Interview: William Dalrymple

LAST Friday, in front of an audience of 1,500 people at London's Barbican Hall, William Dalrymple began a world book tour with a difference. The most obvious difference is the people who were onstage with him – singing, ganja-smoking tantric madmen from Bengal; a dancing prison warder from Kerala who becomes a god for three months of the year; and five fakir Sufi monks from Pakistan who sing in a castrati falsetto.

"It's going to be great," he laughs. "Spinal Tap meets the Kumbh Mela (the mass Hindu pilgrimage]. It certainly beats doing research in the library."

Between the mystic minstrels, singing monks and the part-time god, Dalrymple will be reading from his latest book, Nine Lives, just as he will soon be doing in Ireland, India, Pakistan, Australia, France, the Netherlands and (sponsorship permitting) the US. Try, if you can, to think of anyone else staging such an implausibly eccentric world tour – or who is director of his continent's biggest book festival (Asia's: Jaipur, January). And try, while you're at it, to think of any other writer whose own work explains the East to the West as thoughtfully, stylishly and enjoyably.

I can't. Ever since his first travel book, In Xanadu, published when he was just 22, this has been exactly what he has been doing. Fatherhood forced him to swap award-winning travel books for award-winning – indeed, groundbreaking – history books such as White Mughals. That book was set in the late 18th century, when the declining power of the Mughals came into an uneasy balance with the rising power of the early British imperialists – and when, his researches uncovered, a genuine intercultural tolerance and understanding existed between East and West that vanished with the Raj and has only occasionally surfaced since.

In Nine Lives, Dalrymple is returning to the travel writing with which he first made his name. It's all of 15 years since he was last on the road for any extended time, retracing the sixth-century journey of two monks across the Byzantine empire from eastern Turkey through the Holy Land to southern Egypt for his book From the Holy Mountain. The month after he got back from his travels, his daughter Ibby was born. "Immediately, the temptation to go off hitching through Afghanistan had to be put on hold and I started to switch to being a historian," he says. "Now Ibby's 14, and so it's possible for me to start travelling to really obscure places again. I loved it."

For the new book, Dalrymple has not only changed the way he writes but also, to an extent, shifted his perspective on India. From the time he first arrived in New Delhi as an 18-year-old about to read history at Cambridge, what transfixed him was the power and opulence of the Mughal Empire. That fascination remains – indeed, its history is the subject of his magnum opus, on which he'll be spending the best part of the next two decades.

But the lives at the heart of his new book look beyond this to chart the varieties, and extremes, of spiritual life in India. He begins with the story of a Jain nun who, left bereft by the death of her friend, has decided to go on a ritual fast to the death. Jains are ascetics almost beyond belief ("They'd make even my Coptic monks (in From the Holy Mountain] look like luxuriants," says Dalrymple). While other denominations might shave their heads, for example, Jain nuns will pluck out all their hair by the roots.

The object of such discipline is to distance themselves from the world. In Jainite theology, attachment is what causes suffering, so nuns have to detach themselves from all emotion, from family love, and love of place – almost, given their strictures against using soap and begging, from society itself. Yet here is a nun who has done all of that, yet who can't rid herself of the attachment of loving memory, who has embarked on a diet that will gradually diminish until, near death, she will give up water itself. No, she tells Dalrymple, it's not suicide. It's the ultimate rejection of desire. She looks forward to it with excitement, not fear.

Dalrymple doesn't point out the fundamental contradiction between the nun's attachment to her friend's memory and her deliberate severing of all other attachments to the world. Instead, he parks his own ego in the background and allows her to tell the story in her own words. That's not the way he – along with other travel writers in the 1990s such as Bruce Chatwin – used to write, he acknowledges. "But it's such a perilous thing for a foreigner to write about Indian religion. You could write a wonderful book on all the idiocies that westerners have written on the subject. So what I was trying for was to let people speak for themselves."

The other difference about Nine Lives is that it is his first book to be centred on Hinduism. That is perhaps understandable: Hinduism is such a vast, multifarious and contradictory religion that even the word itself didn't exist two centuries ago, when its various strands looked on each other as rivals rather than part of the same tradition. More than any monotheistic religion, Hinduism is hard for a westerner to comprehend.

"At first, I didn't understand it at all," admits Dalrymple. "It seemed absolutely chaotic, its iconography completely alien. Mughal art wasn't too different from the kind of Christian medieval manuscript art I had admired all my life: to move from a 15th-century medieval psalter to a Mughal miniature, for example, is very easy. To move from that to a Hindu devotional picture, however, where Khali with all her arms waving, is drinking the blood of a slaughtered buffalo while standing on the naked body of Lord Shiva with an erect phallus – that's a much bigger leap."

Yet apart from the story of the Jain nun and the no less riveting story of a trainee Buddhist monk who fought the invading Chinese, the rest of the true stories in Nine Lives deal with wildly different forms of Hinduism. Which is where the ganja-smoking Bengalis, the divinely dancing prison warden and everyone else accompanying Dalrymple on his multi-destination book tour come in.

"It took me a long time to realise that the key to Hinduism is that it doesn't just offer one approach to God but a variety of different paths," Dalrymple says. "I try to present that in the book. There are so many different forms of Hindu worship, with different iconographies, mythologies and theologies.

"At one end of the scale there's the story of the Brahmin idol-maker whose son wants to become a computer engineer rather than follow his father in making these incredibly sensuous statues, which he really does believe become gods when he chisels open their eyes.

"At the other end is the story of the blind minstrel, a Dalit (Untouchable] who like all Bauls not only rejects the idea of worshipping idols but believes that the only god worth discovering lies within your own heart. The two men would have absolutely nothing in common.

"I've been in India for 25 years, but I hadn't got the foggiest idea of this incredible range of spiritual traditions. I'd never even heard of the graveyard tantrics, and the sheer weirdness of their lives – drinking from the skulls of virgins and suicides so as to get access to the power of divinity, drinking alcohol and generally breaking all the normal Hindu taboos.

"With the tantrics, I was intrigued by finding all these misfits, eccentrics, deviants and lunatics who had all found peace and shelter in the cremation grounds. But that's how society here deals with a problem: rather than locking them away, putting them in straitjackets and giving them electric shock treatment, in India these people might be on the margins but are revered and treated with respect."

In other ways, he shows, traditional forms of religious belief often subvert India's otherwise solid social hierarchies. The story of the Kerala prison warden who, for three months of the year, is a temple dancer and revered by higher-caste Brahmins as the incarnation of Vishnu, is a case in point. In his ecstasy, he says, he does indeed become a god. What's more, the people watching him dance realise that too.

Dalrymple's non-judgmental detachment keeps that possibility alive in his readers' minds too. All journalists know the value of a killer quote ("Before you drink from a skull," one tantric tells him, "you must first find the right corpse"), but few reach this level of empathy to be able to show at once the fullness of faith and the fragility of the life that led to it.

What this boils down to is that rare thing: a western sensibility prepared to accept the East on its own terms. At times, like when the Jain nun told him how eagerly she was looking forward to her slow withdrawal from life, he felt confused. "You don't know how to react – with admiration or horror. That's often the way with extreme forms of religion, but I don't try to judge. I'm trying to understand where a person is coming from and to convey a flavour of their lives rather than going in search of my own salvation or anything like that."

That said, which of the nine Indian seekers of the sacred did he most identify with? "Oh, the Baul singers, the Bengali wandering minstrels. They're almost agnostics, believing that God is in the present, not in the afterlife, and that it's up to all of us to discover divine inner knowledge – the Man of the Heart, as they call it."

Dalrymple will be with the ganja-smoking Bauls – the word means "mad" or "possessed" in Bengali – on the rest of his world tour. Essentially, the Bauls are holy buskers. They've given away all their possessions and live on the kindness of the strangers to whom they sing subversive songs of love and mysticism and sheer joy in life.

There's so much that separates the Bauls from the upper-caste Scot who has set up the weirdly wonderful tour on which they will be appearing. Yet there's so much that joins them as well. In his own way, Dalrymple is a questing man of the heart too.

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple is published this week by Bloomsbury, price 20. William Dalrymple is at Wigtown Book Festival at 6pm today.

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