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

by |May 21, 2010

A completely original, informed, well-crafted and beautifully written book about Modern India.

Three brothers from a remote village in the Himalayas are driven by poverty to become monks. One becomes a famous masked dancer; the second an accomplished player of the Tibetan temple trumpet; and the third a great Buddhist scholar.

A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve herself 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 in a skull-filled hut in a remote cremation ground. A prison warder 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 200,000-stanza 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 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 a decade explores how traditional forms of religious life in South Asia have been transformed in the vortex of the region’s rapid change. Nine Lives is a distillation of twenty-five years of exploring India and writing about its religious traditions, taking you deep into worlds that you would never have imagined even existed.

William Dalrymple is at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. For those who can’t get to Sydney, here are a couple of interviews his Australian publisher has provided.

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