The Sense of Sight: Readings from Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

“From the prize-winning author of White Mughals and City of Djinns, Nine Lives is a distillation of twenty-five years of exploring India and writing about its religious traditions – a modern Indian Canterbury Tales which introduces us to characters and takes us deep into worlds we could never have imagined existed.(…)Nine people, nine lives. Each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story. Exquisite and mesmerising, and told with an almost biblical simplicity, William Dalrymple’s first travel book in a decade explores how traditional forms of religious life in South Asia have been transformed in the vortex of the region’s rapid change.”

(Taken from

The Dancer of Kannur – “…the dance form has always been a conscious and ritualised inversion of the usual structures of Keralan life:for it is not the pure and sanctified Brahmins into whom the gods choose to incarnate, but the shunned and insulted Dalits. The entire system is free from Brahmin control. The theyyam take place not in Brahminical temples but small shrines in the holy places and sacred groves of the countryside, and the priests are not Brahmin but Dalit….The word theyyam derives from daivam, the Sanskrit word for ‘god’…The stories around which the they yam performances are built range from tales of vampire-like blood-drinking yakshas, devise and witches, and the myths of serpent and animal deities, to the deeds of local heroes and ancestors. In many of the theyyam stories, a member of the lower castes infringes or transgresses accepted caste restrictions and is unjustly punished with rape or death, and then is defied by the gods aghast at the injustices perpetrated by the Brahmins and other ruling classes.”

Reference Videos:



The Maker of Idols: “The widespread oral memory of which is only now beginning to be endangered – that created the intense, mystical and often sensual bhakti world which needed the Chola bronzes as focuses for devotion. The direct family link between Chola bronze casters and Srikanda’s family workshop in Swamimalai is only one aspect of a much wider continuity of Tamil theology and devotion…The whole process, explained Srikanda, was itself encased in a fine mould of ancient ritual: only on a new moon or a full moon could a model be begun or cast..The idol’s eyes must be carved open between 4 am and 6 am, when there was no sound or disturbance which might upset the deity; a series of ancient Sanskrit incantations must be spoken while the work was in progress..All the proportions, gestures and sacred geometry were exactly laid down by tradition, and only the most elite families of Stpathy Brahmins, literate in Sanskrit and all the appropriate Shastras, were allowed to work on pieces intended for worship.”

Shiva, Kartikeya, Parvati, Chola bronze, 10-12 c., Tamilnadu The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC




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