Animisim is the worlds oldest known religion. It dates to 200,000 years ago, which is when modern humans first appeared in the fossilized record. Animism can be found in every country that has an indigenous population. The core belief of animism is that all living and non-living things have a soul or spirit. It is intimately linked to shamanism through shamans. Shamans are the intermediary link between the spirits in animism and the physical realm. In this blog post I identify the different types of shamans in Nepal and provide a story of my experience with one while hiking in Langtang.
Shamanism in Nepal
Shamanism exists worldwide, although subtle differences exist from region to region the core beliefs remain unchanged. These beliefs are good and evil spirits exist and shamans can communicate with them. Evil spirits are believed to cause harm or illness to people through their mischievous acts. Good spirits can also cause harm to people through neglect or getting lost. It is up to the shaman to negotiate with spirits to restore the health of the ailed. In Nepal, each indigenous ethnic group has unique practices for negotiating with spirits.
Shamans by cast
- Tamang/ Tibetan: Bon/ Bonpo
- Kirat: Mangpa
- Gurung: Khyapri
- Magar: Ramba/ Rama
- Rai: Bijuwa
- Limbu: Phedangba
- Tharu: Ojha
- many others
Shamans use different practices or perform different ceremonies to achieve different results. All shamans start by entering the spirit realm. There are two ways shamans can do this. The first is a slow process where a ritual is performed such as beating drums, chanting mantras, dancing and or providing offerings. These shamans are called Dhami Jhankri. The second process is much quicker. In this process the shaman identifies and ailment, then enters the spirit world without an elaborate procedure.
When in the spirit world shamans can perform certain tasks such as guiding a spirit back to its home, warding off evil spirits, cutting the lines of fate, soul retrieval, and other healing practices. Occasionally spirits will tell shamans the future.
If you would like to learn more, Paloma Cervantes is an excellent resource on shamanism and shamanistic practices.
Shaman in Shyaphru
I had just finished my trek to Langtang and I was staying the night in Shyaphru. A young woman told me about a shaman, who lived in the area. Since I had some extra time before my bus departure, I figured I would check it out.
I walked up a small hill to the shaman’s house to find nobody home. After getting caught in a rain storm for a few hours, the shaman’s wife came home. I asked her if I could meet with her husband. She made a few phone calls and he was home within an hour. Its amazing, wives have that power on their husbands.
The shaman told me I needed some items. I went to the store and bought a scarf, a large beer, and some rice. We then went to his house. He poured the rice in a plate and advised me to put in 200 rupees ($2). Then he asked me to put in 1,000 rupees ($10), which I hesitantly did. The shaman took the beer and poured it into glasses for everyone to share.
He put incense in the rice with the money then he started chanting. Then, he waved the plate of rice, money, and incense left and right. He was conjuring up the rice spirits in a ritualistic séance. Next, he moved all the rice to one side of the plate and started tapping a few kernels to the other side.
About 12 kernels fell from the clump of rice to the other side of the plate. He gave me the kernels and asked me to put them in my right had and move my hand to my right shoulder, left shoulder, stomach, then head. I then repeated the process with my left hand and then gave him back the kernels.
He then repeated the process of chanting and tapping the kernels to one side of the plate. From the original 12, only 4 were left. He put these four in my hand then read my palms. He then told me what the spirits told him.
It was an amazing experience, because I gained an insight into the ancient practices of a shaman. I also learned about how a complete stranger (and the spirits) perceive me.