In search of the sacred in modern India

Nine lives

Moving on from the early travels of William Dalrymple, I’ve been re-reading his splendid seventh book,

  • Nine lives: in search of the sacred in modern India (2009)
    (reviewed e.g. by Colin Thubron, and here).

By now Dalrymple had long been based in India. In the Introduction (click here for a variant) he traces the book’s origins back to the summer of 1993, when on a trek in the Himalayas he met an ash-smeared, naked itinerant sadhu of about his own age—who turned out to be a dropout from the world of commerce.

Living in India over the last few years, I have seen the country change at a rate that was impossible to imagine when I first moved there in the late 80s.

So extraordinary was the pace of development that

It was easy to overlook the fragility and unevenness of the boom. […]

Within twenty minutes of leaving the headquarters of Microsoft or Google Asia, cars and trucks are beginning to give way to camel and bullock carts, suits, denim, and baseball hats to dusty cotton dhotis and turbans. This is a very different India indeed, and it is here, in the spaces suspended between modernity and tradition, that most of the stories in this book are set. […]

While the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India’s religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices, and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at speed.

So

I set out to write an Indian equivalent of my book on the monks and monasteries of the Middle East, From the holy mountain. But the people I met were so extraordinary, and their own stories and voices so strong, that in the end I decided to write Nine lives in a quite different form. Twenty years ago, when my first book, In Xanadu, was published at the height of the 80s, travel writing tended to highlight the narrator; his [sic] adventures were the subject, the people he [sic] met were sometimes reduced to objects in the background. 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.

Indeed, this has been a growing tendency in anthropology and ethnomusicology; see e.g. Helen Rees’s introduction to Lives in Chinese music (2009). This trend is reflected in my own work on Gaoluo, and the Li family Daoists.

Besides all the scholarly research on living Indian religious traditions in change, a popular book like this is most valuable. Many of these topics have been covered by other authors, and Dalrymple provides a succinct reading list by chapter. This might have taken the form of a rather more detailed annotated section (as Barbara Demick does in Eat the Buddha, for instance); he might even have included some audio-visual documentation, as I attempt selectively below.

So Nine lives focuses on ascetics and ritual specialists (the latter chiming with my own work on China). And as in China, women play a major role. Dalrymple’s work is no simple paean to the Wisdom of the Mystic East; despite all the evocative descriptions, he is concerned to reflect the ravages of modern change.

A great many of the lives of the searchers and renouncers I talked to were marked by suffering, exile, and frequently, great pain; a large number turned out to be escaping personal, familial, or political tragedies. […]

Nor (I note) does religion always provide an escape; often it compounds exploitation. Dalrymple again:

I have made a conscious effort to try [and] 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.

Amidst a widespread tendency towards standardisation, the stories highlight

the deeply embedded heterodox, syncretic, and pluralist religious and philosophical folk traditions which continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities.

As he notes,

The book makes no claims to be comprehensive, and there are many traditions which I have completely left out: there are, for example, no Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, or Jews in this book, though all have long histories in the soil of South Asia.

Nine lives map

The chapters follow a trusty formulaic sequence: some evocative scene-setting (often worthy of Stella Gibbons’ *** purple passages in Cold comfort farm); a vignette on his first meeting with the guru in question; some early history; “I will tell you my story”; and worries about the future.

* * *

The first chapter is The nun’s tale, in which Dalrymple meets the young Jain devotee Mataji on the pilgrimage to Sravanabegabola in Karnataka. Jainism, little known outside India (where it now has “only” four million followers), is rather more ancient than Buddhism, and more extreme in its asceticism.

Mataji had chosen the discipline gladly in her mid-teens. Despite the principle of non-attachment, she was still devastated by the loss of her constant companion, who completed the sallekhana fast to the death after contracting TB; and she herself has already embarked on the same path.

The dancer of Kannur introduces a theyyam troupe of ritual dancers and drummers in Kerala, with a typical opening Stella-esque*** paragraph:

In the midnight shadows of a forest clearing, bounded on one side by a small stream and a moonlit paddy field, and on the other by the darkness of a rubber plantation and a green canopy of coconut palms, lit only by a bonfire and a carpet of flickering camphor lights, a large crowd has gathered, silhouetted against the flames. Most have walked many miles through the darkness to get here. They are waiting and watching for the moment when, once a year, the gods come down to earth, and dance.

Dalrymple’s subject is Hari Das, a dance medium possessed by Lord Vishnu. For nine months of the year he works as a manual labourer building wells, and at weekends as a jail warder—other members of the troupe work as waiters, bus conductors, and so on. The theyyam season lasts from December to February; it now provides a much better living than labouring, and than it did in previous generations. While work in the prison is dangerous, performing theyyam is physically exhausting—dancers have a very low life expectancy—and mentally demanding.

Dalrymple notes that while Kerala appears idyllic, it has always been one of the most conservative, socially oppressive, and rigidly hierarchical societies in India. The theyyam, performed by Dalit outcastes, and free from Brahmin control, is “a conscious and ritualised inversion of the usual structures of Keralan life”.

After another typical transition (“We sat drinking chai on the veranda as the sun set, and he began to tell his story”), Hari Das describes how his father taught him the complex arts of thottam story-songs, mudra hand gestures, nadana steps, facial expressions, make-up, and headgear. He notes a certain recent increase in prestige for theyyam.

Here’s a YouTube playlist with 61 short clips:

Note also the research of Rolf Killius, also featured in my post on Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia.

The daughters of Yellamma tells the distressing story of the devadasi (for a version of this chapter in The New Yorker, click here). Dalrymple travels to Saundatti in north Karnataka to meet Rani, sketching the long history of the devadasi. Dedicated as children (by their family) to the goddess Yellama, they originally came from cultured families, serving as courtesans, dancers, and temple attendants; only in later centuries were they explicitly sexualized. From the 19th century, well-meaning Hindu reformers broke their links with the temples; in Karnataka further prohibitions were decreed in 1982, but only further demeaned and criminalised the practice, driving the devadasis underground; “several thousand girls, usually aged between six and nine years old, continue to be dedicated to the goddess annually.” As a government sign warns:

DEDICATING YOUR DAUGHTER IS UNCIVILISED BEHAVIOUR.

Today the women are low-caste Dalits directly involved in sex work. Their life expectancy is even lower than that of the theyyam dancers. Rani’s two daughters had died of AIDS, and she too is HIV-positive. Yet they still pride themselves on having a more exalted status than ordinary sex workers, being blessed by the goddess.

For Guardian coverage, see here and here. Here’s the BBC documentary Sex, death, and the gods (Beeban Kidron, 2010):

And two more films within a controversial representational field:

In The singer of epics Dalrymple returns north to Rajasthan with Mohan Bhopa, a hereditary bard and shaman. He had first encountered the genre twenty years earlier on a visit to Laxmi Chundawat in Jaipur, who had documented the epic in the 1970s; she even arranged for Mohan to perform for him. Introducing the work of Parry and Lord on Yugoslavian epics, Dalrymple marvels at the “Rajasthani Homers” who still perform in another epic tradition.

He had already written about Mohan for The New Yorker in 2006, inviting him to perform at several urban festivals; but now he travels with him and his wife to their home environment.

The bhopa are performers of epics, of which the most popular is The Epic of Pabuji. It is not merely entertainment, but a religious ritual. As with “precious scrolls” in China, the epic is rarely performed complete today, which would five nights from dusk to dawn. Punctuated by bhajan hymns and Hindi film songs, it is performed before a phad, a long religious painting on cloth (see e.g. here, here, and here), which also serves as a portable temple. Victor Mair’s 1989 book Painting and performance introduced such traditions around China and south Asia, including the Tibetan lami mani with their thangka.

bhopa 1989

Parbū Bhopo of Mārwāṛ Junction and his wife Rukmā Devī performing the epic of Pābūjī for a small audience in their own village in 1989. Parbū is using the bow of his fiddle to point to a narrative detail on the paṛ while he chants the equivalent section of the epic story.
Caption and photo: John D. Smith.

Again like the precious scrolls, the phad is treated with reverence; the bhopa themselves earn respect through their knowledge despite their low caste. Dalrymple learns that the motives of the rural audience “were less to hear the poetry than to use him as a sort of supernatural veterinary service”; the bhopa also protects children from djinns. Again, these are among the functions of rural Chinese bards.

The bhopa are illiterate—which stimulates their prodigious memory. They accompany their songs on dholak drum and ravanhatta (not a zither but a bowed lute)—a reminder of the rich instrumentarium of Indian folk cultures, another striking instance of which I showed in Gujurat.

The epic is performed by husband and wife in duet; Mohan was fortunate that his wife Batasi had become a fine singer too. But when Mohan died—all too soon after the visit to the rural home—their son (who had been unable to continue the vocation since his own wife turned out to be tone deaf) began performing the epic with his mother.

John D. Smith, working with the eminent Rajasthani folklorist Komal Kothari (for whose own work see e.g. here), wrote his PhD on the bhopa in the 1970s—you can find an updated edition of The epic of Pābūjī here, along with instructive images and audio/video examples.

When Smith returned to Rajasthan some twenty years later he found the art much impoverished by the drift to the cities and the popularity of cable TV and DVDs. FWIW, Dalrymple is not quite so gloomy about the future of the tradition.

The bhopa have been the subject of a succession of documentaries. Here’s Pabuji ki phad (Shammi Nanda, 2005):

See also e.g. here. The lost music of Rajasthan (BBC, 2011), a tour of various traditions., includes a brief scene with a bhopa from 25.45. Note also Daniel Neuman, Shubha Chaudhuri, with Komal Kothari, Bards, ballads and boundaries: an ethnographic atlas of music traditions in west Rajasthan (2007).

The red fairy takes us into Pakistan, to the Sufi shrines of rural Sindh, a centre of Hindu–Muslim syncretism. There Dalrymple visits Lal Peri, devotee of the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine at Sehwan Sharif. He witnesses the ecstatic dhammal devotional dance, with its massed kettle drums.

Lal Peri was the sort of deeply eccentric ascetic that both the Eastern Christians and Sufis have traditionally celebrated as Holy Fools. She was an illiterate, simple, and trusting woman, who saw the divine and miraculous everywhere. It was also clear that she had lived an unusually traumatic life, which had left her emotionally raw. She was in fact a triple refugee: first as a Muslim 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 while struggling to live the life of a Sufi in the male-dominated and increasingly Talibanized society of Pakistan. […]

The longer I explored Sehwan Sharif, the more it became clear that, more even than most other Sufi shrines, this was a place where for once you saw religion acting to bring people together, not to divide them. Sufism here was not just something mystical and ethereal, but a force that demonstrably acted as a balm on India’s festering religious wounds. The shrine provided its often damaged and vulnerable devotees shelter and a refuge from the divisions and horrors of the world outside.

The Qalander dervishes

have chosen a life of wandering and calculated impropriety, seeking God on the road and in Sufi shrines through a regime of self-punishment and celibacy, while trying to generate a sense of religious ecstasy with the aid of music and dance and hallucinogens.

Lal Peri is fearful of the advance of Wahhabism.

As in 16th-century Europe, the reformers and puritans were on the rise, distrustful of music, images, festivals, and the devotional superstitions of saints’ shrines. As in Reformation Europe, they looked to the text alone for authority, and recuirted the bulk of their supporters from the newly literate urban middle class, who looked down on what they saw as the corrupt superstitions of the illiterate peasantry.

Several shrines had already been attacked. Dalrymple goes to meet the director of a new madrasa, who while cordial is severe in his views (“Musical instruments lead men astray and are sinful. They are forbidden, and these musicians are wrongdoers. With education we hope they will change their ways.”). He regards it as his duty to destroy all the mazars and dargahs.

Lal Peri takes Dalrymple to meet her pir at his desert retreat, who believes in the resilience of the Sufi tradition against the jihad of the mullahs. But in 2017 a suicide bombing inside the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar killed 90 and wounded over 300.

This clip gives a flavour of the festival:

In The monk’s tale Dalrymple visits Dharamsala to consult an elderly Tibetan monk from Kham who had reluctantly taken up arms in resistance to the Chinese invasion. He recalls his early monastic training, and the arrival of the Chinese forces in 1950. As repression escalated, Kham was the heartland of the Tibetan struggle. He joined the “Four Rivers, Six Ranges” resistance force (for links, see the work of Jamyang Norbu).

Though we acquired some old guns, we were outnumbered and knew nothing of fighting. All we knew was how to pray, not how to kill. As soon as we came across Chinese troops they put us to flight. It was a total fiasco.

After making his way to Lhasa to warn people of the imminent catastrophe, he describes the tension there that led to the escape to India of the Dalai Lama, for whom he served as escort and then as decoy while the Chinese went in pursuit.

After fleeing Tibet, from 1962 he spent many years in a secret CIA-trained Tibetan unit in the Indian army—but he finds himself fighting in the war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Always vexed at having abandoned the monastic precepts, not until 1986 could he retire to Dharamsala. In atonement for the violence he had committed as a soldier, he began to make printed prayer-flags, and in 1995 he renewed his monastic vows. In his old people’s home there, thirty of the 150 occupants had been engaged in a similar struggle against the Chinese.

Again, the exodus from Tibet of the Dalai Lama, and the resistance to Chinese occupation, are much-studied topics (see my roundup of posts on Tibet), with many biographical accounts. As a suitable illustration on film, do click here to watch the footage of the Dalai Lama’s “graduation” rituals in 1958–59!

In The maker of idols we return to the south, to Swamimalai in Tamil Nadu. Dalrymple meets Srikanda, a ritual artisan who comes from a long line of hereditary casters of bronze images for temple worship, dating back to the Chola empire.

There was a growing market for what he called “show pieces” for tourists and collectors, but the family’s main work was idols created in exactly the same manner as laid down by the ancient Hindu religious texts, the Shilpa Shastras, and specifically designed for temple worship.

Dalrymple reflects:

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 [cf. “opening to the light” in China]; and through the faith of the devotee. I pointed this out to Srikanda, but he saw no contradiction; all that mattered was that at a certain point a miracle took place and the statue he had made became divine.

He attends a temple festival when the god statue is paraded on a chariot. He waxes lyrical about the sensual bronze statues of the Chola dynasty, and admires the complex discipline of Srikanda with his team in his workshop, where ritual also plays a role. He meets a singer of thevaram devotional songs before the gods. Typically, after the lineage’s 700 years of transmission, Srikanda’s son wants to become a computer engineer.

For ritual artisans in China, see Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing, Ritual paintings of Li Peisen, and the makers of masks for Nuo ritual drama.

The Lady Twilight takes us to a cremation ground in Bengal—dwelling place of Tantric sadhus, devotees of the goddess Tara, who celebrate the power of skulls and fresh blood.

Again, Dalrymple’s guide Manisha hints at a painful past: she was beaten by her husband, rejected by her mother-in-law, and had lost her home and her three daughters. For her Tara was a saviour, not a fearsome ogre. Although the ruling Communist Party in Bengal sometimes sent out Anti-Superstition Committees to persuade people to embrace more mainstream forms of Hinduism, for the inhabitants of the cremation ground is a place of illumination, despite its ghoulish reputation. And Dalrymple finds an

oddly villagey and almost cosy feel. There is a palpable sense of community. Among the vulnerable outcasts, lunatics, and misfits who have come to live there, and those who might be locked up, chained, sedated, hidden, mocked, or shunned elsewhere are here venerated and respected as enlightened lunatics full of crazy wisdom.

Dalrymple surveys the history of Tantrism and early Tantric sex—

an unimaginable distance away from the sort of faddish Tantra cults embraced by Western rock stars, with their celebration of aromatherapy and coitus reservatus, a movement well described by the French writer Michel Houllebecq as “a combination of bumping and grinding, fuzzy spirituality, and extreme egotism”.

But as with the Sufis, behind modern Tantrism lies “the idea of reaching God through opposing convention, ignoring social mores, and breaking taboos”.

Manisha confides,

I am beginning to think that Tantra only really works properly when it is coupled with intense devotion, with bhakti. When I first came here, I was very obsessed with skulls and the secrets of Tantra. I would do anything to collect new skulls and tend to them […].

But now my attention is more directed on Ma Tara herself, and increasingly I believe that the most important thing is to get close to her through devotional love.

Meanwhile Manisha’s partner Tapan Sadhu, himself deeply committed to the life of renunciation, punctuates their conversation with updates from the radio on the latest Test score:

“England are 270 for four!”, he shouted excitedly.

Still in Bengal, The song of the blind minstrel introduces the bauls, itinerant minstrels who practice their own form of renunciation.

Dalrymple attends a major festival at Kenduli where several thousand bauls gather each year. He talks with the blindman Kanai, who finds the lifestyle one of great freedom. His companion Debdas explains:

“He taught me everything, how to reject the outer garb of religion and to dive deep into the ocean of the heart.”

The ecstatic singing of the bauls is another popular topic, appearing early on the world music scene (see e.g. the introduction in The Rough Guide to world music, under “Bangladesh”). Here’s a short film:

Deben Bhattacharya was very much on the case of the bauls. His CD Bauls of Bengal: mystic songs from India was issued in 2001—here it is as a playlist:

Charles Capwell’s 1973 LP Indian street music: the Bauls of Bengal (again, playlist):

A track from the more reflective CD Shahjahan Miah: chants mystiques bâuls du Bangladesh (Inedit, 1992):

And Radha Bhava, from the female singer Parvathy Baul (as playlist):

* * *

The fluency with which Dalrymple’s characters appear to tell their life stories is presumably an authorial device, a concession to the demands of the genre. No-one has ever given me such a fluent account—many peasants just shrug and say “I ain’t never done nothing much… um, I’ve just tilled the fields and gone out to do ritual, like”, and my many biographical sketches have been pieced together over several years, as my mentors open up and I gradually think of more promising angles. And Dalrymple’s subjects seem to have a remarkable ability to explain things in a fashion that neatly resembles our own conceptualisations.

In some chapters he notes how his visits punctuate invitations at his behest to appear at urban festivals; yet despite his worthy cause of highlighting their own lives, more scholarly (and perhaps less readable) accounts flag the gulf between the status of fieldworkers and that of their subjects, and the complications that such relations involve. In this short clip Dalrymple introduces some of the ritual performers on stage:

Such urban performances are a compromise in a worthy cause, part of the continuum of festivals. I too have found it most instructive to take the Li family Daoists on tour in Europe (see e.g. here; cf. the Hua family shawm band at the 2002 Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road).

Anyway, Dalrymple does well to remind us of the riches of folk cultures by following the performers back to their local environments. Full of vividly-told stories, Nine lives makes an admirable book, extending the audience for Indian religious traditions way beyond the arcane realms of ethnography.

Cf. my extensive series on the very different spiritual milieu of north Indian raga, and under the Indian tag in the sidebar.

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