Sep 29, 2009

Inside India's Sacred Heart

Exclusive excerpts from bestselling author william dalrymple’s forthcoming book on a modern nation’s ancient beliefs.

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.

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.

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.” “Sallekhana?”

“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....

“First you fast one day a week, then you eat only on alternate days: one day you take food, the next you fast. One by one, you give up different types of food. You give up rice, then fruits, then vegetables, then juice, then buttermilk. Finally you take only water, and then you have that only on alternate days. Eventually, when you are ready, you give up that too. If you do it very gradually, there is no suffering at all. The body is cooled down, so that you can concentrate inside on the soul, and on erasing all your bad karma.”

She smiled: “You have to understand that for us death is full of excitement. It’s just as exciting as visiting a new landscape or a new country: we feel excited at a new life, full of possibilities.” “But you could hardly have felt excited when your friend left you like this.” “No,” she said, her face falling. “It is hard for those who are left.” She stopped. For a moment Mataji lost her composure; but she checked herself.

“After Prayogamati died, I could not bear it. I wept, even though we are not supposed to. Any sort of emotion is considered a hindrance to the attainment of Enlightenment. We are meant to cultivate indifference — but still I remember her.”

Again her voice faltered. She slowly shook her head. “The attachment is there even now,” she said. “I can’t help it. We lived together for twenty years. How can I forget?”

“Do you think you will meet her in another life?” I said.

“It is uncertain,” said Mataji. “Our scriptures are full of people who meet old friends and husbands and wives and teachers from previous lives. But no one can control these things.”
Again Mataji paused, and looked out of the window. “Though we both may have many lives ahead of us, in many worlds,” she said, “who knows whether we will meet again? And if we do meet, in our new bodies, who is to say that we will recognise each other?”

She looked at me sadly as I got up to go and said simply. “These things are not in our hands.”

William Dalrymple’s ‘Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India’ is published by Bloomsbury/Penguin in India on October 14

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