By Madhusree Chatterjee
In the Indian pantheon of spirituality, gods and men have communicated in a very strategic notion of divinity with the help of spiritual mediums since times immemorial. The “shamans” or the priest mediums – the most ancient of the spiritual conduits – who predate codified religions by thousands of years – have been practicing their indigenous faiths in remote shrines of local deities nestled in the icy climes of the Himalayas and in the forests of the heartland for more than 70,000 years in continuum.
Several of these shamanistic faiths still continue to call the shots in the insular societies of the Himalayan heights – in states like Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim, the Northeast and in adjacent countries like Nepal, which once formed a contiguous religio-cultural entity with the Indian Himalayan region.
The tribe of the oracles – who sought answers to posers relating to destiny and existence of the local people – from their deities flourished on the strength of their belief systems that divine forces possess humans in a state of trance to open dialogues between man and god.
The objective of the magico-religious rite was simple – to better the lot of mortals and rid the world of woes.
The shamanistic rituals are based on the animistic religious practices of the early groups of civilized men who inhabited the land, says filmmaker Anu Malhotra, whose documentary “Shamans of Himalayas” is being telecast on the Discovery Channel in four episodes.
The four episodes, “The Dance of the Divine”, “Cosmic Conversations”, “Sacred Healing” and “The Divine Feminine”, explore the cultural and scared shamanistic mores associated with the nearly 270-odd “devi” and “devta” in Kullu Valley in HImachal Pradesh- often referred to as Devbhoomi or the “Valley of the Gods”.
The shamans or the oracles form the ethnic mosaic of faith in the Himalayas. The tradition is a living culture in Himachal Pradesh – where the network of local deities connects to the masses through a network of “shamans” who plead with god on behalf of the people to ameliorate their blues.
Each shrine in the Kullu valley- led by the fair deity of courage and victory over evil, Hadimba Devi, and other deities like Churu Devi, Naina Devi, Shringa Rishi, Vaishno Devi, the different aspects of Shiva and Naga devta or the snake gods – has its own oracle who go into trace to speak to the gods when called on to divine or perform ceremonial rites, Malhotra says.
According to the Shamanistic Studies and Research Centre, the interactive faith of the shamans is based on “Divinations”, “Healing Techniques”, “Cutting the Line of Faith” and “Mantras for Healing and Protection”. The shamans- at least in the Indian Himalayan region – is chosen by the goddess herself in complex divine feats in which the deity sometime makes itself apparent to the shaman, usually a pious villager, or possess him unbidden in a trance to show the shaman his destiny.
Gur (shaman) Tularam is an example. He divines in the shrine of Hadimba Devi, the fair goddess of courage and victory, to help the local people understand the nature of misfortunes confronting them. Anu Malhotra shoots through an entire trance session and allows the medium to narrate his life story of how shamanism changed the course of his life. The narrative is followed by an interview with scholar, writer and psychologist Sudhir Kakar, who provides scientific context to the shamanistic rites.
Kakar suggests that people living in remote villages are more comfortable in the presence of traditional healers and quacks, rather than in the company of modern-day clinical counselors. In another episode, “Cosmic Counsellors”, gur (shaman) Hardayal calls the “devi” down from her heavenly abode to chat informally with the devotees about their daily lives. Once a more personal vein, the director who seeks divination from Tej Singh, an oracle of a snake god is told about her impending sickness and reveals that it is a “spirit illness”.
The people of Himachal Pradesh are generally religious and god-fearing by nature, Malhotra says. The importance of the Himalayas and the force of the natural elements in the state have fostered the evolution of a nature-based faith where every “manifest aspect of earth” is bestowed with supernatural powers. Apart from the snow capped mountain god, the deities immortalized in the “thakardwaras (consecrated temples) and Shivalas (Shiva shrines – the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh is represented by Lord Kinnaur Kailash, the winter abode of Shiva), the people worship numerous village deities, the “deotas”, the “rishi”, the “muni”, the “siddhas”, the “pandava”, the trees, wood fairies, shakti the “naga” and the aboriginal totems. The streams, sprouting seeds and the ripening corn ear is said to carry separate spirits. Animal sacrifice is still practised in some of the shrines of the local deities.
The local faith is interactive and participatory involving the common people, filmmaker Malhotra says.
“They learnt to communicate with the divine millennia ago. The local deities were the governing forces, very animate. They had no technology. They worshipped the sun, the moon and propitiated the earth for the hunter gatherers.” Malhotra says. The filmmaker says the “the history of shamanism – as the way it exists in India can be rooted to the mainstream religions around the world”.
“Our ancestors learnt to read the language and worship animals like snakes, bears, wolves, snakes, elephants and eagles. If one looks at Hinduism today, these animistic gods have evolved and merged with the pantheon to give birth to deities like the elephant god Ganesha and the Naga with definite methodologies for invocation,” Malhotra says.
Shamanism realizes that everything has life at every level of consciousness. “Every aspect of existence including nature is represented by its spirit manifest – even the river Ganga (Ganges) has its own spirit”.
“Each of these spirits has its own appeasement rite. The Ganga ‘aarti’ is one such instance. … Primarily because the 2,525 km river is the lifeline for millions of Indians,” Malhotra says.
In the Himalayan region, where the civilisations were nomadic for longer periods in history because of the tough and inhospitable terrain, the shamans or the ethno-spiritual mediums instilled anchors among the herdsman and itinerant cultivator-villagers about the safety of their survival amid wilderness.
Malhotra says in Himachal Pradesh, the shamanistic traditions have sustained because the state has been cut off from civilizations. “They flourish in traditional societies. They are called to divine in villages that have their own mascot devi-devta (deities),” the filmmaker says.
The problems and the solutions that the “shamans” broker with their gods and goddesses range from the mundane to the esoteric – like a daughter’s wedding (a major filial engagement in India) to business interest, career guidance to more esoteric subjects about state of minds, apple blossoms and mercurial climate.
The spectacle of trance is colourful and the shots are riveting.
In the male-dominated world of shamans, Malhotra meets Tuli Devi, the lone woman shaman in the Kullu Valley who is an actor, an oracle, an exorcist, a healer and a counselor. She represents and invokes the divine feminine.
At the end of her journey into the world of shamans, Malhotra captures a festival ‘dusshera’, when all the “devi-devta” – local deities- are taken out in processions in ornate palanquins with their “shamans”.
“Over the years, the tradition of shamanism in the Himalayas has become more of a socio-cultural phenomenon. The social networks of the gods are very strong and powerful. They have a social support network. Ours is a civilisation of shamanistic concepts,” Malhotra says.
The filmmaker has opened a discussion on the traditional cultural beliefs in India built around her documentary on the social networking media.