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William Dalrymple discovers Southeast Asia

18 November 2009

12:00 AM

18 November 2009

12:00 AM

After 25 years of living in Delhi, my family and I are just discovering Southeast Asia. We went pony trekking in Bhutan. I’d met the King in Delhi and he lent us his horses, so there we were at 16,000 feet with all the King’s horses and all the King’s men. We stayed in magnificent tents with hot water and we even had our feet bathed. Bhutan is like the Indian Himalayas must have been in the 18th century before deforestation. You don’t see thick forest like that anymore, with rhododendrons galore, a glorious blaze of colour. It’s like stepping into a James Baillie Fraser print, full of little wood palaces, hermitages and holy men.

In Cambodia we stayed in the old King’s summer palace. The older kids were able to slash their way through the jungle and climb the pyramids at Angkor Wat, while my younger son got very excited about all the anti-aircraft trails and Khmer Rouge shells still lying around. The highlight was a crocodile farm where the Khmer Rouge used to fling their prisoners. When you turn up today, the crocodiles still think it’s feeding time and start frenziedly snapping their jaws.

Taprobane, Geoffrey Dobbs’s private island off the coast of Galle in Sri Lanka, is the ultimate inspirational writer’s retreat. It’s where I wrote the first chapter of Nine Lives. The house I stayed in looks like an 18th-century colonial bungalow perched on a knot of rocks. You have to wade out there, sometimes in water up to your chest. You can take a boat out and see blue whales spouting, or there’s an infinity pool if you just want to laze around. The bedrooms are without question the sexiest, most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Mine had a whole wall open to the sea and you lie there hearing the crash of the Indian Ocean below. Geoffrey was swimming there when the tsunami hit but miraculously everyone from the island was catapulted inland.

My other favourite discovery that I came across while researching Nine Lives is Tanjore. It was the capital of the Chola kings who ruled South India, conquered Sri Lanka and were responsible for the spread of Hinduism to Bali and Cambodia. Though the Cholas were overthrown in the 13th century, much of their civilisation remains. Raja Raja Chola built the most beautiful large temple in India and gifted 60 Chola bronzes to it, thus kick-starting the manufacture of the bronzes that continues today. A thousand years on, you can still watch them being made by the Stpathy family in the next door town of Swamimalai. The ancient Chola bronzes remain in Tanjore’s museum and I think only Rodin, Degas and Donatello have achieved the same level of sensuous beauty in their female forms. In Nine Lives there is a chapter about the Cholas bronzes and it opens with a very fitting saying from the Stpathy family that sums up their astonishing beauty, ‘Gods made man but we, humble men as we are, are so blessed that it is we who make the gods.’

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple is published by Bloomsbury at £20.

As told to Charlotte Metcalf.

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