Skulls and Bones and All Things Ungodly: Welcome to the Netherworld of Shamans

Features Issue 93 Jul, 2010
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

Witness to a mystifying deed
It was a few minutes past the mid-night hour. A pale yellow moon, full and round, cast its bewitcing radiance over the sleepingy. A few mongrels were out on the streets howling away to glory. The group of half a dozen men were in high spirits, having spent the better part of the last two hours in a bar swigging down peg after peg of whiskey with soda and ice accompanied by tender legs of roasted chicken, skewers of well-done mutton barbeque and heaps of healthy green salad. They swayed and held on to each other as they made their way towards their neighborhood and they laughed uproariously for no rhyme or reason at sick jokes related incoherently by drunken men with slurred tongues. A little way ahead at the crossing the high spirited revelers turned left, laughing wildly at yet one more lewd joke, and then, as one, the whole group stopped dead in their tracks. The laughter froze on their faces; they stared ahead with terrified eyes at the fearful scene before them on the other crossroads some 50 meters ahead.

The small boy watched with attentive eyes, his mouth agape and his ears ringing with the hypnotic rhythm of the tantric mantra being recited in a sing song voice by the three shamans in one voice. The incomprehensible lyrics were accompanied by the precise tempo of hard slim bones beating rhythmically on parched skin stretched tightly across circular bony frames. The numerous bells on the felt belts hung around their scrawny torsos brought forth music in perfect cadence as the three gaunt bodies hopped up and down on their haunches with exact regularity.

Throughout all this frenzied activity, while the small boy’s eyes remained fixated on the whole scenario before him, the shamans’ gazes were focused on the one single person within their small intimate circle. She was in her mid-40s, moderately obese and dressed in a flowery cotton nightgown frilled at the collar with white lace. She was seated cross legged, her plump hands rigidly holding on to her knees on both sides. Her face and neck appeared to be somewhat swollen and her puffy eyelids were clamped shut over her eyes. She was shaking uncontrollably like someone suffering from dengue fever and her upper body swayed frenetically from side to side and in wide circular movements, her body bending down low in front then moving on up to more acute angles.

One of the shamans, a particularly emaciated looking one, his upper body bare like the others, picked up a fistful of rice from the brass plate on the floor and then flung it at the agitated woman. The woman continued to shiver, tremble and bounce on her seat. Another handful of rice emitting no response, the shaman then picked up a broom and holding it over the woman’s head, started to threaten her with dire consequences if she did not reveal herself. “Tell me who you are! Tell me! Who are you that hides within this woman’s body? I demand you tell me! Speak to me. Tell me what you want.”

The small boy shivered in anticipation. This had been going on too long – almost two hours – and nothing other than what was still happening, had happened. Maybe now there would be something new, a twist in the events? The quivering woman had opened her eyes and was staring back at the shaman with eyes in which the eyeballs seemed to be almost protruding. She hissed back at the emaciated looking shaman, her words garbled and unintelligible. The shaman picked up a thin bone and a human skull and touched the woman’s forehead with the objects, all the while shouting in a commanding tone, “In the name of all powerful Mahakali, I demand you identify yourself! Show yourself to me! Reveal yourself, I command you!” So saying, he again flung some rice at her. The woman trembled as if she had a terrible chill; she looked at the shaman with wild eyes, and then, abruptly, a simpering smile escaped her parched lips.

“I am Bhawani,” she hissed back. “Where do you come from? Tell me!” the shaman commanded. “My home is in Taplejung,” she replied. “What are you doing in Birgunj?” asked the shaman. The woman looked down, and then glanced at him slyly from the corner of her eyes. “What are you doing here?” the shaman repeated his question. That coy smirk again, “I was murdered in my sleep. I woke up in this woman’s body.” “Leave her body. Make her free. I command you in the name of Kali, get out of this woman’s body. I grant you freedom in the name of the all powerful Mahakali,” said the shaman.

 The small boy’s eyes widened as he saw the woman quiet down, her trembling had stopped completely. Her head hung down listlessly. Her whole body appeared to be passive now. The three shamans stood up as one, jumping up and down together in synchronized fashion. Two of them continued to beat their hand held drums in tune with the heavy jingle of the bells and in harmony with their hypnotic incantation. They circled the now passive woman three times, throwing rice on her as they moved around. After the third round, they carried on towards the open door leading out onto the street. The emancipated shaman now held a naked khukri in his right hand while in his left he held a struggling live rooster. All three moved outside in their trance-like states, and reaching the crossroad a little way ahead, they stopped. One of the shamans stooped down to light some wicks in their clay cups and then he flung two fistfuls of rice, vermilion and a yellow powder on the ground. The leader held the struggling rooster high up in his hands and raised his naked khukuri to slice its neck off while the other two started jumping around still more vigorously and the beating of their drums grew louder and louder. The small boy had followed the trio and as he watched in wonder, he noticed a group of people at the far end of the street.

The half dozen drunken men, who had now sobered down suddenly, stood transfixed for a few minutes. The sight of three skinny and bare bodied men with belts of jingling bells around their bodies, jumping around beating on drums and chanting in an unintelligible language in the dead of night would have been enough to turn anyone’s blood cold. That one of them had a live rooster in his hand and a naked khukri in another was added incentive to make the group turn around as one and rush helter-skelter in panic and dread.

This, more than anything else, the small boy would remember for a long time to come and it is to him, one of the most hilarious scenes he has ever witnessed! Grown up men running helter-skelter in blind panic in the dead of night! The woman afflicted with the ghostly spirit is a neighboring aunt who is a feisty 70 now. After all these years, 30 to be precise, he can vouchsafe that she never again suffered as she had done that night, and neither did she have the hysterical fits she was prone to have every six months or so. In other words, she had been cured. He still doesn’t know what to make of it. It all happened before his very eyes. Yet, he cannot but question as to why the shamans, if they are so powerful, cannot make their own lives better. He has met them from time to time – all look as gaunt as before. They dress in tattered shirts and torn pants. In the evenings one will more often than not find them drunk on cheap local hooch. Still, despite all his doubts and questions, he cannot erase the memory of that night when these malnourished shamans held sway over things ungodly with such a command performance as to overwhelm the senses.

You might ask, how do I know all this? Simple – I was the small boy. I have stood witness, now it is your turn. Welcome to the mystifying world of shamans.

Shrouded in secrecy
Firstly let us be clear on one point: the very shroud that cloaks the mystery makes it prone to meanings that are generally inconclusive, and there are as many opinions as there are practices. At the same time, while shamanism exists worldwide in different variations it shares some common beliefs: spirits exist and they can be good or evil; shamans can communicate with the spirits and they can cure sickness caused by them; shamans can induce trance-like states to incite visionary ecstasy, and shamans can tell the future. According to one definition, shamanism is concerned with communication with the netherworld of ghosts and spirits.

A shaman is variously defined by eminent scholars as: “Indigenous healer who deliberately alters his consciousness in order to obtain knowledge and power from the world of the spirits in order to help and cure the members of his tribe” (Stanley Krippner); “He who knows the archaic techniques of ecstasy” (Mircea Eliade); “A healer who has experienced the world of darkness and who has fearlessly confronted his own shadow as much as the diabolic of others, and who can successfully work with the powers of darkness and light.” (Jamie Sams). The Cambridge Encyclopedia defines shamans as “A person to whom special powers are attributed for communicating with the spirits and influence them dissociating his soul from his body. The spirits help him do his chores which include discovering the cause of sickness, hunger and any disgrace, and prescribing an appropriate cure. They are found among the Siberians and other Asiatic people; his activity also evolves among many other religions and with other names.”

The assumption is that the world is pervaded by forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living, and that shamans act as intermediaries between humans and such ghostly entities. The shaman’s spirit can leave the body to enter the supernatural world to search for answers. Many believe that shamans can treat illness and can enter paranormal spheres to seek answers not found on earth. That’s what shamans do and that’s what shamanism all about. According to some, the word shaman originated among the Siberian Tungus (Evenks) and literally means ‘he or she who knows’.

Dhami-Jhankri of Nepal
In Nepal, shamanism is the traditional religion of many of ethnic groups and is widely practiced in the eastern and western hills. Usually wearing a headdress of peacock feathers, they are called jhankri, or dhami, and they carry a double-sided drum. As healers, they examine animal entrails for signs, gather medicinal plants, perform sacrifices, exorcize demons, and chant magical incantations to invoke deities, besides conducting many other rituals. As soothsayers, they fall into trancelike states and act as spokesmen of the gods. As spiritual sentries they ward off evil spirits and irate ancestors through either greater strength or trickery. They also officiate during funerals, dispense amulets and propound myths. Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal have been greatly influenced by such shamanistic traditions.

In his book Jhañkris: The Faith Healers of Nepal Adrian Storrs writes, “They are magico-religious specialists, part herbalists, part priests. Their technique is spiritual rather than biological. Their business is to determine the nature of the spirit, and then either to placate it or drive it from the ill person’s body.” Storrs adds, “Jhañkris can recognize and know how to treat many disorders, the most common being those of the respiratory and alimentary systems, as well as such ailments or illnesses as boils, fevers, allergies, typhoid, jaundice, urinary infections and malnutrition. Most jhañkris will prescribe medicinal herbs, of which they possess considerable knowledge.”

In an article entitled ‘The medium of the message: Shamanism as localised practice in the Nepal Himalayas’, Damian Walter differentiates between what he calls the lineage mediums (kul-dhami) and the shamans (jhankri or dhami). He notes that the possession of the male kul-dhamis by the lineage deities is almost instantaneous while similar possession of spirits into dhami-jhankris is a “more elaborate affair” involving much drumming and the gradual entering of spirits into their bodies. Walter goes on to describe a typical dhami-jhankrii through the paraphernalia of his trade: a drum (dhyangro), bells worn around the waist, long necklaces (mala) of rudracche and ritho seeds worn around the neck and shoulders, a special headdress, and a jama, a long white skirt like garment. Walter states that the tutelary spirit of the dhami-jhankris is the ban-jhankri (a spirit inhabiting the surrounding forest). Jhankris are also said to counteract the power of witches. Witches are believed to cast spells in many ways including by just looking at their victims or by through food eaten by the victim. A jhankri can nullify the evil spell.

Krishna Pratap Maharjan is in his 30s and lives in Bungamati, Lalitpur District. He says, “One and a half years ago, I was compelled to visit Jyotishi (Astrologer) Uday Narayan, in Satdobato, Lalitpur, because I was not feeling well for a long time.” What was he ailing from? Maharjan gives a wan smile and says, “It was many things.” It is obvious that he does not want to disclose the exact nature of his malaise. Then, with a sly smile, he offers, “Mostly stomach aches you know?” What was the treatment regimen? “The jyotishi drew a mandala on the ground and asked me to pick up a few grains of rice which I was to let go over the mandala center. This, I did five times. Then, after studying where the grains had fallen he performed some jhar-phuk on me (sweeping and blowing   usually with a broom or by sprinkling some rice on the afflicted person and blowing with the mouth) and gave me some medicines.” How long did the process take? “Hardly ten minutes,” answers Maharjan. “And it cost me only a bit over a hundred rupees.” The interesting part of his story is: “I have not suffered from the same ailments again.”

A jhankri sits alongside the jyotishi at his place of work who handles the more difficult cases. Apparently, Tuesdays are the busiest days of the week and they get many different kinds of patients. According to Maharjan, “Women, whose husbands have deserted them, or are suspected to be on the verge of deserting them for some other woman, make up a significant part of their clientele.” And how are their problems solved? Again, according to Maharjan who claims to have developed a good friendship with the jyotishi and the shaman, “Most of the time the shaman concocts some preparation that he advises the suffering woman to put into her husband’s food or drink.”

Shamanism still prevails
It is surprising to realize that even in a city like Kathmandu with its numerous hospitals, medical colleges and nursing homes, there are many people who still have a deep belief in the power of jyotishis and shamans and prefer to have their ailments treated by them rather than by qualified doctors. The fact that the above mentioned ‘firm’ has recently opened another branch in Pyag Pokhari, Patan, could be an indication towards the popularity of this sector. Actually, while jyotishis are different from shamans, it is true that they too claim to be able to deal with common ailments. A Brahmin priest in the Bhairav Nath temple in Lagankhel has this to say: “If it’s a small matter, I can take care of it through some jhar-phuk; but if it’s a complicated case, then one should go to Baglamukhi temple in Patan where one will find a shaman.”

Similarly, Jyotishi Bikram Raj Bajracharya has his workplace at his residence in Patan. Picture this scene on a Saturday evening at around 7 pm: The jyotishi, in his seventies, sits on a comfortable red sofa behind a desk on which are scrolls, parchments and a brass dish holding some raw rice. A young man and a middle aged woman sit opposite him. The young man is talking on his mobile, “Yes Madam, the Guruji (teacher) says that you should say the mantra he has given you a hundred thousand times. He says that the present period is inauspicious for you. Your grahan-dishan (planetary configuration) is bad, but he has assured me that it will get better as you progress with the mantra. Yes Madam, all this is according to your janma-patra (document drawn to show planetary positions at time of birth).” He is obviously speaking to someone in authority, and it wouldn’t be surprising if she happened to be some senior bureaucrat’s (his boss’s) wife. The old and spectacled jyotishi leans back in his sofa, and interrupts, “Tell her to wear a coral Ganesh ring. It will be good for her.” The middle aged woman meanwhile listens with a worried look on her face. The young man says into his mobile, “No Madam, this bad period will not last long. That’s what the Guruji is saying.” One can imagine, with this kind of news, the conversation goes on for a long time.

One can also imagine, if this is a common occurrence in the capital city, and if people like the above mentioned ‘madam’ are seeking help from jyotishis and shamans, what must be the situation regarding this issue in the villages of the country. As Adrian Storrs says in his book on Jhañkris, “From time immemorial, jhañkris, as the Nepalese faith healers and medicine men are called, have given medical care to the rural people, Much of the jhañkris’ success is due to the fact that they are well known, respected and accepted, especially as intermediaries between man and spirits. Furthermore, the jhañkris will go to patients at any time and treat them in their homes.” In Nepal, shamans or jhankris can be of any caste; more of them, however, are found to be of Tamang, Gurung, Chhetri or Sherpa ethnicity or caste.

Initiation into the fold
Buddhi Kumar ‘Gurujyu’ does not reveal his caste, but one can guess from the fact that his original house is in Tokha near Budanilkantha, Kathmandu, and that he speaks Newari fluently, he must be a Newar. He has been living and practicing shamanism in Kutisawagal of Lalitpur, some 15 minutes walk from Patan Durbar Square, for almost 11 years. He calls himself ‘Shiva Tantric’ and sits below a canopy of colorful wooden snakes. The shelves on his left hold numerous deity figures while, on his right, stand shelves of plastic bags with different herbs and small vials of ‘Himali Oil’ (an all purpose ayurvedic oil). Two women (apparently mother and daughter-in-law) and a frail child of about five sit cross-legged facing the shaman across a low brass topped counter. Picking up the child on her lap, the younger woman says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He keeps on crying all the time.” The older woman hands over a plastic bag with some rice in it. The shaman pours the rice on to a brass plate, picks up a few with his finger tips and lets it fall on the plate. He does this a couple of times and flicks a few grains on the plate. He looks up, murmurs, “runche bimari (cry baby syndrome),” and offers some of the rice to one of the deities, then flicks some on the child. Then he blows quite forcefully on the child’s face. The young mother can be heard murmuring, “Doctor said….pneumonia….” The shaman repeats, “runche bimari”. He again flicks some rice grains at the child, waves a black feathered broom over her and then blows forcefully twice more on his face. The women gets up after thanking the shaman. The frail child, meanwhile, is standing outside with a face that certainly conveys weepiness.

A young girl then enters the room. She hands over ten rupees and the shaman hands over some small plastic bags with dried leaves inside. What are they for? “They are ‘karne paat’ (a variety of leaf)”, he says, and adds “I get them from the jungle. One can only collect them at midnight.” What are they for? “They are to make alcoholics break out of their drinking habit,” he replies.

Some more clients enter and sit down patiently on the straw mat after paying their respects to the shaman. He smiles benignly at them. He seems confident and sure of himself. He is dressed in a red T-shirt beneath an open-buttoned maroon color shirt. His hair is unruly and his teeth are big and strong. He looks friendly and open to answering any question. Yes, he is 41 years old with a wife and a small son and daughter. The next question is, of course, how did he become a shaman? His story begins when he was just seven years old….

He used to live in Tokha near Budanilkantha, north of Kathmandu, along with his mother and elder brother. His father had died much earlier. He recalls, “We were very poor. One day I went into the nearby forest to collect mushrooms along with two brothers who were my friends. I remember it was around 4 pm. After a while, the two brothers went off in one direction and I was left alone.” He sighted an old man in a white garb lying down on the floor. He was almost like a skeleton. Besides him were a lauro (walking stick) and a doko (bamboo basket). The thought came to his mind, “Who could be so cruel as to leave this old man all alone in the jungle?” The old man looked up at him and asked him in a very strange voice to close his eyes shut. Buddhi Kumar did just that and after a while when he opened them, he saw that the forest floor around him covered with a profusion of mushrooms. Then the old man said, “You can never return home now. I will not allow it.” He added, threateningly, “If you lay your eyes on your mother or your brother again, they will surely die.”

Buddhi Kumar continues, “I was shivering all over. I cried.” Then he saw his friends came over to him and pinch him, but he did not feel anything. “I did not know whether I was in a trance or awake. I thought that I was going to die. I fled deeper into the forest, but a voice pursued me repeating that I could not return home now. For two days I roamed around the jungle and then I crept into a foxhole. I stayed there for two more days.” On the fourth day, a cowherd came upon him, half in and half out of the foxhole. He started to make a hue and cry, but Buddhi Kumar, fearing that others might see him, pleaded with him to stop. “Then I went to the Chandewswari Temple nearby. She was a Ban Devi (Forest Goddess). I spent the night at her feet.” The goddess asked him, “What do you want to do? Live or die?” Buddhi Kumar cried, “I am very scared. I have suffered too much.” Then the Ban Devi held his hand and lifted him to his feet. “She told me that she had taken pity on me and then she blessed me. The goddess also promised to give me knowledge.” Buddhi Kumar’s eyes widen as he exclaims, “Then she took the top half of my skull and placed in on my hand.” “This is your atma (soul),” said the goddess. Now Buddhi Kumar saw himself being carried to a pyre and his body being put in flames. “I saw all this happening. Then the Ban Devi asked me, ‘Did it burn? Were you hurt?’” Buddhi Kumar was quick to say, “No, it didn’t.”

“After this, I was ordered to go to Yamaraj (God of Death),” continues Buddhi Kumar. “I had to cross a swollen river. The Ban Devi asked me to sip some water from it and as soon as I did so, the river dried up! But, on the river bed, I saw thousands of dangerous looking snakes.” Buddhi Kumar was horrified and exclaimed, “Oh Ban Devi! How much more do I have to suffer?” She replied, “I was just testing you.” Then Buddhi Kumar stepped on the snakes’ heads and in seven steps, had crossed the river safely. Next, he came across a river of milk. “The goddess had disappeared,” he remembers. “I was totally perplexed. Then I heard her voice which said, ‘Why are you worried? Am I not your mother?’” The milk disappeared and in its place he saw thousands of precious stones like sapphires, emeralds and rubies. Having crossed over, Buddhi Kumar once again came across another river on his way. “It was a river overflowing with blood,” he says. The he saw himself almost touching the sun and the Sun God said, “You think only you humans have enemies? We gods also have many and the blood you see is due to our battle with the demons.” One can observe Buddhi Kumar’s pupils dilating as he continues, “I saw terrifying demons with long matted hair and wearing tattered red colored clothes. Some had no eyes; some had no heads, some had no limbs. They were bleeding profusely and the blood was all flowing into the river.”

Then he saw the Ban Devi appear and unravel her patuka (cloth wrapped around her waist) and made a bridge over the river with it. “Then she ordered me, ‘Go now to the Yamaraj’. There were many guards   all women demons   who looked frightening. They took me by my hand and led me through a welcoming arch with polished mirrors on both sides. There were kalashes (auspicious water jars) along the way and the floor was laid with satin cloth.” As he came face to face with him, Yamaraj roared, “What is this?” A voice answered, “He is at his end,” and Yamaraj said, “No, he isn’t!” Then Buddhi Kumar began to recite the Vedas (holy scriptures) and requested for a drink of water. He saw 21 water spouts in front of him, but as he went to drink all the spouts ran dry. “Again I heard a voice saying, ‘Your time has not come. If you had had a drink, you would have died’.”

After this, he returned the way he had come and in a suitable place sat down to meditate. “I wished to be alone, but then the Ban Devi appeared and showed me a Ban Jhankri. He was tiny as he came towards me beating his small hand held drum rhythmically. But as he drew nearer, he grew bigger and bigger. Much bigger than me,” remembers Buddhi Kumar. He followed the Ban Jhankri “who could go through anything, no matter how small, even if he was larger than me,” says Buddhi Kumar. “Ultimately I reached a place where a feeling of relaxation and peace fell upon me. Then we entered his house. I espied his wife and saw that she was a demon. I saw her sniff the air and say, ‘Here’s a smell of a human’. The Ban Jhankri took me in his hand and flipped me upwards where I got entangled on a giant cobweb.” The demon wife didn’t see him and brought food to the table. As soon as she had left, Buddhi Kumar came down and ate along with the Ban Jhankri. “Again, as the demon wife was entering the room, the Ban Jhankri flipped me on to the cobweb. After that, I went everywhere with the Ban Jhankri. He taught me seven mantras (invocations). I also discovered that the old man in white garb was Lord Shiva. That is why I got the Shiva-dristi (power to gaze with the eyes of Shiva). The Ban Devi was his wife, the Goddess Parvati.”

So this is how Buddhi Kumar acquired the powers of a shaman. But, the story does not end here. Let’s listen to him. “After four days in the forest I returned home and sat down to eat. I ate two pathis (approximately 6.4 kg) of chiura (beaten rice) in one sitting. People around me were amazed and convinced that a demon had taken refuge in my body. They even talked about throwing me into a nearby river.” After this incident Buddhi Kumar found himself increasingly isolated and suffered a great deal of hardship. “I used to wear clothes discarded from corpses in cremation sites. I used to steal salt. Once I even went around wearing cardboard designed as a shirt. We were extremely poor. Oh yes, I suffered much during my childhood,” Buddhi Kumar says. “During the Jan Andolan (People’s Movement) of 1990 I went into crowds in areas with the most trouble. I had a death wish. I didn’t care for my life but somehow or the other, I never got hurt although people all around me were getting beaten or shot.”

Although he had always known that he was different from others, it was actually only in 1992 that the realization really dawned on Buddhi Kumar that he was endowed with great powers. From then on, he started to practice shamanism professionally. His story could easily enough be one more for Ripley’s ‘Believe It or Not’ series, but the fact that he treats a large number of people every day and, by many accounts, cures them as well, points towards something more tangible. He says, “There are many patients who come here after getting no relief from doctors’ treatments.” People coming to him are usually afflicted with ailments like uric acid, gout, arthritis, digestive disorders, addictions, sinusitis, jaundice, etc., and there are also many who come to have their graha-dasha (astrological afflictions) corrected.

To a question about communicating with spirits, he says, “Yes, especially for patients suffering from deep depressions, I have to look for the cure by going out of my body and entering the spiritual world. Yes, I do communicate with spirits of the dead,” he says, his manner implying that it is a simple fact. He also receives women who come to him to ask his help in preventing their husbands from straying or deserting them; but he asserts: “I do not cast ‘tunas’ (spells) although I can. I don’t wish to hurt anybody.” After a thoughtful pause he adds, “I think it was in 2002 that I became responsible for one man’s death. I deeply regret that incident and it makes me very sad.” So, all said and done, this candid account of ‘Shiva Tantric’ Buddhi Kumar Gurujyu should be a good case study to understand shamanism. No doubt it is complicated and it is difficult to comprehend where fact ends and fiction begins; but as they say   sometimes facts are stranger than fiction.