The shaman had been reciting his mantra for the past two hours, accompanied by the precise tempo of hard slim bones beating a hand-held drum. The bells across his gaunt naked torso rang in cadence, as he hopped up and down on his haunches. His gaze was focused on the middle-aged woman dressed in a cotton nightgown, who sat cross legged, her hands on her knees. Her face and neck were puffed up, and her eyes were clamped shut. She trembled continuously, and her body swayed from side to side.
The emaciated-looking shaman threw fistfuls of rice at her. She continued to shiver. He then held a broom over her head, and commanded, “Who hides within this woman’s body? Tell me! What do you want?” Opening her eyes at last, and staring at the shaman with protruding eyeballs, she hissed back garbled words. The shaman then touched the woman’s forehead with a thin bone and a human skull, and again commanded, “In Mahakali’s name, I command you to reveal yourself!” flinging some more rice at her. The woman trembled, and then, suddenly, with a simpering smile, hissed, “I am Bhagawati.”
“Where are you from?” the shaman asked. “From Dolpa,” came her reply. “What are you doing here?” asked the shaman. The woman glanced slyly at him, and said, “I was murdered and woke up in this body.” “In the name of all powerful Kali, I set you free. Leave her body,” ordered the shaman. The woman stopped trembling, her head hung down heavily. The shaman stood up, and beating his drum, circled the woman three times, throwing fistfuls of rice on her. Then, he carried on out of the room. Now, he held a live rooster in one hand and a naked khukuri in the other. On reaching the crossroads of an adjoining street outside, he sliced off the rooster’s head with one swipe of the khukuri, thus concluding another triumphant victory over the spirits of the netherworld.
Thirty years down the line, I can vouchsafe that the woman never again had another ethereal episode. How do I know all this? Well, that woman was a neighbor, and I was witness to the entire drama of that intriguing night, a night when an emaciated looking shaman held sway over things ungodly. Welcome to the baffling world of shamans.
So, what exactly is a shaman? While shamanism exists all over the world in different variations, the basic presumption is that spirits exist, they can be good or evil, and shamans can communicate with them. For some Nepali ethnic groups, especially in the eastern and western hills, it is a widely practiced religion. Known as jhañkris, or dhāmīs, a typical shaman wears a jama (long skirt-like white garment), a headdress of peacock feathers, a belt of bells around the waist, long malas (necklaces) of rudracche and ritho seeds, and he carries a dhyangro (double-sided hand held drum).
They are regarded as faith healers, soothsayers, and spiritual protectors. In their role as faith healers, they collect medicinal plants, examine entrails of animals for signs, chant mantras to invoke ghosts and deities, perform animal sacrifices, exorcize and counter the spells of evil spirits, etc. They determine the nature of the spirit, and then either pacify it, or drive it away. They recognize and treat many disorders, usually concerning the respiratory and alimentary systems, with medicinal herbs, of which they know a lot about. As soothsayers, they go into a trance and predict things, and as spiritual sentries, they ward off spirits through strength or trickery. Shamans also conduct funeral rites, and dispense protective amulets.
Surprisingly, even in a city like Kathmandu with its many hospitals, there are lots of people who believe in the power of shamans and jyotishis (astrologers) to alleviate their ailments. Although they are different, jyotishis also deal with common ailments. According to one jyotishi of Lalitpur, if the ailment is of minor nature, he takes care of it, but if it’s complicated, then he advises the patient to go to a shaman.