Culture & TraditionIssue 2

Shamans of Nepal

Shamanism exists in different variations worldwide, but shares common beliefs that spirits exist (good or evil) and that they can communicate with the spirits. They can usually also cure sickness caused by evil spirits and induce trance-like states to incite a visionary ecstasy. They can sometimes also tell the future.

In Nepal, shamanism is the traditional religion of many ethnic groups in the eastern and western hills. Hinduism and Buddhism have been greatly influenced by shamanistic traditions. Called jhankris or dhamis, Nepali shamans wear a peacock feather headdress and carry a double-sided drum. They have been defined by some as magico-religious specialists, part herbalists, part priests whose technique is spiritual rather than biological and whose business is to determine the nature of the spirit, and then either to placate it or drive it from the ill person’s body. As healers, they examine animal entrails for signs, collect medicinal plants, perform sacrifices, exorcize demons, and chant magical incantations. Most jhankris prescribe medicinal herbs, about which they are very knowledgeable. As soothsayers, they go into trances and act as spokesmen of the gods, while, as spiritual sentries, they ward off evil spirits and angry ancestors through either greater strength or trickery. They also officiate during funerals, hand out amulets and promulgate myths.

A shaman can be either a kul-dhami or just a dhami-jhankri. The former are believed to be more quickly possessed by the lineage deities while similar possession of dhami-jhankris involves much drumming and the gradual entering of spirits into their bodies. A typical dhami-jhankri’s paraphernalia consists of a drum (dhyangro), bells around the waist, long necklaces (mala) of rudracche and ritho seeds around the neck and shoulders, a special headdress, and a jama (a long white skirt like garment). The main spirit of the dhami-jhankris is the ban-jhankri (a spirit inhabiting the nearby forest). Jhankris are also said to counteract the power of witches.

While it is true that dhami-jhankris are regarded with more respect in rural areas, it is also true that even city like Kathmandu has its fair number of shamans. Even with its numerous hospitals, there are many people even in the capital city who prefer to have their ailments treated by shamans or jyoitishis rather than by qualified doctors. While jyotishis (astrologers) are different from shamans, they too claim to deal with common ailments. A Brahmin priest in the Bhairav Nath temple in Lagankhel says, “If it’s a small matter, I can take care of it through some jhar-phuk; but if it’s a complicated case, then one should go to Baglamukhi temple in Patan where one will find a shaman.” One can well imagine, what must be the situation regarding this issue in the villages of the country. As Adrian Storrs says in his book Jhankris, “From time immemorial, jhankris have given medical care to the rural people, Much of the jhankris’ success is due to the fact that they are well known, respected and accepted, especially as intermediaries between man and spirits. Furthermore, the jhankris will go to patients at any time and treat them in their homes.” In Nepal, shamans or jhankris can be of any caste; more of them, however, are found to be of Tamang, Gurung, Chhetri or Sherpa ethnicity or caste.

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