Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Nine Lives, by William Dalrymple

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple – Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India written by William Dalrymple is a travel book with a predetermined purpose and published in 2009. The purpose as the title states is to seek the sacred in modern India. William Dalrymple is a Scottish writer and historian. He is also a curator and an art historian. He is a well-known critic and broadcaster.  But here our interest is his writing expeditions.  William Dalrymple wrote many books and Nine Lives was his seventh book.

The book has nine stories from different corners of the country.  He has won many awards for his works and some were Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, Sunday Times Young British Writer Award, Thomas Cook Travel Book to name a few. Today he is a prominent person in the literary circles.

The book Nine Lives is about nine Indians, a Jain nun, a part time Theyyam artiste, a temple dancer, a couple who were bards of Rajasthani epic folk tale, a Sufi  nun,  family of bronze deity sculptors, a woman who was worshipped as goddess, a blind singer of folk tales, and a Buddhist monk. They are true stories which were out of the ordinary.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

In his own words William Dalrymple says that in Xanadu, another travel book written twenty years before, the narrator got more prominence than the characters in the book. “With Nine Lives, I have tried to invert this, and keep the narrator firmly in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage”. He also changed some names and even some details of the characters at the request of the characters.

Most stories are about men and women who have moved away from the rigid mainstream within their religious practises. It is a book of ‘ordinary people in extra ordinary circumstances’. The book also suggests the dangers of modernity wiping out the traditions and the dangers are more so for the ones who are pushed to the fringes without falling into the conventional line. Many in this book are following the hereditary vocation but now the younger generation do not want to continue it and these traditions are likely to face a natural death.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

The language used is very powerful and expressive and it creates a wonderful word-picture of the people and the events.  Travel and history is beautifully combined giving the reader a complete picture. The narrative structure is definite. The presentation is dialogues oriented and the reader feels that the person is sitting in front of him and narrating the story – so effective is the style of writing. The book is richer for its content too as he has stories of people from different parts of India and each one is on a road so completely different from the other.


 Prasannamati Mataji

The first story is about a Jain nun, Prasannamati Mataji staying in the ancient and famous pilgrimage town of Shravanabelagola. The nun chose to become one at the young age of thirteen.  Prasannamati Mataji was known as Rekha and she belonged to a big rich Jain family in Raipur. She was loved by everyone in the family. She grew up watching films and Amitabh Bachan was her favourite actor. Once she met a Jain monk called Dayasagar Maharaj who was preaching about the life of a monk in Jainism. She watched the community of Jain monks and realised that true happiness lay in spiritual progress. She was so fascinated by it and decided to follow the monastic life. Her family naturally did not support it but she held on and finally they had to relent and she joined the order of the Digambara Jains.

The nuns and monks of this order had to follow the three gems – right knowledge, right faith and right conduct. The vows they took were no untruth, no sex, no violence, no stealing and no attachments. In all their waking time they had to meditate on the purpose of life and the purpose of universe. Prasannamati Mataji reveals in this story she could follow all the vows except for one. She was very attached to her companion Prayogamati. Prayogamati was afflicted with tuberculosis and once this was diagnosed she decided to follow the path of Sallekhana which was fast unto death.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

She did not want to be a victim of the disease but wanted to embrace death as mentioned in the Jain scriptures. Sallekhana was a process where the feed going to the body is slowly reduced and the all the bodily needs come to an end. Then the body emancipates and life leaves the body. Prasannamati Mataji’s companion is said to have died a peaceful death in spite of tuberculosis.

Unlike most other eastern religions, Jainism and lives of its monks especially is very stringent even today. They do not harm even the tiniest living creature and eat if they are fed and they cannot take any vehicles and have to walk. Eastern religions, Jainism and lives of its monks cannot eat food cooked by anyone other than Jain women. They have to starve rather than beg for food. Prasannamati Mataji finally reveals that she is also going her friend’s way and had adopted sallekhana.

She was perfectly calm about it but there was one thing that was worrying her and that was her attachment to her dead friend. When her companion for twenty years died she cried and that was a definite breach of the tenets of a Jain monk.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Her parting thoughts were that Jain monks renounced everything and the last renouncement was sallekhana. By being a monk one has to give up family, relationships and possessions and the final renouncement was giving up one’s body. She tells William “who knows whether we will meet again? And if we do meet, in our new body, who is to say that we will recognise each other?    ‟… These things are not in our hands.” On these deep philosophical thoughts William leaves Prasannamati Mataji and moves on to the next story.


Hari Das

The story of Hari Das is from a different state and is about a Theyyam artist. Theyyam is ritual form of worship seen in the northern parts of Kerala. The worship is in a dance form and the artists are dressed in grandeur. The artists are from the lower caste and when they don these costumes and are ready for the worship it is believed that god himself is present in flesh and blood. The god is Vishnu of the pantheon.  Theyyam artists then bless the people around them. Hari Das was one such low caste person who became a Theyyam artist when it was the season time which is between December and April.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

The word is derived from the word ‘daivam’ in Sanskrit meaning god. During the Theyyam season many devotees come to the Theyyam artiste to seek his blessings and they are also known to exorcise evil spirits. Hari Das was from a family of Theyyam artistes in Kannur. He had to undergo rigorous physical training and learn the gestures (mudras), facial expressions and steps (nadana) of this art form. The most important of all this was to learn to wear and carry the heavy head gear known as the thallapaali.

They went through all this because they had extreme faith in the deity. It was also an opportunity to breach the differences between the upper caste Brahmins and the lower castes, the Dalits. The faith in the Lord served as the bridge between the two castes. Some temples which are famous for Theyyam are located in the Dalit communities and the priests in these temples are Dalits. The stories are about the deities and folk lore.

Hari Das also belonged to the lower caste and donned the role of Lord Vishnu during the season. The rest of the months he worked as a well digger and prison warden. While three months in a year he was divinised he was considered a lowly man the rest of the year. Hari told Williams that the caste discrepancy exists even to this day.

He could never dig a well in a Brahmin’s (Namboodari) house. But the same Brahmin would come and take the blessings of the god in the form of Theyyam artist. After going through all the strenuous training Hari Das becomes a devoted Theyyam artiste during the months from December to April.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Now this art is popular and it is even popularised by political parties. Hari strikes a balance between the worldly and the divine. When he is the artiste he is considered to be a channel through which the gods speak to the people. His family and other artiste consider themselves as humble servants of god.

The natural question for the author was how difficult was it to go back to the mundane after being god for almost three months. With a smile he said that they did find it very difficult. They pack up and go to their other jobs at the end of the season. “We are all sad. But at least we all know it will come back the next season”.


Most of the stories in Nine Lives are enriched with the mythological stories related to the lives of the protagonist. One such story is the story of Kaveri a Devadasi whose existence made sense only because of the mythological story. A Devadasi today is a woman who is available for the men in the village. But the actual meaning and the position of a Devadasi was not this. The word actual meant ‘servant ofgod’ and they were temple dancers. During the Chola period they had to serve the kings as well. Since then the name took a connotation which meant prostitute but with a divinity attached to it.

Kaveri told William that her life was so full of sorrow and said, “If I were to sit under a tree and tell you the sadness we have to suffer, the leaves of that tree would fall like tears…” However she was considered to be the daughter of the goddess Yellamma. Devadasis worshipped the goddess enshrined in a temple in Saundatti, a village in Karnataka. The author visited the temple with Kaveri and another devadasi Rani Bai. Both were offered to the goddess as her servant when they were very young. The legend of Yellamma is age-old and interesting.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Yellamma was the wife of Jamadagni and served him with complete devotion. After giving birth to four sons he chose celibacy as his way of life and Yellamma followed suit. She continued to serve him with devotion by making pitchers from sand daily and carrying water in those new made pitchers.

One day she saw Ghandarva, the cupid of Indian mythology, and his lover engaged in a love sport and got carried away with it and a desire for love took a seed in her mind. To her horror she realised she could not make a pitcher with sand on that day. When she returned to the ashram, her husband knew what had transpired and cursed her. She was turned into a diseased and ugly woman who went roaming around begging for food in areas which is now known as Deccan Plateau.

After some time she came to her husband and asked for forgiveness. This angered the sage and he asked his sons to behead their mother. Only the youngest one agreed and did as told. Jamadagni was pleased with his son and told him to ask for a boon. The son asked for the life of his mother and she was restored back to life. But the trust lost was lost for ever.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

The lives of all the devadasis are heart wrenching and their only faith and hope is the goddess Yellamma. Their only true happiness they get is from the worship of the goddess. The most painful parting shot for the author in all these stories was from Rani Bai who said she was infected with AIDS and was to die very soon. Her disgust for her profession was overpowered by her faith in the tradition and her belief in goddess Yellamma.


Mohan Bhopa and Batasi

From Karnataka Dalrymple’s story moves to Pabusar a village in the middle of Rajasthan desert. There he met two singers by name Mohan Bhopa and his wife Batasi. The man was sixty years old and his wife was fifty. So what was special about them? They are the last surviving singers of the epic written by Pabuji Maharaj. The epic was six hundred years old and was called ‘The Epic of Pabuji’. The bhopas are the only existing performers and of them Mohan Bhopa was the last one.

They are considered to be channels through which Gods spoke. They carried with them a phad which was painting or sometimes woven bits of fabrics which tell the story of Pabuji Maharaj. The phad was very sacred and if over a period of time it tore, it was made again.

Pabuji Maharaj was from the royal who did a lot for the people. He is said to have done miracles. The folklore also has Ravana and some more characters from the epics of India. Though his stories are popular in Rajasthan and in some parts of Gujarat there is a temple only in one village and he worshipped as their saviours. Mohan was the last in this family of bhopas and with his wife they sang the glories of Pabuji.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Both of them were illiterate. However as tradition would have it they had to memorize the voluminous epic and carry it with and deliver it orally. Mohan Bhopa sang and danced during the performance and people also came to him for blessings.

Almost similar to this is the Dastan-i-Amir- Hamza. It is a rendering of the exploits of Amir Hamza who was the uncle of Muhammad. The stories are fanciful and have all the elements of entertainment like romance, violence, escapades and mysteries. The characters are also fictitious. It is believed to have been written during the era of Mahumd of Ghazni. A manuscript was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1562. It has 46 volumes with a total of 48000 pages.

However this was performed last in 1928 on the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi. William Dalrymple feels that the popularity of Pabuji might have over shadowed this work. He writes, “I wondered whether this lack of devotional following was the reason that the great Indian Muslim epic, the Dastan-i-Amir Hamza had died out….”

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

The songs of the bhopas continue to be popular and that can be because the religious ritual have survived the ravages of time and continue to touch the hearts of people with its themes on human life and their grievance. The villagers believe that Pabuji is the one saving them in the middle of the desert. Mohan Bhopa feared that this tradition would not continue.

Dalrymple noted this in 2009 in the book Nine Lives. A little research shows that Mohan died in 2011 and his eldest son Mahavir continues his tradition with his mother Batasi. When the torch-bearers of tradition give their all for their work, it is fructified with someone coming and taking over the baton.


Lal Peri Mastani

Moving a little north of Rajasthan, the author reaches Sindh and the next story is about a possessed woman in a Sufi shrine in the town of Sehwan.  The shrine was that of Saint Lal Shahbaz Qalander meaning The Red Royal Falcon. As in all stories there is an interesting past to this shrine. Sufism is a break away from Islam. But in this Sufi shrine there were many Hindu rituals. The town of Shewan in Sindh was the home of Lord Shiva. So the customs followed there has a touch of Hinduism. The protagonist of this story is Lal Peri Mastani translated as the Ecstatic Red Fairy.

There were two important aspects that were worth watching according to the author. The first one was a devotional dance known as dhammal and the other was Lal Peri Mastani. The description of the dance was simple. It started with a rhythmic beat and ended with heavy beating which ended in ecstasy and the beat pounded the whole body. The dance ritual was the tradition of Pashupatas who were considered to be the followers of Lord Shiva. The rest of this story was about Lal Peri Mastani, the second aspect of the Sufi shrine.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

The evil spirits are exorcised here and possessed women were brought here. Though the temple was a Sufi shrine, it continued with the shaivite ritual showing the harmony between religions. However there was a little bit of Sufi influence in this practise. Lal Peri was the woman who most devoted to Lal Shahbaz Qalander and she was the only woman ascetic there and she had been there for twenty years. Lal Peri was a fat woman who was dressed in red and she generally carried a big club in her hand. Before talking about Lal Peri the author throws some light about Sufism.

Sufism believed in the concept of seeing God in everyone and everything. Other sects of Islam could not accept this all inclusive tenets and Sufism was in great danger. There are many Hindus who believe in Sufism as the philosophy is more or less the same.

Lal Peri was a Bihari Muslim and she had to run away from the state because there was a massacre of Muslims in 1971. She fled to Pakistan. There she had a dream where was she told to take a train to Shewan. From then she became a devoted follower of Sufism. With the attire of a Hindu, a Muslim is advocating Sufism. Can there be anything more harmonious than this? Before parting ways, Lal Peri told Dalrymple about Lal Shahbaz Qalander. He is supposed to have turned into a falcon and fly to hell in search fire. But he came empty handed.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Then were his profound words, “there is no fire in hell, everyone who goes there brings their own fire, and their own pain, from this world.”  The author left Lal Peri with the deeply philosophical thoughts of seeing oneness in all and that heaven and hell are not two different entities; they are in our own bosom.

Tashi Passang

Dharamshala is the place where the fleeing Tibetans have taken refuge. Dharmashala is in Himachal Pradesh and is complete with Tibetan temples and hosting the Dalai Lama. Tibetans were demanding a separate country within China and they were refused. So anyone who worked for the independent country was hounded. Most of the people fled to India and took refuge in different parts of the country. But the town which is synonymous with Tibet is Dharamshala.  William Dalrymple’s next stop is at Dharamshala and his protagonist is Tashi Passang.

Tashi Passang was a monk when Dalrymple met him. He had fled from China as he could not fight the Chinese army. The Chinese army was entering the Buddhist monasteries and did not allow their practises to go on. The monk tried to resist them in vain. So he had to flee from China and took refuge in Dharamshala. He had to abandon his mother and to his dismay he got information that his mother was tortured by the Chinese to get information about him. She was left alone only when he surrendered his gun to the Chinese.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

He had a gun with which he had murdered few people. Tashi Passang said, “Once you have been a monk, it is very difficult to kill a man, but sometimes it can be your duty to do so.”

Now Tashi Passang painted flags in Dharamshala and he says he is praying and trying to atone for the sins he had committed. He also went to many lamas and repented. At the same time he visited many temples and had pledged he would never do it again. He has prayed for the souls he had killed and prayed that they have a good rebirth. Yet he worried for he could not get over the fact that he had killed people.

Tashi Passang’s worry was unfounded. He had renounced his monkhood and went back to fight the battle against the Chinese. Once again he realised it was useless and he repented for his second innings. After the war he could not really live in peace as he was being hounded by the Chinese. He escaped from them and lived in remote areas of China. In 1995 he decided to become a monk again. So in the second innings he finally accepted that he must live his life of prayers and repentance. As a young boy he used to draw in a monastery in Dakpa and that stood him in good stead now. He began to paint flags and decided once and for all to lead a prayerful life.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Tashi Passang told Darlymple that the hatred in heart has vanished. After his mother was tortured he had the anger to kill all Chinese. But Dalai Lama kept preaching that it was not the Chinese that was their enemy but the hatred that’s being nurtured within us that is the actual enemy. To get over the feeling of hatred he decided to eat in a Chinese restaurant. Dalai Lama met a lady whose father was also tortured by Chinese communist and now she was running a restaurant.

So he began to eat from her restaurant and this was his first step to negate the hatred in him. Now he was getting old but his wish to die in his homeland remained unfulfilled. He did want to go alone; he wanted all the monks to settle in their homeland. Dalai Lama felt “It wouldn’t be right to go back alone, after all this time, it just wouldn’t be right”.

Srikanda Sthapathy

The next stop is to tell not about a god man or a devotee but someone who made the gods. And for this we have to travel with the Darylmple to the south of India to Tamilnadu. The procedure of making idols of god is there in the books of yore and it is called Shilpa Shastra. To make idols which are to be consecrated in the idols is very different from making ordinary statues. In India there are families who have been doing this for hundreds of years. The person the author met was a maker of idols, Srikanda Sthapathy. His family has been in the profession since the rule of King Chola in the 13th century.

Skanda Sthapathy, like his forefathers, was famous for his idols made in bronze; rather he made only idols in bronze. The most sought after idol was that of dancing Shiva known Lord Nataraja. The idol maker believes that even though it is made out of metal, at some point divinity enters into it. He says that while the sculptor, shilpi, is mother, the books, shastras, is the father.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

The installation ceremony is very elaborate and the eye opening ritual is considered to be the life giving ritual and from then the idol becomes divine. He says “……… 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.” He cannot touch it after that and it is considered as god and not a creation of man.

Once it is enshrined, the devotion shown, the faith placed on the idol makes it divine. The author found it true when he went into the workshop of these idol makers. There were thevaram singers whom he met and they were inspired by the idols and their songs gave life to the idols, Thevaram is collection of songs on Lord Shiva and it was written by saints of the 7th century. Thevarams are mystical hymns which are intense and many depict sensual devotion (bhakthi). The idols made are mostly with their consorts.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Just as much Srikanda is proud to be a part of a lineage of sculptors he is worried that this tradition will soon be lost. His son does not take interest in succeeding him. His son was more interested in studying computers. When the world is galloping in the transformations that come with technology he finds it difficult to impress upon his son the use of a metal and using tools to sculpt which was a time consuming process.

Dalyrmple who was in search of the sacred in modern India found it sadly true that the art might die down when he heard the words of Srikanda. He said, “After all as my son says, this is the age of computers. And as much as I might want otherwise, I can hardly tell him this is the age of the bronze caster.”

Manisha and Tapan Sadhu

Tarapith is a small Hindu temple in the Indian State of West Bengal and is famous for its tantric temple. It is situated in the middle Sunderbans and paddy fields away from the hustle bustle of the main town. The tantrics made a home of the burial grounds and lived there worshipping the Goddess Tara. Goddess Tara is supposed to be the incarnation of Goddess Shakti or Kali.  The tantric yogis living in Tarapith did their rituals for a specific occasion or problem with human skulls which are selected with utmost care from the right kind of corpse.

It is said that the temple is called Tarapith because the eyeball, which is called Tara, of Goddess Sari fell here. There are other stories which also say that Tarapith is not pith and it got its sacredness because Sage Basistha worshipped Goddess Sati in the form of Tara, which is a form of Kali with two hands with snakes around the neck and decorated in sacred threads. The temple is devoted to the destructive characteristic of Lord Shiva which takes the form of Kali. It is believed that Kali requires sacrifice daily to satisfy the thirst of blood and goat sacrifice is conducted every morning on the altar of the temple.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

The rituals of the tantrics are said to be petrifying and uncommon and Dalrymple describes the practices of the tantrics as wild and disgusting.  One of the devotees of Goddess Tara, Manisha Ma Bhairavi, came to Tarapith in search of the goddess who possessed her regularly during her married life and according to her the goddess is very powerful. Her frequent possession of the goddess caused a conflict in her married life and the more brutally her husband treated her the more she used to be provoked by the trances.

She had a strong base of followers after people started hearing her stories. One day, finally she heard a call from the Goddess “come to me. All that you may lose, you will recover. I will take care of your daughters. Your place is now with me”.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Manisha hearing this call came to Tapan Sadhu and lived there and Tapan Sadhu became her protector. Tapan Sadhu was a Brahmin from a respected family and he left the family without their approval. Tapan Sadhu’s son hated him and he believed that his son was not spiritual and pronounced that his family were atheists.  The burial ground which they stayed was home for the tantrics and they were the strong believers of Goddess Tara. The tantrics lived in this burial ground as one family with full devotion to Goddess Tara. Tantrics were respected and feared like the Goddess and their rituals were severe and powerful.

The tantrics protected their practices from those who weren’t introduced into tantra.  Tapan Sadhu and Manisha ma lived in this burial ground in their old age with the blessings of goddess of twilight, Goddess Tara. Both of them had enough and more of disciples and followers who followed and respected them and this respect is what they never got from their families in the materialistic world.


Kanai Das

While Dalrymple was in Tarapith cremation ground he heard about Kanai Das and decided to take a peek into his life and this forms the last chapter of the book Nine Lives. He was a baul. Bauls are a group of people, wandering musicians, found on the banks of Ajoy River in West Bengal.  They are also found in Bangladesh and the other Indian state of Tripura. The meaning of the Bengali word baul is ‘mad or possessed’ in English.

They are a mixed group of people consisting of mainly Vaishnavite Hindus and Sufi Muslims. They can be recognised by their characteristic clothes and musical instruments.  Bauls are not a big fraction of the Bengali population but their influence on the culture of Bengal is really big. The baul tradition was incorporated in the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in the year 2005. The bauls usually meet near the river during the Makar Sankranthi festival.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Kanai became blind at a very young age due to small pox. He was good at singing and one day a passing baul heard him sing. Hearing Kanai Das sing the baul prohesized that Kanai Das would meet a personal tragedy and then he would too become a baul.  The prediction of the baul became true and Kanai joined his guru and became a wandering baul. Kanai described his life as a baul to be the finest.  Kanai described his life a baul like this: “It is the best life without doubt… the world is my home and we bauls can walk anywhere and are welcome anywhere”.  Kanai said that when one is not rooted to a place there are no worries or problems of ordinary life. He proudly declares that he was always in a state of bliss.


Bauls practice tantra and are experts in it and because of this marriage was very important for them.  They had many rituals to practice every day and one of the rituals was experimenting human sexuality and for this a wife was essential.  The husband and wife were then introduced to the ritual practices. The songs bauls sing are popular and they are all about both love and knowledge. The songs taught that the cosmos and the body were one and the same. What was there in the cosmos was in our bodies and whatever was not there was not there in the cosmos.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

They taught that the ultimate knowledge is that it is all inside us.   Dalrymple later met an old baul couple called Subhol Kapa and his wife Lalitha and together sang a song and took him to different world with accompaniments like ektara and the harmonium. Few moments after the song Lalita broke the silence and said “When I hear this music, I don’t care if I die tomorrow. It makes everything in life seem sweet.”

William Dalrymple said in an interview that Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India is really a Hindu book. There are stories about Jains, Sufis and Buddhists too but the author feels that they all have their source in Hinduism. He was always fascinated by the Hindu religion, art and sculptures. It was initially difficult for the author to comprehend the philosophy of the religion and this book was his first head-on encounter with lives different people across country. In the process the author learnt more about the Hindu religion and the compilation is a revelation of sorts for the people of the country, India.