhairavi. In both stories we come to know how ancient and secret tantric rituals (considered superstition by other people) are still alive. Though considered old and superstition, a lot of people still go to these sadhus seeking for blessings or rituals in order to ask benefits or help to the goddess. Of course these rituals aren’t explained in the book otherwise they wouldn’t be secret.
All the stories were interesting but three, in the middle, were a bit slow and less engaging.

Ho deciso di scrivere le mie opinioni man mano che procedo con la lettura perché ho paura di arrivare alla fine e dimenticarmi poi metà delle cose che vorrei dire.
Ho ricevuto questo libro in regalo da un caro amico che conosce la mia passione per l'India. È una nazione sorprendente, ricca di culti religiosi differenti, seppur simili, che a volte vanno a cozzare con il forte sviluppo economico che c'è stato in questi ultimi decenni. Da un lato ci sono città moderne che non hanno nulla da invidiare all'Occidente, e poi ci sono ancora luoghi in cui si viene discriminati per la casta di appartenenza. L'India riesce a mantenere ancora vivi, nonostante il progresso, rituali religiosi e si ha spesso l'impressione che sacro e profano si mescolano e vengano accettati serenamente. Il libro, come dice anche il sottotitolo, è alla ricerca del sacro nell'India moderna. Tutto ciò mi affascina anche perché i riti religiosi indiani sono affascinanti di per sé. Anche i vari culti presenti in India sono molto complessi ma molto interessanti. È proprio tutta questa complessità e profondità che mi colpisce e mi attrae.

La prima storia narra di una monaca giainista, Prasannamati Mataji, che racconta i motivi che l'hanno spinta a intraprendere questa vita e di come si svolge la vita di una monaca della sua religione. Si sente parlare poco di giainismo perché non è "espatriato" come l'induismo e il buddhismo. Grazie a questa storia ho potuto approfondire quel poco che conoscevo. Sapevo che è una religione particolare in cui i credenti spazzano il pavimento prima di ogni passo per non uccidere nemmeno una formica, non accendono fuochi perché la fiamma potrebbe uccidere un insetto che svolazza lì intorno, pregano sempre per ogni animaletto che uccidono involontariamente e via dicendo. Leggendo la storia di Prasannamati ho potuto capire ancora meglio l'austerità a cui sono sottoposti i monaci. Ovvio, scelgono loro di intraprendere questa strada, ma non hanno affatto una vita semplice. Loro però ne sono felici perché l'unico modo per raggiungere la moksha è l'austerità. Rompono ogni legame affettivo, viaggiano sempre per non legarsi a una casa o a un territorio, non possono mendicare, mangiano una sola volta al giorno ecc. La loro vita è fatta di rinunce che però non vengono vissute come sacrifici, bensì come l'unico modo per bruciare karma negativo e interrompere il ciclo del samsara. Molto interessante anche la spiegazione del sallekhana, ovvero l'andare incontro alla morte iniziando un lungo digiuno che li conduce lentamente e serenamente alla morte. Sembra un suicidio, ma essendo per loro parte integrante della loro religione, è un orgoglio poter morire in questo modo. Di solito, però, lo fanno solo quando sono già anziani o gravemente malati.
Devo ricordarmi di cercare un libro che parli della vita del tirthankara Bahubali. Chissà se è lo stesso di cui parla l'omonimo film del 2015.

Nella seconda storia ho imparato la storia del Theyyam, narrata da un artista di questa danza rituale. Il danzatore, dopo che gli hanno dipinto il corpo e aver indossato il costume, viene posseduto dalla divinità che rappresenta e inizia una danza estatica. La gente ci crede fermamente, gli vanno a chiedere consigli, benedizioni e grazie. Dalle testimonianze che ci sono in questo capitolo, sembra che funzioni. Il theyyakkaran stesso dice che appena si toglie il copricapo, la possessione finisce e lui non ricorda più niente.
Il bello di questi racconti è che sono recenti. Il libro è stato stampato nel 2009 e l'autore ha vissuto in India prima di scriverlo e pubblicarlo. Non sono storie antiche, ma ancora oggi ci sono queste danze. È un'arte che di solito viene tramandata da padre a figlio perché, in modo che la divinità entri nel corpo del theyyakkaran, bisogna conoscere alla perfezione i mantra, le mudra, i passi di danza e anche il corpo deve essere dipinto e ornato in un preciso modo. Molto affascinante!

Nella terza storia, Le figlie di Yellamma, si parla delle devadasi e una di loro, Rani Bai, ci racconta la sua vita. Le devadasi (letteralmente "schiava di Dio") sono bambine che vengono consacrate a una divinità, di solito Yellamma; si svolge un rito simile al matrimonio e per tutta la vita saranno al servizio della dea. Nei tempi antichi venivano iniziate alle arti (danza, canto, musica) per intrattenere il re o la comunità, mantenevano i templi puliti, toglievano il malocchio ecc. Fosse solo questo, non sarebbe un problema. Il fatto è che questo "matrimonio" avveniva quando erano bambine, ma appena compariva il menarca, il sacerdote più anziano del tempio, o il raja, poteva deflorarle. Le devadasi diventavano prostitute sacre al servizio della casta più alta, i brahamani. Erano simili alle geishe o alle cortigiane e godevano di molti privilegi come per esempio l'istruzione, negata alle altre donne, ed erano rispettate e tenute in alta considerazione. Con la colonizzazione britannica, che ha smantellato il sistema dei raja, la vita e il ruolo delle devadasi si sono trasformati perché non c'era più nessuno che poteva mantenerle. Venendo a mancare il sostentamento delle caste alte e dei raja, diventano delle comuni prostitute mantenendo però un alone di sacralità agli occhi della gente. L'India ha vietato questo rito già alcuni decenni fa, ma si continua a farlo di nascosto in alcune regioni del sud. Avviene soprattutto nelle famiglie più povere, disposte a consacrare la figlia alla divinità vendendo la verginità a un personaggio ricco della comunità o della famiglia. Queste prostitute sacre possono chiedere prezzi più alti rispetto alle altre “colleghe” e vengono considerate dalla famiglia come un sostentamento sicuro. Le devadasi non godono più di privilegi come in passato (non che ciò giustificava questa iniziazione alla prostituzione sin dall'età prepuberale) e purtroppo ci sono ancora troppe famiglie disposte a vendere le figlie che entrano inesorabilmente nel giro della prostituzione infantile.

Il cantore epico ci porta nel Rajasthan. L’autore intervista Mohan Bhopa, uno degli ultimi bardi della regione. Il poema epico più importante del Rajasthan è l’Epopea di Pabuji che Mohan ha imparato a memoria sin da bambino e che ha iniziato a recitare insieme alla moglie. Questa epopea narra le gesta di Pabuji e si è trasformata da racconto ad epopea con il trascorrere degli anni. Nei primi racconti Pabu era un semplice mandriano che difendeva gli animali, ma man mano che passavano gli anni la storia si arricchiva di versi finché Pabu divenne un guerriero semidivino che protegge le mandrie e la gente del luogo. Pabuji è ormai considerato una divinità a cui le persone si rivolgono in caso di necessità. La rappresentazione di Mohan, accompagnata anche da musica e danze, non è soltanto mero intrattenimento ma è considerata un rito religioso. Durante ogni rappresentazione viene aperto il phad, ovvero un affresco su tela in cui sono dipinte tutte le scene più salienti dell’epopea, e si pensa che abbia poteri divini e che possa guarire da tutte le malattie o da possessioni demoniache.

La quinta storia, La fata rossa, è ambientata nel Sindh (Pakistan) e parla dei sufi, soprattutto di una donna sufi, Lal Peri Mastani. Anche lei, come gli altri protagonisti di queste brevi storie, racconta all’autore la sua vita. Essendo musulmana, dopo la partizione dell’India è dovuta scappare dal Bihar nel Pakistan orientale (l’odierno Bangladesh) e poi, per evitare la guerra del 1971 che ha portato il Bangladesh all’indipendenza, si è spostata nel Pakistan occidentale. La parte più interessante di questa storia è quella dedicata al sufismo, del perché i musulmani ortodossi non lo vedono di buon occhio e anche le influenze che l’induismo ha avuto su questa religione.

Con Il racconto del monaco Dalrymple ci porta sia in Tibet che nel Himachal Pradesh, nord dell’India. Tashi Passang era un monaco tibetano che dopo l’invasione del Tibet da parte dei cinesi ha rinunciato ai voti monastici per combattere. Non l’ha fatto per odio o per vendetta, ma per difendere il dharma. Nel buddhismo, nonostante sia una religione pacifista, si può uccidere se lo si fa per proteggere il buddhismo. Passang racconta della sua infanzia, della sua vita nel monastero, dell’arrivo dei cinesi, la rinuncia ai voti, la sua fuga per combattere e il suo esilio in India. Dopo alcuni anni viene reclutato nell’esercito indiano con la falsa promessa che avrebbe combattuto per liberare il Tibet. Dopo molti anni di addestramento e missioni minori in Tibet, è stato spedito in Bangladesh durante la guerra d’indipendenza. Nonostante fosse ormai un militare, cercava di comportarsi da monaco pregando quando era obbligato ad uccidere o compiendo pellegrinaggi durante i permessi. Appena gli si è presentata l’occasione ha lasciato l’esercito per andare a vivere a Dharamsala, sede del Dalai Lama in esilio, e ha ripreso i voti per continuare a vivere da monaco cercando di espiare le sue colpe.

Il creatore di idoli parla di un’altra arte tramandata da padre a figlio per generazioni, ovvero la realizzazione delle statue usate nei templi. C’è una procedura esatta da seguire, spiegata nei Shilpa Shastra, tra cui diversi mantra da recitare durante i vari processi, rispettare giornate e orari propizi per realizzare le statue e anche un rito da eseguire quando si fa “l’apertura degli occhi” perché è durante quest’ultima incisione che la divinità entra ad abitare la statua. La statua non è soltanto un oggetto da venerare in quanto rappresenta una divinità, ma diventa la dimora stessa della divinità. È stato molto interessante leggere la storia di Srikanda, uno degli ultimi Stpathy (fonditori di idoli), soprattutto perché ormai gli idoli vengono spesso creati in modo più rapido ed economico e nessuno si attiene più alla procedure dei testi sacri.
Le ultime due storie La signora del crepuscolo e Il canto del menestrello cieco solo collegate non soltanto perché i personaggi si conoscono, ma anche perché trattano di riti tantrici. Nella prima storia Manisha Ma Bhairavi ci narra come da moglie e madre abbia deciso di andare a vivere in un luogo di cremazione perché aveva sentito il richiamo della dea Tara. In questo luogo considerato macabro vivono alcuni sadhu, avvengono sacrifici di animali per “sfamare” la dea e si dedicano a riti tantrici che agli occhi di molte persone non sono altro che superstizioni. È stato però interessante leggere come molte persone che disprezzano questi riti vanno poi a sacrificare capre in caso di necessità. C’erano persino politici che volevano l’aiuto della dea per vincere le elezioni.
Ne Il canto del menestrello cieco veniamo a conoscenza dei Baul bengalesi ed è stato interessante perché non ne avevo mai sentito parlare. La loro religione si rifà a un induismo quasi ateo: i Baul rifiutano tutte le convenzioni sociali, anzi, gli piace stupire andando contro le regole, non credono negli idoli, nei riti e credono che Dio alberghi nel cuore di ognuno, non bisogna cercarlo da nessun’altra parte. È attraverso il canto che raggiungono Dio, ma anche tramite riti tantrici segreti. Ci tengo a precisare che il tantrismo che è arrivato in occidente ha ben poco a che fare con il tantrismo vero. Bisogna anche distinguere tra la via della mano destra e quella della mano sinistra (a cui, da quello che ho capito, si dedicano i Baul) e per approfondire e capire meglio l’argomento consiglio la lettura di Tantra: Lo Śivaismo del Kaśmīr.

Tutte le storie sono molto interessanti. Solo tre erano un po' più lente e meno interessanti delle altre, ma è un libro che consiglio a chi è appassionato dell'India.
Profile Image for Gorab.
662 reviews107 followers
April 15, 2020
Recommended for one of its kind off beat Indian travelogue comprising of 9 mystical tales…

Apart from all being Indian, the common point in these lives are on devotion, ritual, tradition, sacred religious faith and myths (or superstitions!), and their current state in modern India.

The 9 chapters are in the form of mini biographies of the people involved, in their own words from an interview with the author, sans his prejudices.
Each story pattern is similar to - what are they (in)famous for; history from childhood; that turning point in life; where they think they are headed for.

Trivia - These 9 interviews took place in eight different languages!

Loved the crisp editing and narration. The chapter names are indicative, and also represented by lovely miniature art.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,161 reviews1,255 followers
February 25, 2020
This is a fascinating book, in which the author captures nine particularly compelling stories of lives defined by religion in India, generally in unusual or extreme ways. The most intense stories come at the beginning: the Jain nun who ritually starves herself to death while her best friend looks on; the prison warden who spends three months of the year as a dancer believed to be possessed by a god. But they’re all interesting, including a Tibetan monk who renounced his vows to fight the Chinese; an illiterate performer of ancient epics; and a manufacturer of idols. The author relates the stories in his subjects’ own words (presumably cleaned up a bit for print), without judgment, and supplements them with information about the history and wider context of their particular practices.

The book makes no pretensions to being representative. These nine people – five men and four women, and their communities – simply happened to be striking to him. Most of the stories focus on distinct traditions within Hinduism, though there’s one Sufi story set in Pakistan, as well as the Tibetan monk and Jain nuns. They’re all intensely invested in their faiths, which for most of them have come to form their entire community. Except perhaps for the idol manufacturer, they’re also quite marginalized: they have always been poor, or they gave up relative privilege, possessions, even family relationships, to take to the roads as a spiritual calling. Many talk about having been spiritual since childhood, but most of these lives are also examples of people picking up the pieces after trauma and loss.

All of which makes for a heartfelt, captivating book that promises no more than it can deliver, that doesn’t water down these people’s stories by trying to universalize them. And the book can stand on its own; it doesn’t need to deliver a lecture on religion in India, beyond providing background for these specific people. I think it’s more powerful that way, though I couldn’t help wanting to draw a larger meaning from it. These nine people’s relationships to religion were remarkable to me, as an American: I’m used to religiosity being largely about righteousness, power and complacency, an excuse to look down on others or refrain from addressing social or environmental problems, or at best a way of staking a claim on a particular social identity. For these nine people, it’s something different: they seemed to be searching, rather than claiming to have all the answers, and one of the things they’re seeking are worthwhile and meaningful lives. But is this actually a difference between India and the U.S. overall? – I don’t know. (And perhaps if I had grown up around their traditions I would have seen more self-righteousness in these folks too.) Marginalized people all over the world turn to religion for the same reasons these nine people do, and India is hardly free of people who use religion for political and exclusionary ends. I would have liked Dalrymple to have drawn some conclusions – notably, the book has no epilogue – though I recognize that wasn’t his goal here.

At any rate, quite a good book and one I would recommend, so long as you’re interested in reading about the lives of a few striking individuals rather than a broader sociological study.
Profile Image for Carmen.
324 reviews9 followers
January 13, 2010
I found this book quite interesting and enlightening. I am always amazed that people have such strong faith regardless of the difficulties they face in their daily life.
Profile Image for Aniruddh.
31 reviews22 followers
January 19, 2021
It started off promisingly but the stories became gradually dull.

"The Monk's Tale" stood out as the best one from the collection.
Profile Image for Natalia .
118 reviews21 followers
June 23, 2021
Chyba nie umiem ocenić tej książki.

Pierwsze trzy opowiadania były niesamowicie ciekawe, ale im dalej to tym mniej angażujące one się stają. Pomimo tego, że autor z dużą dokładnością opisuje każdy odłam religlii, zarysowuje nam sytuacje bohaterów, abyśmy w pełni mogli ich zrozumieć, co zrobił bardzo dobrze, to czegoś tutaj chyba zabrakło. Czytając te historie jakoś nie byłam w stanie się w nie zaangażować.
219 reviews85 followers
January 2, 2014
This was a great text, especially for a must needed introduction to India. There is so much to cover that I think it is almost impossible to really cover, but Dalrymple's style gives individual flavor that helped it seem more real and personal instead of a giant conglomerate, "India."

There were a lot of things that I had a difficult time coming to terms with. The life of the Jain nun for instance, and especially the chapter about devadasi's (religious prostitutes from my interpretation). I am not quite sure how to deal with these stories, especially coming from an anthropological point of view and trying to be culturally sensitive, but how can someone like me even begin to grasp the sense in, say, the sallekhana (choosing to end your life as a final offering of this illusion we call our lives)?

I noticed that a common theme in these tales were the intoxication of living a simple life on the road. It makes me wonder if the desire to be on the move is a part of all of us no matter where we were born. I wonder if I was born into that paradigm if I would give up my life to it. I remember learning about what it was like in the middle ages in England and I would have honestly rather have done a pilgrimage than have been married during that time. I'm not sure that this is so different.

I do wonder a little bit about the authenticity of some of these tales, or what the selection process was for the author. I think it is important to recognize that even by trying to remove himself from the stories they are all still his interpretation of the narratives.

The thing I enjoyed the most about this book, however, was the chapter about the monk from Dharamsala. I plan on spending this summer there, and hearing a personal account of the Chinese invasion really made this so much more real to me. As part of my research, I am now considering looking at some of the stories shared about their exile and do maybe a creative writing portrait of this location. I owe a lot to this book for helping me develop my project. I recommend that anyone wanting to get better acquainted with India read this book.
Profile Image for Ram.
57 reviews4 followers
June 15, 2010
As an Indian in India, I have always read with interest the writings of foreigners about India. The earlier books of Dalrymple appeared to me to be delivering a well researched and authenticated version of his views about aspects of India. More and more I find him cashing in on his established reputation merely to sell his latest volume.
A disappointment - even the proof reading seems to have been hurried as an example note "... Jacobean aristocrat clad in breaches ... "!!
Profile Image for jun6lee.
7 reviews6 followers
February 27, 2018
A ruse of portraying an unbiased view, or perhaps even an effort to, but not quite there. A very slanted perspective that seems in awe & bewildered by the mass following of numerous spiritual practices around India, yet dwells on tragic undertones to justify them. Not really into documentaries for these very slanted perspectives and that’s how it felt. Interesting, and yet a disappointment.
Profile Image for Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly.
755 reviews346 followers
January 28, 2022
If you are religious, you might enjoy this book. For here you will meet many, many gods. You will also meet a lot of believers like you, probably with a more sincere, genuine and stronger faith. You might find these fellow believers delusional, what with the kinds of deities they worship, but please don’t forget what is the clear, observable, rule-of-the-thumb regarding worship and faith: it is always the case that to a believer, all religions, gods and systems of worship other than his own are false. So if the roles are reversed, where you and your relationship with your god will be the subject of this book and the characters here will be the readers, you’ll also evoke either pity or derision from them seeing your misguided worship of a false god.

Now, on the other hand, if you are irreligious you may also find enjoyment in this book for a different reason. For not only are the facts here entertaining (many of them are truly utterly shocking in their strangeness), they will also be a confirmation of what you consider as an irrefragable truth that:

“God did not make us. We made God. Religion is a distortion of our origins, our nature, and the cosmos. We damage our children—and endanger our world—by indoctrinating them.” (Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”)

So meet Srikada Stpathy, the maker of idols. Or the maker of gods, to be exact. ‘The gods created man,’ he said, ‘but here we are so blessed that we—simple men as we are—help to create the gods.’
He manufactures idols in his shop which literally, once finished, become gods. He said:

“God is inside us. It is from our hearts, our minds and our hands that god is formed, and revealed in the form of a metal statue. My statues are like my children. As we say, ‘silpi matha,pitha shastra’: the sculptor is the mother and the sacred Shastras are the father. Usually I want to keep them, but this is my profession, so sooner or later they must leave me, just as a daughter leaves her father when she is married. Once the eyes are opened by having their pupils chiselled in with a gold chisel, once the deity takes on the form of the idol and it becomes alive, it is no longer mine. It is full of divine power, and I can no longer even touch it. Then it is no longer the creation of man, but a god only.”

The author asked if it just contains the spirit of god or is itself a god. Srikada Stpathy firmly replied:

“It is a god. At least in the eyes of the faithful. Without faith, of course, it is just a sculpture. It’s the faith of the devotees that turns it into god.”

So even if, say, you are instead a devotee of the Sto. Nino in Cebu or the Black Nazarene of Quiapo you could easily relate to what Srikanda Stpathy claims.

This book is about the various gods in India, but there is a chapter here about a Tibetan monk named Tashi Passang who considers the Dalai Lama a reincarnated god. His story was included here, I suppose, because when the Chinese communists invaded Tibet the Dalai Lama fled into India and went into exile there. The monks who had evaded arrest or murder by the Chinese, like Tashi Passang, were forced to renounce their vows, armed themselves, and ultimately joined the Indian army, with hope to liberate Tibet by force. But Tashi Passang did not get to fight the Chinese as the Indian army instead fought that war which created Bangladesh. He had killed many fighting that war. Now he is an old man, again a monk, and worries about his soul and future reincarnation because killing is a big no-no in his religion, especially since he is a monk.

Meet another god, or goddess to be exact, named Yellamma. Young daughters are consecrated/offered to this god whose divine duty/work henceforth would be to have sex (their DHARMA). Rani Bai was one of these girls. By doing her dharma she had two daughters whom she offered also to Yellamma who, in their teens, also did their dharma, got AIDS and died. Now their mother is saving enough money from her trade in the hope of buying a farm and retiring there when she’s old. She expressed firm belief that Yellamma will be looking after her. When the author asked if she really knows that, she replied:

“Of course. If it wasn’t for her, how could an illiterate woman like me earn Rs 2,000 in a day? Yellamma is a very practical goddess. I feel she is very near. She is with us in good times and bad.”

She felt her goddess is always near, like a personal saviour, or a guardian angel, or a Mary-like mother. But she, too, had AIDS and is probably already dead by this time.

During the so-called theyyam dancing season, another Indian religious festival, between January to March, Mr. Hari Das dons his costume, dances, is transformed into an omnipotent deity and is worshipped as a god. Then at the end of March he goes back to his regular job as a well-builder and to his part-time job as a prison warden.

There were many others: The Singer of Epics, The Red Fairy, The Lady Twilight, The Song of the Blind Minstrel. A real page-turner.
Profile Image for Sameen Borker.
45 reviews26 followers
June 4, 2014
One consumes one’s life in narcissistic and even egoistical ways. That travel can make us leave behind our cocoons of self-examination and indulgence is proved in two ways – by actually travelling or letting one’s mind travel when one relishes art in any form. In the land that is a mixed bag of cultures and religions, it is almost Herculean to distill the fundamental characteristics of what constitutes an Indian. Is an Indian an Aryan? A Dravidian? Or both? A woman in a saree? A man in a Dhoti? Is an Indian an unclean citizen? Is an Indian culturally magnanimous or hypocritically myopic? There is no one answer. Like the reflecting of light inside a kaleidoscope that is India, being an Indian means a lot of different things. One of the characteristics that divides more often that unites is the religious inclination of most of India’s population, and to a very great extent. Here we’re not considering the rise of the new generation agnostics and atheists, however superficial they may be. William Dalrymple’s 2009 book, Nine Lives, is a wonderful concoction of all these things – travel, stepping out of one’s familiar landscape, Indians, and yes, religion.

As the title suggests, this book takes us on a journey and introduces us to nine people who live/have lived whole, purposeful, and passionate lives. Each story has a central character who has arrived to a fold of religion either by introduction or after seeking themselves in this labyrinth of life. Spanning from Kerala to Rajasthan to Andhra Pradesh to West Bengal and even Tibet and back, Nine Lives paints honest portraits of people who have suffered, been misunderstood, sought to find out where they fit in and have finally arrived. There is a story of a Jain nun who writhes in pain as her best friend slowly dies. Another story of a theyyam dancer who exudes uncommon passion more for satisfaction than monetary compensation. An idol maker who understands why his son would sit in front of a computer than learn his father’s craft, but he wishes that he would rather not understand. A woman who sews her life in a Sufi shrine after her life was torn in the political battle of two nations. Another woman who lives in a cremation ground and describes it as a thriving ecosystem where the dead and living coexist. There stories, among others, outline the triumph of a human being’s innate need to first find oneself and then find the tribe to which they belong.

At the other end of the spectrum, these stories also highlight religious practices unknown to most city dwellers and the eyes that don’t seek. How is it possible that a God descends into a human body to cure? Why is the consumption of blood and body fluids normal practice for some? How is that art and prayer have not separated for even a moment in some hearts? There is no scientific reasoning that can be applied to these practices, because after a point of time science does fail. Somehow, I would like too believe that it is necessary for science to fail and faith to emerge victorious. It makes for such wonder and amazement. You can’t wrap everything around your head. Where’s the fun in understanding everything?

Every story in Nine Lives leaves you speechless at the end. Be it Hari Das, Lal Pari, or Mohan Bhopa, each one of them make for such interesting and brave people that you can’t help but admire them for their courage to follow their hearts wherever they may lead them. Nine Lives is mandatory reading for every Indian. William Dalrymple has painstakingly written about our fellow citizens and his stories compel us to sit up and take notice. His stories draw us out from our sheltered lives and prod us to look at the people of our country with unceasing awe. Again. These stories break our hearts so that we may know what it is to be human and go on that journey to find ourselves. Each one of these nine lives evokes the comprehension of the vastness of life and the joy of exploring its subsequent depth.
Profile Image for Ashok Krishna.
358 reviews52 followers
November 27, 2019
We humans love stories and are fascinated by story-tellers who can weave some fascinating tales. Right from our childhood, when even the noblest of morals was taught using fables, to filling ourselves with news telecast on a daily basis to learn the happenings around, we learn more in the form of stories than through mere stating of facts. Authors like William Dalrymple are fascinating raconteurs that bring history before our eyes with their lucid prose. This book is a testimony to that.

This ancient land of India has seen the rise and fall of various civilizations and cultures. Along the way, it has also seen the birth and decline of various religious paths. Though many of them, like Buddhism, Jainism and Tantric worship, have not caught up with the larger masses, they have held on to their own and flourished in the shadow of that all-encompassing ocean called Hinduism. With their own holy scriptures, rituals and routes to seek the Eternal Truth, they are still in vogue among many parts of this country. In this book, Mr. Dalrymple brings to fore nine such people, who have all, in their varied ways, been searching for that one single Divinity.

A Jain nun explains her struggle to let go of her attachment towards her friend who undertook ritualistic fasting unto death. One of the members from the ‘lowest’ levels of the society gets worshipped by even the higher castes for a quarter of an year, when he dons the garb of a God and becomes ‘occupied’ by the Divine. Then told the tale of ‘Devadasis’, so-called ‘Slaves of the Lord’, a pure tradition that got tarnished and truncated into mere flesh trade. The waning art of Rajasthani Bhopas who use their ‘Ektara’ (a musical instrument) and a ‘Phad’ (a fabric painting) to invoke the Lord and sing His glories, wandering across the land. There are Sufi dervishes caught in the whirlwind between their pure love for the God and the puritanical, rabid form of Islam that threatens the very existence of humanity. Then there is a Tibetan monk who tried unsuccessfully to fight the invasion of his country by the Chinese, but who now spends his time in the hope of atoning for his acts of violence and returning to his motherland someday. Thanjavur’s bronze idol makers who have kept alive the traditions of their ancestors for nearly a millennia, casting bronze images that turn into vessels of Divinity, have been lent voice in the next chapter. The final two chapters are devoted to talking with people that chose to seek the Divine in the profane and the mundane – through Tantra.

Every character in this book is different and unique. Yet, what binds them all together is their seeking to connect with their God through art forms and austerities. Also, the understanding they share about there being one God who gets worshipped in many names is a common trait that needed to be told to the whole world.

Each of these nine chapters brims with history, tradition and emotions. Traveling across the vast expanse of India, Mr. Dalrymple has put in a lot of efforts to capture the characters in their truest, most vulnerable selves, laying bare their lives, emotions, ideals and ambitions. As each chapter comes to an end you can’t help feeling a tinge of emotion – sorrow, anger, awe, anguish and, above all, hope – surging through your hearts. Riveting. Realistic. Wonderful recounting.

These ‘Nine Lives’ will really live upon your heart!
Profile Image for Tamara Leontievova.
254 reviews18 followers
February 1, 2019
Laskou k indii ma nakazila este v detstve moja mama. Jej hipisacke ponorenie do indickej kultury bolo samozrejme primerane k vtedajsim zdrojom, trocha zjednodusene, no zato odusevnene. Zabavne na tom je, ze odvtedy sa stala india temou, o ktorej ma asi nikdy neomrzi citat, ale absolutne neuvazujem o cestovani. Netusim preco. Alebo mozno tusim: mozno pre ten nekonecny bordel, ktorym je tato kniha presytena a ktory sa ovela jednoduchsie vnima z odstupu obyvacky, kde si mozem kazdu neznamu vec guglit a hrat sa s nou a listovat v encyklopediach a hladat v pamati, kde som napriklad prvy raz pocula o sufizme a kedy zasa zabudla, co to vlastne znamena.
No a kniha je to teda bravurna, pan je uzasny, chcem sa s nim kamosit. S nim by som to tam asi aj zvladla. Vyzera, ze sa dost vyzna.
Profile Image for Ricardo.
121 reviews
November 15, 2011
I'm usually interested in books about Eastern religion, and the title of this book was attractive enough to make me read it. The author portrays the lives of nine people he met in India and whose lives are the basis for this book. Every one of them has a different outlook of the meaning of life and the road leading to the ultimate goal in life. Even though the book is interesting enough to finish reading it, I was a little disappointed because I though the book might be more about deep insights about religion and no so much about descriptions of events and narration of the life of the subjects.
22 reviews
August 7, 2010
interesting account of the lives of nine people from lesser known and different religious groups in india. i found the story of the jain nun who is going to starve herself to death as the last and ultimate sacrifice very interesting and harrowing. the mainstream religions are not represented here in their orthodox forms but rather in the extreme forms followed by these nine people to achieve the one theme most of them have in common i.e. renunciation of the material world as a means of achieving spiritual success
Profile Image for Abhinav Kapri.
5 reviews2 followers
October 13, 2014
its a worthless book. Not a trace of spirituality only a collection of interviews with eclectics and clowns. During the search of spirituality the author meets prostitutes, idol makers, sufferers and half wits, to sell the book on the spice gathered through peeking in the private lives of troubled and spiritually strayed souls. Cheap tactics. The author lives in India but doesn't appreciate its flavor, I ask why continue to live if its that bad? What not people do for money and little name/fame..
Profile Image for Hazel.
247 reviews5 followers
April 1, 2017
An interesting travel read about 9 religious pilgrims, each from different religions in India. It made me reflect on religion in general, how it can potentially have the power to transform someone, and help people experience life on a deeper level. On the flip side, it can also be strange and unusual, and push people to do odd things. Also it can divide people. I think it is always good to think critically, whatever your spiritual persuasions.
Profile Image for Dhanya.
39 reviews6 followers
May 19, 2010
To put it mildly,there is nothing exciting about the book.the cover is so misleading.It'll definitely put one to sleep.Narration is bad.It did not evoke/provoke the spiritual side in me.It was like reading a newspaper article.

Read it if you want to know how to write a bad book.If there is a Razzies for books,it should go to this.
Profile Image for Maggie.
726 reviews29 followers
June 15, 2010
This book, whilst well written and easy to read, did not hold my attention. I found some of the stories interesting, yet the majority didnt interest me enough to want to keep reading. I picked up and put down this book so many times I lost count. Wouldnt bother with it again.
Profile Image for Shukar.
18 reviews
March 16, 2015
I picked this book immediately after reading 'city of djinn' by the same author, which was splendid! In this book, author writes as a fiction writer (not as a historian) and if you have read better fiction work then this book would disappoint you.

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