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

Nine Lives William Dalrymple

Rating: 4 Stars ★★★★☆

Twin hills of blackly gleaming granite, smooth as glass, rise from a thickly wooded landscape of banana plantations and jagged palmyra palms.


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.


Going into this book, I didn’t know much about religion in India. Not much more than the bare bones. And definitely not much about the different spiritual paths William Dalrymple explores in this book.

This is a very different India indeed, and it is here, in the places suspended between modernity and tradition, that most of the stories in this book are set. For here, outside the great burgeoning megacities of India and Pakistan, in the small towns and villages, South Asian religion is in a state of fascinating and unpredictable flux.

It is a fascinating look at the life of nine different individuals, each with their own path to religious fulfillment. It his highly evocative, vividly written and utterly interesting.

Each chapter is it’s own story and each is fascinating in their own way. The first, The Nun’s Tale, is about a Jain nun about to starve herself to death. The Jains have very strict rules about not harming a living creature and detaching themselves from the world. Dying through starvation is the ultimate sacrifice.

Like Buddhism, it was partly a reaction to Brahminical caste consciousness and the readiness of the Brahmins to slaughter huge quantities of animals for temple sacrifices – but the faith of the Jains is slightly more ancient, and much more demanding than Buddhist practice. Buddhist ascetics shave their heads; Jains pluck their hair out by the roots. Buddhist monks beg for food; Jains have to have their food given to them without asking.

The Dancer of Kannur is about well-builder, who, for a few months a year channels the gods through dance, becoming the god.

In The Daughters of Yellama we meet women who were married to the gods at a young age. There’s a long tradition of this in Indian culture, with temple servants or dancers, but things have changed long ago and now, these women are prostitutes, threatened by AIDS and exploited by others.

The Singer of Epics is an illiterate man able to remember a five-hour epic about a god little known outside this region. Singing his epic can cure possession, help cattle and brings together the nomadic community.

When this 4,000 line courtly poem is recited from beginning to end – which rarely happens these days – it takes a full five nights of eight-hour, dusk-till-dawn performances to unfold.

The Red Fairy is a woman living in a Sufi shrine. She had a difficult life, shaped by the hostilities between Muslims and Hindus. She found refuge in the temple but the shrine is now threatened by orthodox  Wahhabites. The chapter is also an interesting look at Sufism.

In The Monk’s Tale we meet a Tibetan monk and former soldier. He was a young monk when the Chinese marched into Tibet and in response, he gave back his vows to fight them. Now, he spends his days praying and atoning for what he did during his time as a soldier.

The Maker of Idols is about a family of bronze casters who can trace their roots to the Chola empire. They give shape to the idols of the gods who are then worshipped in the temples.

“Before you drink from a skull,” said Manisha Ma Bhairavi, “you must first find the right corpse.”

The Lady Twilight is Ma Tara, a very interesting goddess, who is seen very differently by different people. For one, she is the drinker of blood, someone who can grant power in this life, for others she is more of a motherly, protecting figure. We get to know about her through the story of a woman who lives on the cremation grounds and worships Ma Tara. It is also an exploration of tantric rituals and religion.

The Song of the Blind Minstrel looks at Kanai, a Baul. The Bauls are travelling musicians and have an interesting, sometimes agnostic view of religion. In this chapter, we get to know how a blind man from a village became a Baul.

These are only very short overviews of the chapters and of course do not come close to describing the complexities of each of the beliefs described in the chapters. But it shows the wide variety of religious thought in India.

It was a great book and a look at schools of thought I never would have encountered if not for Nine Lives.


A fascinating look at a variety of different lives and spiritualities in India.


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