6 December, 2022


Nine Lives – In Search Of The Sacred In Modern India

By Thurai Vinayagalingam

The author, William Dalrymple, is a much admired travel writer and historian. He was born in Scotland, but now lives in India with his wife and three children on a farm outside Delhi.

Nine Lives is a collection of nine true short stories, with each story representing a different form of devotion, or a different religious path. The main characters in the stories live in self-contained moral universes of their own religious and ethical systems.

Noting that “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,” the author poses the question: “Does India still offer any sort of real spiritual alternative to materialism, or is it now just another fast developing satrap to the wider capitalist world?” and concludes “Yet, for all the changes and development that have taken place, an older India still endures in the small towns and villages, and many of the issues that the present day holy men discussing and agonising about remained the same eternal quandaries that absorbed the holy men of classical India or the Sufis of the Middle Ages, hundreds of years ago.”

Brief outlines of three of the nine stories are given below:

1. The Nun’s Tale

This is the story of a present day Jain Nun as told by herself. The author, Dalrymple, joins a group of pilgrims to Sravanabelagola, an ancient hilltop shrine in Karnataka state in South India. Among the pilgrims is a 38 year old Jain nun, Prasannamati Mataji.  The author persuades Mataji to tell her own life story to him.

Sravanabelagola has been sacred to the Jains for more than 2000 years. It was here, in the 3rd century BC, that the first emperor of India, Chandragupta Maurya, embraced the Jain faith and died through self-imposed fasting.

Jainism is similar to Buddhism in many respects. It emerged from the same Gangetic basin in the early centuries BC. Like Buddhism, it was partly a reaction to Brahminical caste consciousness and their readiness to slaughter animals for their rituals. The faith of the Jains is more ancient and much more demanding than Buddhist practice. 

The nun was a tiny, slender, barefoot figure in white sari bounding up the steps. She climbed quickly with a pot of water made from a coconut shell in one hand, and a peacock fan in the other. As she climbed, she gently wiped each step with the fan in order to make sure she didn’t stand on, hurt or kill a single living creature on her ascent of the hill – one of the set rules of pilgrimage for Jain ascetics.

“We believe that all attachments bring sufferings,” said Mataji. “This is why we are supposed to give them up. This is why I left my family, and why I gave away my wealth.”

“People think of our life as harsh, and of course in many ways it is. But going into the unknown world and confronting it without a single rupee in our pockets means the differences between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, all vanish, and a common humanity emerges. This wondering life, with no material possessions, unlocks our souls. There is a wonderful sense of lightness, living each day as it comes.”

“But I still had one attachment, my friend and fellow nun for twenty years, Prayogamati. She fell ill – first with TB and then malaria – her pain was so great she decided to take Sallekhana. It is a ritual fast to death. We Jains regard it as the culmination of our life as ascetics. Not just nuns – even my grandmother, a lay person, took Sallekhana.”

Through this story, the author brings out to the reader many salient features of Jain philosophy and practice: what does it actually mean to be a Jain nun, the extreme self-inflicted pain they subject themselves to condition their mind (such as plucking out their hair one by one to become completely bald), and the extraordinary persistence of the faith in a fast changing world.

6. The Monk’s Tale

Tashi Passang was a teen age monk when China invaded Tibet in the 1950s. He was among the many monks who renounced their monastic vows to fight the Chinese army, but ended up later in India as refugees.

“It felt awful,” said Passang. “We hoped that someone will arm and help us, so that we could recapture Tibet, but nothing happened. Our only hope was in following His Holiness.”

“However, the fortunes changed radically in 1962. China attacked Indian positions, seizing the disputed border region linking Kashmir and Tibet. It was realised in India that the Tibetan refugees contained a large body of potential troops who would willingly fight against China.” Along with many of his former monastic brethren, Passang was persuaded to join a Tibetan unit in the Indian army known as the Special Frontier Force. This secret force was jointly trained by India and the CIA. “We were told that we would train for a few months and then be sent back to Tibet to begin a revolution.”

But the promise was never realised. Instead, after many years, Passang and his brethren were sent to fight in the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. “I had to shoot and kill the Pakistanis, even as they were running away in despair. They would make us drink rum and whisky so that we would do these things without hesitation and not worry about the moral consequences of our action.”

“Despite all this, we tried to behave as much like monks as we could. We brought our short Buddhist texts with us and recited our mantras in between the fighting. If anything, I prayed more in the Army than I did as a monk. But within my heart, I knew I was going against ahimsa, and the most important Buddhist principles.”

Passang has now retired from the Indian army and lives in a small wooden hut in Dharamsala, intent on spending his last years atoning for the violence he had committed as a soldier. He had once again taken up his old monastic vows and robes, a full 30 years after he first renounced them.

This story highlights the tragic blight of Tibetan people and their efforts, against all odds, to preserve their way of living and to live true to their faith.

7. The Maker of Idols

Sri Kantha Stpathy is an idol maker, 23rd in a long hereditary line stretching back to the great bronze casters of the Chola empire. The Stpathys had been sculptors of stone idols in Vellore before being called to Tanjore to learn the art of bronze casting at the time of Rajaraja I (AD 985-1014). After assisting in the construction of the two greatest Chola temples, one at Tanjore and the other at Gangaikondacholapuram, they settled in Swamimalai in the 13th century. The bronze idol business had now kept them in work for nearly 700 years. These days, he said, most of the orders were no longer from the Kaveri Delta, their traditional market, not even from Tamil Nadu, so much as from the new temples springing up wherever the Indian – and especially Tamil – diaspora had settled around the world.

Sri Kantha regards creating gods as one of the holiest calling in India – but now has to reconcile himself to a son who only wants to study computer engineering in Bangalore.


Nine Lives focuses on the diverse traditional religious systems of South Asia, particularly the deeply embedded pluralist religious and philosophical folk traditions which continue to defy efforts to systematise Hinduism and Islam into relatively centralised and uncompromising faiths.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    I thought Colombo Telegraph is dedicated to information and opinion about Sri Lanka. Who the F**k cares about the spiritual problem of Indians. Indians seem to think that we have some connection to India. We F**king don”t. That’s Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Nepal. Sri Lanka is an Island. We have no connection to Indians. Indians did invade the Island from time to time ,but they gradually adopted the culture and language of the Natives. And why is the Government permitting Indians, Maldivians and Muslims to come to settle and get jobs. Do we need more third world riff-raff
    ? We need to settle people from Austria, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark Etc .

  • 11

    Spirituality knows no boundaries, and boundaries know no spirituality.

    • 8

      A crisp commendable comment that puts down bigotry.

    • 6


      Well said!

  • 6

    Well said Ajay, an incisive statement.

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