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From the author of The Last Mughal (“A compulsively readable masterpiece” —The New York Review of Books), an exquisite, mesmerizing book that illuminates the remarkable ways in which traditional forms of religious life in India have been transformed in the vortex of the region’s rapid change—a book that distills the author’s twenty-five years of travel in India, taking us deep into ways of life that we might otherwise never have known exist.
A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet—and spends the rest of his life atoning for the violence by hand printing the finest prayer flags in India . . . A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her closest friend ritually starve herself to death . . . A woman leaves her middle-class life in Calcutta and finds unexpected fulfillment living as a Tantric in an isolated, skull-filled cremation ground . . . A prison warder from Kerala is worshipped as an incarnate deity for three months of every year . . . An idol carver, the twenty-third in a long line of sculptors, must reconcile himself to his son’s desire to study computer engineering . . . An illiterate goatherd from Rajasthan keeps alive in his memory an ancient four-thousand-stanza sacred epic . . . A temple prostitute, who initially resisted her own initiation into sex work, pushes both her daughters into a trade she nonetheless regards as a sacred calling.
William Dalrymple chronicles these lives with expansive insight and a spellbinding evocation of circumstance. And while the stories reveal the vigorous resilience of individuals in the face of the relentless onslaught of modernity, they reveal as well the continuity of ancient traditions that endure to this day. A dazzling travelogue of both place and spirit.
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William Dalrymple is the author of six previous acclaimed works of history and travel, including City of Djinns, which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; the best-selling From the Holy Mountain; White Mughals, which won Britain’s most prestigious history prize, the Wolfson; and The Last Mughal, which won the Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. He divides his time between New Delhi and London, and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The Guardian.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Nun’s Tale
Two hills of blackly gleaming granite, smooth as glass, rise from a thickly wooded landscape of banana plantations and jagged palmyra palms. It is dawn. Below lies the ancient pilgrimage town of Sravanabelagola, where the crumbling walls of monasteries, temples and dharamsalas cluster around a grid of dusty, red earth roads. The roads converge on a great rectangular tank. The tank is dotted with the spreading leaves and still-closed buds of floating lotus flowers. Already, despite the early hour, the first pilgrims are gathering.
For more than 2,000 years, this Karnatakan town has been sacred to the Jains. It was here, in the third century bc, that the first Emperor of India, Chandragupta Maurya, embraced the Jain religion and died through a self-imposed fast to the death, the emperor’s chosen atonement for the killings for which he had been responsible in his life of conquest. Twelve hundred years later, in ad 981, a Jain general commissioned the largest monolithic statue in India, sixty feet high, on the top of the larger of the two hills, Vindhyagiri.
This was an image of another royal Jain hero, Prince Bahubali. The prince had fought a duel with his brother Bharata for control of his father’s kingdom. But in the very hour of his victory, Bahubali realised the folly of greed and the transience of worldly glory. He renounced his kingdom and embraced instead the path of the ascetic. Retreating to the jungle, he stood in meditation for a year, so that the vines of the forest curled around his legs and tied him to the spot. In this state he conquered what he believed to be the real enemies—his passions, ambitions, pride and desires—and so became, according to the Jains, the first human being to achieve moksha, or spiritual liberation.
The sun has only just risen above the palm trees, and an early morning haze still cloaks the ground. Yet already the line of pilgrims—from a distance, tiny ant-like creatures against the dawn-glistening fused-mercury of the rock face—are climbing the steps that lead up to the monumental hilltop figure of the stone prince. For the past thousand years this massive broad-shouldered statue, enclosed in its lattice of stone vines, has been the focus of pilgrimage in this Vatican of the Digambara, or Sky Clad Jains.
Digambara monks are probably the most severe of all India’s ascetics. They show their total renunciation of the world by travelling through it completely naked, as light as the air, as they conceive it, and as clear as the Indian sky. Sure enough, among the many ordinary lay people in lungis and saris slowly mounting the rock-cut steps are several completely naked men—Digambara monks on their way to do homage to Bahubali. There are also a number of white-clad Digambara nuns, or matajis, and it was in a temple just short of the summit that I first laid eyes on Prasannamati Mataji.
I had seen the tiny, slender, barefoot figure of the nun in her white sari bounding up the steps above me as I began my ascent. 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 a Jain muni, or ascetic.
It was only when I got to the Vadegall Basadi, the temple which lies just below the summit, that I caught up with her—and saw that despite her bald head Mataji was in fact a surprisingly young and striking woman. She had large, wide-apart eyes, olive skin and an air of self-contained confidence that expressed itself in a vigour and ease in the way she held her body. But there was also something sad and wistful about her expression as she went about her devotions; and this, combined with her unexpected youth and beauty, left one wanting to know more.
Mataji was busy with her prayers when I first entered the temple. After the glimmering half-light outside, the interior was almost completely black, and it took several minutes for my eyes fully to adjust to the gloom. At the cardinal points within the temple, at first almost invisible, were three smooth, black marble images of the Jain Tirthankaras, or Liberators. Each was sculpted sitting Buddha-like in the virasana samadhi, with shaved head and elongated earlobes. The hands of each Tirthankara was cupped, and they sat cross-legged in a lotus position, impassive and focused inwards, locked in the deepest introspection and meditation. Tirthankara means literally “ford-maker,” and the Jains believe these heroic ascetic figures have shown the way to Nirvana, making a spiritual ford through the rivers of suffering, and across the wild oceans of existence and rebirth, so as to create a crossing place between samsara and liberation.
To each of these figures in turn, Mataji bowed. She then took some water from the attendant priest and poured it over the hands of the statues. This water she collected in a pot, and then used it to anoint the top of her own head. According to Jain belief, it is good and meritorious for pilgrims to express their devotion to the Tirthankaras, but they can expect no earthly rewards for such prayers: as perfected beings, the ford-makers have liberated themselves from the world of men, and so are not present in the statues in the way that, say, Hindus believe their deities are incarnate in temple images. The pilgrim can venerate, praise, adore and learn from the example of the Tirthankaras, and they can use them as a focus for their meditations. But as the ford-makers are removed from the world they are unable to answer prayers; the relationship between the devotee and the object of his devotion is entirely one way. At its purest, Jainism is almost an atheistic religion, and the much venerated images of the Tirthankaras in temples represent not so much a divine presence as a profound divine absence.
I was intrigued by Mataji’s intense dedication to the images, but as she was deep in her prayers, it was clear that now was not the moment to interrupt her, still less to try to talk to her. From the temple, she headed up the hill to wash the feet of Bahubali. There she silently mouthed her morning prayers at the feet of the statue, her rosary circling in her hand. Then she made five rounds of the parikrama pilgrim circuit around the sanctuary, and as quickly as she had leapt up the steps, she headed down them again, peacock fan flicking and sweeping each step before her.
It was only the following day that I applied for, and was given, a formal audience—or as the monks called it, darshan—with Mataji at the monastery guest house; and it was only the day after that, as we continued our conversations, that I began to learn what had brought about her air of unmistakable melancholy.
“We believe that all attachments bring suffering,” said Prasannamati Mataji, after we had been talking for some time. “This is why we are supposed to give them up. It is one of the main principles of Jainism—we call it aparigraha. This was why I left my family, and why I gave away my wealth.”
We were talking in the annex of a monastery prayer hall, and Mataji was sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat, raised slightly above me on a low dais. The top of her white sari was now modestly covering her plucked head. “For many years, I fasted, or ate at most only once a day,” she continued. “Like other nuns, I often experienced hunger and thirst. I tried to show compassion to all living creatures, and to avoid all forms of violence, passion or delusion. I wandered the roads of India barefoot.” As she said this, the nun ran a hand up the hard and callused sole of her unshod foot. “Every day I suffered the pain of thorns and blisters. All this was part of my effort to shed my last attachments in this illusory world.
“But,” she said, “I still had one attachment—though of course I didn’t think of it in that way.”
“What was that?” I asked.
“My friend Prayogamati,” she replied. “For twenty years we were inseparable companions, sharing everything. For our safety, we Jain nuns are meant to travel together, in groups or in pairs. It never occurred to me that I was breaking any of our rules. But because of my close friendship with her, I formed not just an attachment, but a strong attachment—and that left an opening for suffering. But I only realised this after she died.”
There was a pause, and I had to encourage Mataji to continue. “In this stage of life we need company,” she said. “You know, a companion with whom we can share ideas and feelings. After Prayogamati left her body, I felt this terrible loneliness. In truth, I feel it to this day. But her time was fixed. When she fell ill—first with TB and then malaria—her pain was so great she decided to take sallekhana, even though she was aged only thirty-six.”
“It’s the ritual fast to the death. We Jains regard it as the culmination of our life as ascetics. It is what we all aim for, and work towards as the best route to Nirvana. Not just nuns—even my grandmother, a lay person, took sallekhana.”
“You are saying she committed suicide?”
“No, no: sallekhana is not suicide,” she said emphatically. “It is quite different. Suicide is a great sin, the result of despair. But sallekhana is as a triumph over death, an expression of hope.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “If you starve yourself to death, then surely you are committing suicide?”
“Not at all. We believe that death is not the end, and that life and death...
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