A coconut shell bowl, a peacock feather fan, and a white cotton sari. Those are the only possessions of Mataji, a 38-year-old Jain nun featured in the the first story of William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: A Search of the Sacred in Modern India, a wonderful book I have been enjoying this week as I prepare to travel to India. Each section explores a variety of religious devotion through the story of an individual practitioner: a temple prostitute, a dancer who becomes a deity incarnate, and Mataji among them.
Jainism is a very ancient religion, described by Dalrymple as being similar to, but more demanding than Buddhism. While the Jains I have met are affluent merchants in Rajasthan, those who dedicate themselves to the ascetic path of ordination renounce family and possessions and take to the roads to wander for the rest of their lives. They are to avoid attachment to anyone or any one place. Their hairs are plucked one by one until their heads are bare, they eat only one meal a day which can be offered, but not begged, and the monks travel completely naked.
Mataji, as a woman, is permitted to wear a white cotton sari, no doubt hand-spun and woven khadi cloth. She also carries a bowl for water, which is strained to avoid swallowing small living things, and a fan to clear the path of tiny unsuspecting creatures that might be crushed by her footfall.
If you are to go through life with one set of clothing and two tools, how much richer can that life be if those objects are made of natural materials, marked by the hands that crafted them. Now, there is my bias and sense of attachment showing, but I was struck by the beauty of this aspect of Mataji’s life in a world where the poorest people may now only own a few plastic bowls and an acrylic blanket, a world in which increasingly, machine-made items are replacing hand-made, and the skills and traditions of handcraft are being lost.
In my early 20’s, when I was a devotee of poet and novelist Robert Graves and carried a machine-printed but dog-earred copy of The White Goddess from apartment to apartment, I read somewhere that Graves’ study in Majorca was filled only with hand-made objects, but for a few machine-printed books and the electric light fixtures.
Thinking about Mataji’s life set me to the very un-handmade task of googling for a reference to confirm this memory, which I found in a 1969 interview for The Paris Review. As he spoke with Peter Buckman and William Fifield, Graves hand-rolled his own cigarettes. “Yes: one secret of being able to think is to have as little as possible around you that is not made by hand.”