Women in religion: the story of a forbidden city and a Jain nun.


Recently, I stumbled upon two very interesting pieces of literature. One is William Darymple’s book Nine Lives and another, an article in the magazine GEO written by a Chinese journalist, Liu Zhen with photographs by Yang Yankang. Ever since completing Darymple’s magnificent work, I had an intention of writing a review of the book, but after reading the later I thought of somehow presenting before my readers an account of the sort of subtle and hidden similarity that both the pieces have rather than writing a review and analysis of the book. More so, the particular story from the book and this article, also unveil lives of women, quite different and unique. On one hand we have feminists fighting for women’s rights and posing for fancy photographs, while on the other hand numerous cases of female foeticide, child prostitution, molestation, rape and domestic violence crop up in the national dailies and TV channels. Amidst this entire hullabaloo, these two stories bring to the fore a completely different approach towards womanhood- that is filled with thought, devotion and dedication for the ultimate salvation.

William Darymple’s Nine Lives is an account of the lives of nine people whom he chose from different corners of India to portray an India that is different from the popular urban image which we often get. No, his focus is not the rural; not the poor, not the marginal section, but he targets the devoted. They are not like the common devotees you see and hear about very often. These are people who have moved into an entirely different world to embrace the Divine. And through their devotion he captures an entire stratum of the society, probably hidden and unknown from most of us. He doesn’t comment nor does he question the blind faith, the traditions and customs, the scriptures and the ideologies. He simply paints and puts up the canvas in front of you, to see and decide, to know about an India that’s a bit different from the everyday images put forward to us. All the nine stories in the book are unique in their own way. There is the story of a Jain nun who moved out of her house at a very young age, and joined a particular association and started on her path to attain the ultimate goal of life, there is the story of a Baul singer from Bengal- how their songs mean all that is divine and spiritual, how their lives are dominated by the Tantric practices and how music wins over all materialism, then there is the story of Devdasis and an analysis of the social structure which has seen their transformation into mere sex-workers from temple-workers- of the belief that they are unlike common prostitutes and yet how on the bed everything remains the same and how they have fallen victims to HIV and AIDS. Then we have story of theyyam dancers of South India- a story of Dalit dancers who are treated as Gods when they dance because it is believed that the Almighty Himself takes refuge in them, and on the other hand as wretched low born when not dancing. Another story is of Manisha Ma Bhairavi, who lives in the holy town of Tarapith in West Bengal and worships goddess Tara and of the Tantric traditions in Tarapith and the practices of storing and drinking from Human skull. In this story William Darymple goes in length explaining the Tantric beliefs and the rituals existing in the country, their understanding of the Divine and ways to reach Her, which are quite different from the orthodox Brahmin ways. There is also the story of Srikanda Stpaty, who is the 23rd in the long hereditary line stretching back to the great bronze casters of the Chola empire.Then there is the story of last hereditary singers of a great Rajasthani medieval poem, The Epic of Pabuji.The Red Fairy” is the story of a woman’s tryst with Sufism. There is also the story of a Monk who takes up arms with the Tibetian resistance against the Chinese attack. All the nine stories depict people who gave up everything for the Divine and simply follow a path chosen out of devotion and belief. The stories bring out the belief in these people, analyse their psychology and also that of the system of which they are a part of. As Darymple himself describes, “Each life is intended to act as a keyhole into the way that each specific religious vocation has been caught and transformed in the vortex of India’s metamorphosis during this rapid period of transition, while revealing the extraordinary persistence of faith and ritual in a fast-changing landscape”. The stories showcase men and women who are out on a search for the sacred in a ‘modern’ India. 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 bestseller list. Since its publication Darymple 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 as well as a prison warder and part-time Theyyam dancer.

The particular story to which I referred to in the title of the article is about a Jain Nun Prasannamati Mataji in the ancient pilgrimage town of Sravanabelagola in Karnataka, where ‘the crumbling walls of monasteries, temples and dharmasalas cluster around a grid of dusty, red earth roads’. Darymple terms this place as the “Vatican of the Digambara, or sky clad Jains”. The monks show their total renunciation of the world by moving around completely naked and the nuns are clad in a white piece of cloth. Darymple catches up with this lady and interviews her in an effort to know the intricacies in the lives of these people. He writes about how she left her ancestral home and wealthy family at a very young age and started off on the path to become a nun.

Jains believe that all attachment brings suffering and therefore it is very important to give up all relations and break all bonds from the society before undertaking the path for salvation. This principle is called aparigraha. Jain nuns and monks have to get their hair plucked out rather than being shaved off like their Buddhist counter parts. He writes about how certain Jain rituals and procedures are quite different from the Buddhist though they had similar cause of origin and were even founded in the same time period. Not only in practices, even in spiritual believes and thoughts Jainism differ very much from Hinduism and Buddhism. As such a Jain monk or nun must embrace the Three Jewels: right knowledge, right faith and right conduct, and along with it take five bows: no violence, no untruth, no stealing, no sex, and no attachment.

The twist comes in Prasannamati Mataji’s story with her realisation of an emotional attachment with her best friend and constant companion for twenty years, Prayogamati. In her secluded and solitary life this friendship turned into an emotional connection, a bond which opened the doors for suffering and misery. It should not have occurred in a nun’s life because any such attachment is a hindrance to the attainment of Enlightenment. Though she was supposed to have an indifference towards her friend’s death but somehow she cared, and she cared a lot. Mataji realises this conflict in her emotions only after Prayogamati’s death at the age of 36. With this death, Darymple introduces to his reader’s the intriguing tradition of Sallekhana- a ritual fast onto death. Jains regard it as the culmination of their ascetics, the best route for Nirvana. Darymple beautifully depicts how Mataji sees her friend suffer from various diseases and finally decide to embrace Sallekhana- in an effort to move onto a whole new life, to triumph over death. He describes her stand and showcases her conflicts- with the responsibilities and ideologies of a nun on one hand and a worldly urge to help her dying friend out. Sallekhana is gradual process based on the scriptures, and guided at every step by an able Mataji or guru. The Jains consider it as the ultimate rejection of all desires, the sacrificing of everything. Mataji explains to Darymple that Sallekhana is embraced not out of despair with your old life, but to gain and attain something new. It’s just as exciting as visiting new landscape, she says. Mataji explains to the author the various customs and ways of life in a Jain religious establishment and the traditions through which she became a senior nun. She tells him the pains undertaken at various stages of the journey and the story ends with her confessing to the author that even she has started onto the path of Sallekhana. The story leaves you simply awestruck by the aura of sacrifice and indifference that you get while reading it. The story has beautifully portrayed the pursuit of a parallel life, a life that will amaze us because of our attachment to this world and its trials and tribulations, small moments of glory and splendour and its materialism. William Darymple is a master craftsman in his genre of writing and he proves this again after The White Mughals and the series of travel books on India. He just knows how to dig up information and make brilliant stories out of them which may soothe you and jerk you of your bed at the same time. Read Darymple to know about India. Read Darymple to know what treasure this country has that made an Englishman shift here and writes about it with such artistry. Read Darymple to know your root, your history and your belief.

The article titled “The Forbidden City of Nuns” in GEO is written about the Yarchen valley, somewhere on the border between China and Tibet. It is the world’s largest convent and monastery settlement. This article is a very small piece of work compared to Darymple’s well-researched book, still on a very simple note, they both share an immense connection with each other, and especially the story of the Jain nun in Darymple’s book has a striking resemblance to the story of the Buddhist nuns living 4000 km above the sea level in a secluded valley described in the article. As the journalist reaches the valley after hour long travel from Shanghai in a small bus full of Han Chinese travellers, she describes, “My journey, however began with a different image: a photograph of a small cell. Two sacks of rubble made up the door frame, and a red cloth hung over a plank of wood across it. Behind it, a woman had dug a hole in the mountain, where she lived, read her sutras and meditated. It was as though she had almost buried herself alive…..In the valley below, there was a bend in the river. The nun’s quarters lay on the peninsula formed by the river. It looked like an autumn leaf floating in water. The main street through the middle was the main vein of the leaf. The stem was formed by the suspension bridge that was directly below us, which led to the nun’s quarters above the river and was forbidden to men.” Through the suspension bridge is their connection to the rest of the world. Achuk Rinpoche, the Buddhist master who delivers the teachings in this valley, demands strictest seclusion during study and prayer. Since there are no cells to which they can retreat, the nuns digs holes in the earth to create meditation huts from planks, boards and plastic sacks. In this Chinese story also, the journalist talks about the vocational aspect of the lives of these red-clad nuns. Women are not fully ordained in Tibetan Buddhism, and therefore are not allowed to perform many of the well paid rites and rituals which consequently deprive them of many of one of primary sources of income. Being settled in the Yarchen valley illegally, that is without registering themselves with the proper authorities, they are even not allowed a certain remuneration of 400 Yuan by the government. The writers says, “They often have to spend hours gathering yak dung just to be able to afford a bowl of soup.” Through an acquaintance nun Luosang, the journalist travels through the entire valley, meet other nuns and try to know of the conditions surrounding them and their way of life- what they eat, what they wear, how they manage their livelihood, what makes them overcome all the delusion regarding faith and religion and how “they bury themselves deep within a hole in the earth to attain the radiant truth”. Reading the article you get a certain impression of the dedication and unfaltering faith on the strength of which these women lead their life and stick to what they believe, up in the secluded valley of Yarchen.

There has always been a great position of spirituality and its related vocations in Indian society. Somehow both of these pieces of writing bring forward a world really unknown and hidden from the mainstream. And more importantly, somehow these kind of writing make you ponder upon your own life and thoughts, your ambitions and desires, your ethics and the contradictions.

3 thoughts on “Women in religion: the story of a forbidden city and a Jain nun.

  1. Apratim says:

    Fantastic reading.

  2. nice one. i'd like to follow u. pls put in a follow button.

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