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Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 15, 2010

4.7 out of 5 stars 79 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Historian-travel writer Dalrymple (The Last Mughal) knows his Asian subcontinent, having moved to New Delhi in 1989. The engine of Indian economic development is bringing rapid change, and Dalrymple spotlights changes and constancies brought about in IndiaÖs dizzyingly diverse religious practices. The titular nine lives are those of a variety of religious adherents: a Jain nun, a sacred dancer, a Sufi mystic, a Tantric practitioner, among others. His subjects, for the most part, do their own show-and-tell in explaining their religious paths, which differ but share the passionate devotion (bhakti) that characterizes popular religion in India. Dalrymple has a good eye, a better ear, and the humility to get out of the way of his subjects. It helps to know a bit about the subject coming in, as it saves endless flipping to a very helpful appended glossary. The author also notes in his introduction he has made a special effort to avoid exoticizing £mystic India,¥ yet he has picked some extremes to exemplify different kinds of religious beliefs and practices. Still, those are minor quibbles about this ambitious and affectionate book that respects popular religion.
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From Booklist

Dalrymple, author of prizewinning works of far-roaming inquiry, including The Last Mughal (2007), knows when to let others speak. Which is what he does with great finesse in this evocative set of portraits of nine spiritual seekers living across India. Nine lives that open doors onto nine of India's many arduous paths to the divine and reveal striking, nearly surreal juxtapositions between the old and the new. There's the haunting tale of a Jain nun who as a girl renounced her life of privilege and the wrenching story of Rani Bai, a devadasi, or servant of the goddess Yellamma, who was forced into prostitution as a girl. Hari Das describes what it feels like “to be taken over by a god” when he performs theyyam, the sacred possession dance of Kerala, only to return to his dangerous work as a prison guard. Dalrymple sets each vivid profile within an intricately drawn history of the ancient and now-endangered tradition each devotee is dedicated to preserving in the escalating battle between holiness and hustle that is transforming India. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First United States Edition edition (June 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307272826
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307272829
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (79 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #883,528 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
The Bangalore bookshops are prominently showing this book and having read William Dalrymple before and liked his scholarship and easy style I bought it. I wasn't disappointed, in fact i hated to see the book come to an end. The common theme of heartfelt devotion is told simply and openly through nine diverse and extraordinary lives. You feel that each one is a person you've come to know and like. I am an American living in South India and this book helps me appreciate living here even more. It helps me appreciate William Dalyrmple even more too. He writes wonderful books!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Highly interesting, wonderfully researched, beautifully written, as are all of this author's works.
A main question seems to be whether often-isolated, syncretistic, devotional religious practices will continue in the face of India's burgeoning economy and, presumably, growing secularism and consumerism, on the one hand, and the exclusionary fanaticism of a militant segment of Hindus and Muslims, on the other. While much will be gained by greater educational opportunity and a higher/healthier standard of living for the rural and urban poor and powerless, rich, curious, sometimes bizarre religious practices in the name of the gods will probably fade away.

This book is not about mainstream religious practices or faiths of the great religions --- or even of "smaller traditions" that have gained acceptance, if not understanding, because of their great age. The `Sacred" referred to in the title are approaches to gods/God that are, for all the integrity of those interviewed who practice them, mightily strange.

The book certainly shows that devout, faithful approaches to belief are common to all levels of people and a belief in a "greater power" is sustaining in the most difficult of situations. The book is a wondrous "read" about good people whom most of us will never otherwise hear.
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Format: Hardcover
William Dalrymple's latest book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, raises the question in relief: what is sacred, what is spiritual, and how do those qualities exist against a backdrop of daily life, its woes and joys, triumphs and travails? Dalrymple seeks out individuals who imbue their lives with their own apprehensions of the sacred. These exemplars are more often than not at the fringes of modern India (and in one case, Pakistan). Three or four truly stand out, lingering in the reader's memory--not just because Dalrymple lets us see them as fully developed individuals, but because their beliefs are so strong, so informed by their lives. The book isn't perfect: a couple of the choices are, if not unconvincing, then not up to the standard of the others, but they are the exception.

The nine seekers cover a broad swath of belief systems in India, though sidestep orthodox Muslim and Christians. In fact, they are mostly unorthodox, outside of the mainstream of belief. They need to be, in a sense: if they weren't, their devotion would be halfhearted, not defining. The first chapter, "The Nun's Tale," is powerful and disturbing. The young nun in question is a Jain, a member of the sect that began around 600 BC and which is most notable for its belief in absolute non-harming of other beings. Jains gently sweep the paths they take, to avoid stepping on insects, and will wear masks to protect any flying creatures or even microbes from being breathed in.

Prasannamati Mataji comes from a well-to-do family, but at an early age is drawn to the acetic life of the Jain nuns. Following tradition, she ceremonially plucks all her own hair out as a sign of her devotion to the way, and wanders with her fellow Jains, no possessions but her bowl, her whisk, and her robes.
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Format: Hardcover
Elegant and occasionally nostalgic William Dalrymple has written a beautiful and insightful book on the hidden India, a country at once capitalist and modern but also still spiritual and unique. Dalrymple said that the idea for this book was born 16 years ago in 1993 when he was corkscrewing up a Himalayan trail. He does not identify when his interviews took place. It is therefore difficult to envisage when and how India's traditional forms of religious life have been transformed in the vortex of the region's rapid change. I have always liked Dalrymple's books as he has always been fantastic through his well researched writings. Nine Lives isn't just another travel book. It's a window to contemporary India - the one that remains forgotten or hidden, but is very much out there on the road, quite literally. As Dalrymple puts it, "The water moves on, a little faster than before, yet still the great river flows. It is as fluid and unpredictable in its moods as it has ever been, but it meanders within familiar banks."
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Format: Hardcover
I never come home from India with less than 25 kilos of luggage. I throw away clothes to make room for books. Therefore, let me save you the backache: this is the book you must read.

Presenting itself as nine "non-fiction short stories", 9 Lives portrays expressions of faith that are often romanticized or sensationalized, such as that of a tantric priestess, or ritual prostitute, or Tibetan soldier monk. As an obsessive reader of books about India, I can assure you that much of what is found here cannot be found anywhere else -- the alternatives are often sensationalist nonsense, or else dry as dust.

For example, the first chapter, about a Jain nun: I dare you to find elsewhere a readable brief narrative of Jainism that explains the basic beliefs and shows how they can continue to compel those that believe.

I've spent time in three of the places Dalrymple explores here -- Sravanabelagola, Dharamsala and Tarapith -- and still I learned so much about each.

(I admit I have an awful fear that the chapter about Tarapith -- the very most beautiful in the book -- will provoke a tourist boom in dusty Tarapith. In which case, let me warn you, the road is one of the most treacherous in India. Potential devotees are strongly advised to take the train.)

Dalrymple writes in spirited opposition to the forces that threaten to homogenize spirituality in India. Almost all of what he profiles here is in danger of being blotted out.

Particularly praise-worthy is Dalrymple's ability to get entirely out of the way of his subject. We learn nothing whatsoever about Dalrymple's personal spiritual journey -- and I mean that as very high praise.
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