An Ism of Other Worlds

From today’s Mumbai (India) Financial Express newspaper.

Shamanism has more to it than just rituals that look exotic in documentaries


Over the years, in many forlorn places, I have seen them. They were real. To the naked mind they did appear like some death metal freaks from the mountains, but Shamanism is an ancient belief dating back to the Neolithic period [sic]—of connections with the invisible but not the unknown.

Utility of a hundred and eight melodies to cure, romances with the immensely invisible, flights above and below the human sphere, advocacy with powerful beings, vanquishing the dread of chronic shadows, ability to control the weather, divination and sortilege, astral projection, gift of prognosis . . . just the periphery of this rather mythical sounding existence.

In the ancient Bonpo tradition, the native religion of Tibet, these personalities were called the Shen—special individuals who had the gift of insight into the other worlds. The Bonpo texts regard that the whole pantheon of the Universe is based upon thirty-three realms of existence. Striking a balance between all realms is necessary and only the Shens have the remedy.

With the propagation of the Buddhist faith, the Bonpos were defeated in the long battle of might and magic. Many of the sacred texts of the Bonpos called the “termas” were hidden away from the brutal invaders. Till date excavations in the region, where the Shangshung civilisation once flourished, throws up the hidden objects.

The original tradition may have long died but traces of it have trickled down centuries into the numerous communities that nest in the Himalayas today. The region comprises of more than hundred different clans. The more prominent and esoteric in their practices being the shamans of the Rai, Gurung, Tamang, Thakali, Spiti, Hor, Lepcha, Apatanis, shingsakwa and the Magar communities. The shamans are known as Jhakris, Bijwas, pao, pangmos and the Khandros. They claim to be initiated into the practice through dreams at a tender age, being taken away to places beyond human imagination. The teacher is called the “Ban Jhakri” — a monstrous appearance with magical powers and a rude cannibal wife. It is long before the boy finally becomes a “Jhakri” — possessing special powers and the ability to travel in his consciousness to worlds beyond our mortal senses.

A special vicinity is made for them, replete with effigies and objects like tiger’s teeth, swords, human skull and bones, monkeys paws etc. Each ritual and cure requires its own set of instruments. There are no scripts to follow as this tradition is purely based on oral and spiritual lineages. During the ritual the Shaman is dressed in a typical attire — adorned with innumerable bells that creates its own melody.

The most important instrument used to communicate with the other world is through the Shaman’s one faced drum called the “Kna.” The shaman converses in varied languages. I had seen one in Sikkim who spoke fourteen languages accompanied by melodies of eagles, deers and the wind. In a trance like situation, when the ritual is finally concluded, with much fatigue and weariness, the shaman collapsed to return back to our world in a few minutes. “I traveled a thousand years,” he claimed.

Many women too follow this practice, especially in the Taplejung region of Nepal, where a Shingsawa khandroma had the supernatural power to forsee the future. In Dolpo, Nepal, I came across a Shaman who had the gift of “Sutras.” He chased the falling hail away from the village and also claimed of performing the “divination of mirrors”. Another in Mustang, performed his sortilege through a woman’s hair. All through the Himalayas, numerous such practitioners exist with an expansive proof of reality and faith, but sadly to the modern world they are only time-lapsed documentaries on the National Geographic!

Categories: Shamanism, Worthwhile Reading | 1 Comment

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One thought on “An Ism of Other Worlds

  1. Adamus

    Tibetan Buddhism is much more a melding and a overlapping. Shamanism is well in Tibetan Buddhism.

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