Sunday, January 17, 2010

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

After a couple of fascinating historicals, William Dalrymple, returns to his roots through a travelogue as his wanderlust takes him across rural India in search of stories that look at how religion and traditions survive in modern India. This isn’t a conventional travelogue – it is more of a biography of its various subjects rather than Dalrymple’s experiences during his travel. The concept of Unity in Diversity has been beaten to the pulp by the media, keen to showcase many superficial symbols of our culture, but he digs deep allowing people to demonstrate this fiversity rather than sticking labels to them. This anthology of nine lives is an interesting mix of the lives of people who represent the various facets of the sub-continent culture, without any glorification.

The anthology begins with The Nun’s Tale in Sravanabelagola which focuses on the life of Prasannamati Mataji, a Jain monk, who renounces a life of wealth to become a nun in search of spiritual enlightenment. The process is a painful and prolonged one but she is determined to go through even if means giving up her youth, material and emotional comforts. But total detachment is not so easy and she suffers from the pangs of suffering from her close friend –another nun who embraces Sallekhana (ritual fasting to death which begs the question whether this is a ritual suicide or not). The austere nature of Jainism with focus on abstinence of practically everything without any tangible rewards which makes it an unlikely choice of a religion to withstand the passage of time but it has survived and is doing just as well.

The Dancer of Kannur takes us to Thalassery where Hari Das, a prison warder becomes a Theyyam dancer during the December to February months and is worshipped as an incarnate deity. Theyyam is a popular Hindu dance form in North Kerala, which takes place in small shrines and is performed by members of the lower caste. Once he dons the grease paint and enters into a trance, he feels an unknown shakti entering him and has miraculous healing powers and people come to him, across all castes, seeking his blessings. For Hari, Theyyam is a tool of social empowerment which has improved the conditions of the lower castes but the reality is that the upper class Namboodris who pay their respect to the theyyam artist during the performance remains casteist outside it. Theyyam can give him the self-respect that he needs but his regular income comes from his other not-so-divine jobs and he is uncertain whether this art will survive modern education.

The Daughters of Yellamma (based in Belgaum) looks at the world of Devadasis – upper caste “temple women” who at one point of time were regarded as honourable professionals, entering the service of God. Sadly, the services that they render (primarily Dalits) have now reduced them to the level of prostitutes with no locus standi in the society. The protagonist Rani from the Yellama cult, herself dying of AIDS and with both daughters dead, however takes pride in her profession and refuses to be compared to a sex worker but candidly admits that for all her bravado, her auspicious status makes no difference to her clients in bed (“There is no devotional feeling in bed. F***ing is f***ing. There I am just another woman. Just another whore"). Due to the various reform movements and the changing social structure, the status of devadasis fell drastically and the system was finally abolished in the 1920s. However, for the quarter or so of a million devadasis in these parts, the system is possibly the only way out of poverty and so it thrives, not in the way it was intended to be. Nevertheless, with more and more devadasis suffering from AIDS and other STDs , this tradition is dying.

Dalrymple then moves to Pabusar, a small village in Rajasthan, exploring the tradition of oral rendition of epics sung by a community of bhopas in The Singer of Epics. He tracks Mohan Bhopa and his wife, Batasi, who are the last hereditary singers of a great Rajasthani mediaeval poem, Pabuji Ki Phad. The epic is performed in front of a Phad, a long sheet on which scenes depicting the life and adventures of Pabuji, a 14th century hero, are painted (Interestingly, there is a reference to Ramayana here as Pabuji is supposed to have gone to Lanka and stolen camels from Ravana!!!). The Phad is considered a divine manifestation – similar to the image of Gods – and the bhopa is assumed to have healing powers. The tradition of oral story telling is all but forgotten in the world and this remains one of the last few remnants of this art, primarily because these poems had been turned into religious rituals unlike the Iliad and other Western epics, where it remained in an art form only. Dalrymple makes an interesting point noting that oral tradition flourishes in minds which are illiterate. The literate do not have the capacity to remember what the illiterate do making it difficult to sustain this fragile art which may totally disappear in a few years from now.

In The Red Fairy, Dalrymple moves out of India and lands in Sindh where the secular Sufi culture is fighting to keep itself alive, despite constant attacks by the likes of the orthodox Wahhabis, Deobandis and Tablighis. There he meets Lal Peri, a Sufi saint who moves from Bihar to Bangladesh and then Sindh to escape minority persecution. The Sufis believe that the search for God lies within and reject the restrictions of religion, narrowly interpreted by the mullahs. Their usage of music and poetry in their rituals and access to women have angered the fundamentalists funded by Saudis and supported by authoritarian regimes, leading to regular clashes, which Dalrymple likens to the Reformation Movement struggle in Northern Europe in the 16th Century. The essence of the Sufi-Islam conflict is best captured in these lines by Sain Fakir, an 80-year-old pir, who says: “The Sufis are a threat to the mullahs because we command the love, loyalty and faith of the ordinary people. No one is excluded. You can be an outcaste, a fallen woman, and you can come and pray in the shrine and the Sufi will forgive and embrace you.” This conflict also reflects the brewing tensions that are also slowly being a part of the Indian landscape and the victor would dictate the way this sub-continent will move.

The Monk’s Tale, set in Dharamsala, chronicles the life of Tashi Passang, a hermit in Tibet, who is forced to give up his monastic vows and take up arms to kill Chinese soldiers trying to destroy Buddhism in the 1950s. He escapes to India, joins the Indo-Tibetan force and even fights in the 1971 Bangladesh War before he finally quits the Indian Army in 1986 and returns to Dharamsala, to spend his last years atoning for the violence he had committed. Here he makes wooden blocks and prints prayer flags and finally takes up monastic vows and robes 30 years after renouncing them. Passang’s belief in karma is intact ("Tibetan suffering is possibly due to the actions of Tibetans when they invaded and tortured Chinese in the 7th century") and he hopes that the Chinese would eventually embrace Dharma and they would all return to their homeland. It is difficult for us to understand the emotional turmoil that a monk undergoes when he takes up arms and later on even fight as a soldier in an alien war. Passanga's faith in the path of dharma and Ahimsa even after so many years of struggle is remarkable and is an ode to the power of spirituality and religion.

South India, especially Tamil Nadu, is a hub for temples and all kinds of local deities and spirits thrive here, in the midst of all the IT hoopla. The Maker of Idols focuses on Srikanda Stpathy, who lives in Swamimalai, near Thanjavur, and is a 35th generation member of the premier idol-making Brahmin family of India. The family makes the idols with the same style and process as has been followed for all these centuries since the days of the great Cholas. Idol worship may have been riled as a blind form of devotion by many intellectuals but it has withstood all attempts to condemn it and modernization has only helped in getting markets even outside India. Ironically, for all the reverence that Gods are held in the country, many of the images ooze with sensuality and eroticism and unabashedly celebrate the union of Gods, especially Shiva and Parvati - a reminder that shringara rasa is an important form of worship in India. Stpathy, however notes with a twinge of sadness, that his son and nephew are not interested in idol making and wonders what the future of this family tradition is going to be.

The Lady Twilight is based in Tarapith, a popular centre of Tantric Hinduism in West Bengal, where we meet Manisha Ma Bhairavi, a tantric Sadhu who worships the ferocious Goddess Tara and drinks blood from skulls. Tantra is widely associated with superstitious practices and sexuality which is abhorred in most parts of India but for Manisha Ma, it is devotional. She looks at Tara Ma as a benevolent goddess who protects her and fellow tantrics and says that the violent blood thirsty image is just one side of the Ma, who can be both kind and violent, as the situation demands. Tantrics oppose all forms of society conventions, break all taboos (using ganja, alcohol and ritual sex) and encourage people to get in touch with their inner self by controlling the power of kama. One may or may not agree with this perception of religion but it is true that such a philosophy exists amidst closed doors in many parts of India and people flock in large numbers to get their problems resolved through tantrics.

The last story The Song of the Blind Minstrel is again set in Bengal on the banks of Ajoy River. Dalrymple travels to Kenduli near Shantiniketan to see a gathering of Bauls (saffron clad minstrels) who meet every year in January, descending into a cloud of singing and dancing throughout the night. The story unfolds primarily through the eyes of a blind minstrel, Kannai Das Baul, who along with this group, keep walking along in search of inner peace. The Bauls live a wild and abandoned life and believe that God lives in the present moment in the seeker of the truth and each man must find his own way. Rather than lecturing and sermonizing, they woo audiences through poetry and music and ask them to look inwards. They also follow a Tantric tradition and embrace breathing and orgasm in elaborately ritualised sexual rites. It is interesting to note that atheistic and agnostic philosophy is not totally new to Hinduism and the Chavarka school of thought in 6th Century B.C. rejected the idea of God.

It is easy to fall prey to the clichés of “Mystic India” and let one’s prose lose in the wilderness of this country but Dalrymple avoids this trap and gives a non-judgmental account of these lives which seem at odds with the rapid pace that the country is supposed to be taking. The writer, the journalist and the traveller all work in tandem as each subject spells out his/her story and Dalrymple fills in the background facts, the history and provides insights on the various events that mark the landscape of the story, giving it a documentary like feel.

The accounts are engrossing and with the wide variety of facts that Dalrymple puts in at frequent intervals, one can visualize the stories as they unfold. Whether it is the tantric cremation ground, the arid sands of Rajasthan or the crowded temple towns of the South, we are present there and moving along with him as he tries to understand a religion, which is totally different in form and structure from Christianity. He finds it interesting that many of these traditions would probably have been shunned in the West but in India, they are looked at with reverence and the practitioners of these various religious forms co-exist in the society peacefully.

Many of the stories have an exotic Oriental flavour to them but Dalrymple largely succeeds in humanizing these characters and bringing life to these various gateways of life which aim at reaching God. There is Bhakti, Tantra, Sufism, Buddhism and many other schools of thought but he does not preach or act like a modern Indian liberal sitting on judgment - he just observes and looks admiringly at the plurality and heterodoxy of a culture that sustains all these sets of beliefs, without infringing upon each other.

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