[VIDEO] Award-winning historian and travel writer William Dalrymple visits the Sky Arts Book Show to talk about Nine Lives, his new book on the changing nature of religion in India

William Dalrymple on Sky Arts’ The Book Show at the Guardian Hay festival

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Hirsh Sawhney

The Guardian, Saturday 24 October 2009

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

A spiritual journey misses a few milestones

William Dalrymple thrives on illuminating the points at which seemingly antagonistic cultures intersect. His erudite essays in the New York Review have blurred the allegedly irrevocable boundaries between Islam and Christianity. City of Djinns, a thoughtful, provocative travelogue, questioned the seemingly rigid lines that separated coloniser from colonised in British India.

There is a similar awareness of the world’s innate cosmopolitanism in his new book, Nine Lives, in which he conjectures that the Hindu goddess Tara might have the same Mesopotamian roots as a Catholic cult. But this book, a blend of travelogue, ethnography, oral history and reportage, isn’t primarily concerned with exploring the world’s age-old interconnectedness. Instead, it is an attempt to discover if India offers “any sort of real spiritual alternative to materialism”, or if the rapidly developing nation is just another satellite of the “wider capitalist world”.

Searching for answers, the author tails a remarkably diverse array of characters – the dreadlocked Tantric holy man who listens to cricket on his radio, the religious sculptor whose son will give up the family’s centuries-old trade for a job in computers – who have in common a deep faith in religion that stands against the modern world’s technology, disease, poverty and warfare.

Hari Das, for example, is a Dalit labourer whose caste brings constant humiliation and discrimination. However, for a few months each year he abandons his work digging wells in Kerala to personify a god through an ancient form of Hindu dance and storytelling known as theyyam. When he dances theyyam, even high-caste Brahmins touch his feet and worship him.

Dalrymple sees in this case religion as a “weapon to resist and fight back against an unjust social system”. Hari Das is far more incisive. The satirical art of theyyam, he explains, “has completely altered the power structure in these parts”. It improves self-esteem among some Dalits and inspires others to educate themselves. Moreover, when Brahmins “watch theyyam they have this sense of discomfort, as they know that the stories often criticise their caste, and seek to reform their behaviour”. Such examples of Dalrymple allowing his characters to speak for themselves makes Nine Lives compelling and poignant.

The book’s oral histories also paint an uncompromising portrait of globalisation and migration. Tibetan monk Tashi Passang lives in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama’s government in exile. But when the Chinese began to oppress Tibetan Buddhists, Passang temporarily renounced his vows of non-violence and took up arms to defend his country and faith. The Chinese retaliated by torturing his mother. He fled to India and joined a secret force trained by India and the CIA, which promised he’d be parachuted back into Tibet to fight. But the only action Passang saw was during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, when India sided with the nascent country to destabilise Pakistan. “I had to shoot and kill other men,” the monk laments. “War is far worse than you ever imagine it to be. It is the last thing a Buddhist should be involved in.”

The Bangladesh war also threatened Lal Peri, an Indian Muslim woman, driven from her home state of Bihar because of Hindu-Muslim violence, and then from Muslim Bangladesh because of ethnic discrimination. She eventually migrated to Pakistan, where she gave up factory work for life as a Sufi in the rugged province of Sindh. Dalrymple visits Sindh and is enamoured of the region’s heterodox, tolerant Sufi beliefs while rightfully worrying that Sufism is under threat from radical Wahhabi Muslims.

Indeed, Pakistani Taliban had blown up a Sufi shrine a week prior to his visit. Dalrymple makes the mistake of chalking up this violence to “a theological conflict that has divided the Islamic world for centuries”. It is myopic to exclusively associate the strife that plagues present-day Pakistan with religious ideology when this violence is actually underpinned by complex geopolitical factors. Dalrymple overlooks the US’s integral role in the “Soviet-mujahideen conflict”, and fails to mention the US war in Afghanistan.

This foray into Pakistan’s religious radicalism makes some of Nine Lives‘ omissions all too glaring. While the author takes the time to interview a radical Pakistani cleric who yearns for an Islamic caliphate, he totally ignores rightwing Hindu extremism that has blossomed in India in recent decades. Since the 1990s, Hindu zealots, backed by prominent politicians, have organised pogroms against Muslims in more than one Indian state. In the eastern state of Orissa, Hindu fanatics have murdered Christians. Such gaps are jarring and inexcusable in a serious study of religion in present-day India.

The author’s decision to ignore Indian Christianity is also strange, especially in light of the number of pages he devotes to obscure Hindu sects. Christians form the country’s third largest religious group, the religion having taken root in the subcontinent before reaching some parts of Europe. This failure to discuss the state of Christianity in modern India evokes a world partitioned into anachronistic, seemingly irreconcilable compartments – a Judeo-Christian world that is solely western, and an India that is a colourful eastern repository of spiritualism, wisdom and suffering. It is boxes like these that the author’s other, more successful, works have sought to break open.

Hirsh Sawhney is the editor of Delhi Noir, published by Akashic Books.


A prayer for drunk rider, shrine for his bike

Sun Oct 25 2009
Jaipur : At any time of the day, there is a traffic jam on the road to Pali from Jodhpur in Rajasthan, near Chotila village. For here is Om Bana sthan, a shrine where everybody—cabbies, bus and truck drivers and those riding two-wheelers, in particular—stops and pays obeisance, usually with liquor. The deity here, known as motorcycle devta or Bullet baba, is a Royal Enfield 350, on which villager Om Bana met with a fatal accident two decades ago at this very spot. Following a series of supposedly paranormal events after Bana’s death, the locals planted the motorcycle at the scene of the accident and deified Bana.Bagga Ram, one of the deity’s first followers, has played the harmonium at the shrine ever since it was built. “Om Banaji was the son of a village leader. Twenty years ago, he was riding down this road when his vehicle slammed into a tree and fell into a ditch. Banaji was killed on the spot,” Ram recalls in between singing paeans to Om Bana, now also available on CDs in shops surrounding the shrine. The series of events after the accident secured Bana’s ascension to the realm of gods.Following the death of Bana, formerly known as Om Singh Rathore, the police registered a case and hauled the ravaged motorcycle to a police station nearby.Om Singh, a police constable in Jodhpur, remembers what happened in the days following Rathore’s death. “The motorcycle was taken to the station that night, but the next morning, it was found at the accident spot. The police thought it was some kind of prank and after emptying the fuel tank secured the bike with chains, but the next day, the chains were broken and the motorcycle was again at the spot of the accident,” says Singh, who uses a key chain with Om Bana’s picture on it. 

When tales of the motorcycle’s ghostly runs spread, the locals decided to station the motorcycle at the accident spot. Mahender Singh, a travel agent from Jodhpur who begins every trip with a salute to Bana, says, “Back then, only a few people would visit the temple. After tales of Om Bana riding his motorcycle on this road began to spread, his followers increased in number.” He recounts the story of one of his drivers whose vehicle skidded and fell into a ditch not far from the spot of Bana’s accident. “The driver was injured and bleeding in the vehicle when he swore that Om Bana came to him and helped him out. Such stories only increased this temple’s reputation,” Mahender Singh adds.

By the wayside on NH-65, 50 km from Jodhpur, the shrine, by itself, is isolated, with little or no habitation for 10 km on either side. It has been built on the ditch—filled up by the locals—into which Bana fell. A raised concrete dais has been built for Bana’s motorcycle, planted just a few metres behind the accident-causing tree. It serves as an altar for devotees and is crowded with miniature-to-life-size photographs of Om Bana. Though the cause of his death, the tree itself remains ornamented with offerings of bangles, scarves and rope. The temple even has its own priest, Poonam Giri, who has been incharge of the upkeep of the shrine for two decades.

“There is a steady flow of visitors here. Every single trucker, bus driver and cab driver stops at this spot to offer a small prayer. The shrine has grown these last few years since tourists started visiting the place as well,” Giri says, adding that the morning and evening rituals at the temple include the beating of a set of traditional drums, Bagga Ram’s chants and darshan.

The busy Pali-Jodhpur highway ensures a constant flow of pilgrims, who are easy enough to spot, with their bottles of liquor. Som Singh, who organises pan-Rajasthan travels from Jodhpur, says, “I come here every week to offer prayers to Om Bana. Most devotees offer liquor.” He walks the traditional three circles around the motorcycle, each time pouring some of the contents of a liquor bottle onto its wheels.

A mini-economy has sprouted around the shrine. Over the last few years, at least a dozen shops have come up around its premises, selling everything from religious offerings like flowers, incense sticks, kumkum, turmeric and camphor to memorabilia including VCDs, audio tapes, key chains, necklaces, charms, rings and of course, photographs of Om Bana in all sizes.

Kailash Rathore opened his shop five years ago. “Business here is very good. I operate this shop in shifts and we are open 24 hours a day,” he says. “There are many babas nowadays, but there will only be one motorcycle baba,” Rathore adds, smiling


William Dalrymple, FRSL FRAS (born 20 March 1965 in Scotland) is a multiple-award winning historian and travel writer, as well as a distinguished broadcaster, critic, art historian, foreign correspondent and co-director of Asia’s largest literary festival.

Dalrymple was born William Hamilton-Dalrymple, the son of Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple, 10th baronet, a cousin of Virginia Woolf. He was educated at Ampleforth College and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was first a history exhibitioner and then senior history scholar.

Dalrymple, who has lived in Delhi on and off for the last 25 years, is married to the artist Olivia Fraser and has three children, Ibby, Sam, and Adam, and a cockatoo called Albinia. The South Asia correspondent of the New Statesman since 2004, he is a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and the Royal Society of Literature.

Dalrymple’s interests include India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Mughal rule, the Muslim world, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Jains and early Eastern Christianity. All of his six books have won major literary prizes, as have his radio and television documentaries. His first three were travel books based on his journeys in the Middle East, India and Central Asia. His early influences included the travel writers such as Robert Byron, Eric Newby, and Bruce Chatwin. More recently, Dalrymple has published a book of essays about South Asia, and two award-winning histories of the interaction between the British and the Mughals between the eighteenth and mid nineteenth century. His books have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German, Estonian, Swedish, Norwegian, Czech, Polish, Turkish, Japanese, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Marathi and Bengali.

He is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books [1]The Guardian [2], the New Statesman [3] and The New Yorker [4]. He has also written many articles for Time magazine, to which he contributed the article The Real Islam for their 2004 annual issue Asian Journey [5]. He wrote an essay Business as Usual [6] for theIndia Charges Ahead special issue commemorating 60 years of Indian independence.

He attended the inaugural Palestine Festival of Literature in 2008 – giving readings and taking workshops in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem.

He is the founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival along with the writer Namita Gokhale. The festival, now the largest literary festival in Asia and the largest free festival of literature in the world, is held annually in the Indian city of Jaipur and was recently dubbed “the greatest literary show on earth” by The Daily Beast.[7][8][9]

Dalrymple spends most of the year at his farm house in Mehrauli [10] near New Delhi, India, but summers in London and Edinburgh.

His latest book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, was published by Bloomsbury, and went to the number one slot on the Indian non-fiction section bestseller list.[11] Since its publication he has been touring the UK, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia, Holland and the US with a band consisting of some of the people featured in his book including Sufis, Fakirs, Bauls, Theveram hymn singers as well as a prison warder and part-time Theyyam dancer widely believed to be an incarnation of the God Vishnu.[12]

He is now beginning work on a history of the First Afghan War 1839-42, and curating a major show of the late Mughal and Company School painting of Delhi for the Asia Society in New York, due to open January 2012.


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