Up Close And Personal With The Mystical Shamans Of Nepal

Shamans of Nepal
Shamans of Nepal

Healings, mantras, sacrifices, coupled with several other rituals form a very intense and powerful cultural practice known as Shamanism. Cradled in between India and China lies Nepal that is home to more than sixty different ethnic groups and one of the places where this belief continues to exist, even thrive. Until the late 1950s, when Nepal’s borders were opened to the West, this land was a huge mystery to outsiders and even today, the rich culture and heritage of this country leave many spellbound, and that’s where the small town of Sayrubesi becomes omnipresent.

Located around 13 kilometres from the Chinese border, Sayrubesi exudes many of the features that have come to demarcate small towns. Filled with hotels, ATMs, buses, and convenience shops, built nearly entirely for the tourists, it’s become popular owing to its position as the starting point to the Gosaikunda and Latang treks. An area steeped in tradition, it is also where culture and rituals intertwine with each other. While you might find practitioners of these rituals across the country, Sayrubesi is considered to be the the spiritual hub for the Jhankris.

Polish Photographer Martushka Fromeast had the opportunity to witness the various rituals of the community—a privilege not granted to many— such as healings, exorcisms, mythic visions and pujas to remove obstacles that may occur in one’s life. Her series, I Am Not Scared Of The Night is a powerful representation of the importance of the Bompo rituals in the everyday lives of the villagers.

Based on an animistic belief that respects Mother Earth and all living beings, Nepali shamanism is a spiritual practice that has coexisted over millennia with varying cultures, systems of government, and organized religious practice. While Hinduism, Animism and Buddhism are the major religions practiced in Nepal, the majority of people turn to the Dhami/Jhankri/ Bompos for help, regardless of their religion. Popularly known as shamans, the jhankris are mediators with the sacred world. Nepalese believe that spirits and people walk the same paths and that shamanistic rituals are integral not only for the individual body, but for society as a whole.The role of Jhankri is to re-establish the harmony between all things visible and invisible in order to preserve the ecology of the land. The Shamans are not just healers, but also story-tellers, dancers, musicians and artists. It is believed that they acquire their numerous talents by their personally helping spirits, ancestral deities, elemental spirits and guides.

One might question the relevance and authenticity of shamanism in the modern world, but its long standing position in cultural history simply cannot be denied. It is a belief system that holds an understanding of the bond we share with our natural surroundings. It is shrouded with misconceptions and stereotypes but speaks volumes about spirituality in a manner that touches a part of every one of us on some level or the other. It is this duality that comes together as one in Formeast’s portraits of the same - perhaps a small but necessary step into a world of beliefs that are still important to so many today.

Scroll down for a selection of photographs, you can see the entire series on the photographer’s website.

“Risowangdi fights with something only he sees. He puts rice onto a drum and blows it away, then starts to cry and talk, using English, Hindi and Tamang words. He was asked by one of the attendant of the annual pilgrimage during Janai Purima holiday to pray for the well being of one of the adults. Risowangdi is one of the shamans of Shybarubesi. He belongs to a tribe of Tibetan origin called Tamangs. The name Tamang has two meanings: ‘TA’-horse and ‘MANG’ –warriors/combatants. Tamangs used to be horse-riding warriors and came to Nepal from northern Tibet. Risowangdi was trained to become a shaman by his older brother. He has been practicing as a Bompo (shaman) for the last 13 years. Before becoming a shaman he served in the army. Risowangdi’s father was also a Bompo, but he divorced Risowangdi’s mother for another woman. Risowangdi married for love at the age of 17 and is a very proud father of three sons.”

“Shamans go to villages situated higher in the mountains on both sides of the border with Nepal and China (Tibet). Power (called sakhti in Nepali) is the source of a shaman’s fame.”

“Shaman Risowangdi beats a sick man with fire. Just before that, he had also beaten the man with branches of holy bush dipped in boiling wanter. The shaman filled the water with mantra (a sacred verbal formula repeated in prayer) that are supposed to help get rid of the illness. Local people from Shyabrubesi still go to shaman to get help. Shamans make their own traditional Ayervedic drugs (a type of alternative medicine that originated in India) to treat diseases and perform exorcisms to help the soul.”

“Drinking alcohol is an important part of all rituals, which act as social events during which men and women meet. Drinking is also important during the annual pilgrimage during Janai Purima holiday. It is used as an offering to the Gods.”

“Shaman Risowangdi during a puja ceremony on an 84 years-old woman who, according to him, lost her heart. The shaman stayed at her house all night and sacrificed a chicken and was finally able to catch the evil spirit.”

“Risowangdi has three sons to whom he teaches shamanism.”

All images courtesy of the photographer

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