Calling experience, tutelary spirit, and family history of a Tamang shamaness in Nepal

© 2011 D. Eigner

2011 – № 2 (2)

Key words: narratives, shamans, healers, shaman calling, power transmission, Central Nepal, Catmandu Valley, Tamangs

Abstract: The article represents the interviews of healer shamaness, whose apprentice the author of the article was, recorded during the field studies in the Central Nepal. That permitted to get original and interesting narratives about the pecularities of becoming shaman and of the shaman healing methods.

On my first trip to Nepal in 1984 I got to know a Tamang woman in a village a few miles outside of Kathmandu where she is still working as a highly frequented healer. Buddhi Maya presented herself as a strong woman with an open mind willing to pass on her knowledge and also offered to give some guidance to me, if I wanted to learn the shamanic ways of healing. In the following years I spent about twenty months with her, attending her rituals, discussing the possible meanings of recitations, actions, and objects.

The Tamang constitute one of the largest ethnic minorities in Nepal, originally coming from southern Tibet and speaking a Tibeto-Birman language. Today they live primarily in the mountains east and west of Kathmandu Valley and in the Valley itself (Bista, 1967, p. 52ff). In the multi-ethnic areas of Central Nepal many of the Tamang shamans’ clients belong to other ethnic groups. A healer is usually chosen because of the reputation that he or she enjoys and not because of a specific cultural background. The language spoken in such inter-ethnic consultations is Nepali, which is similar to Hindi and lingua franca in Nepal.

Buddhi Maya has grown up in a mountain village east of Kathmandu Valley. Later on she went to the city, married a soldier, and went around with him staying in different places. A few years before I first met her, she had moved to Tusal, an area with scattered houses about one kilometre away from a famous Buddhist pilgrimage place. Tamang are Buddhists, but today they are influenced a lot by Hinduism. They are also known for the many shamans (Tamang: bombo) among them. Although in Kathmandu Valley modern biomedical service is available, shamans still play an important role in the health care system. Especially in cases of mental disturbances or psychosocial problems shamans are consulted, because there are only few psychiatrists practicing in Nepal (Eigner, 2001). Occasionally shamans are even called into hospitals to do additional treatments for some of the patients there.

One of Buddhi Maya’s rich clients had given her a plot of land to build a little house. During the years of my apprenticeship the house grew more and more. The shamaness is the second wife of her husband and has no children. She took her husband’s daughter and later also the son-in-law into her house. Due to the great number of patients who come to see her every day she is quite well off and is not dependant on any other sources of income. She never asks for anything, but clients give what they can afford or what they think is appropriate. Usually the payment consists of some rice and small amounts of money.

A narrative

Buddhi Maya and I often talked about the way she grew up, her marital life, and how she became a shamaness in her mid thirties. After fourteen months of suffering the spirit of her deceased father, who had been a well-known shaman during his lifetime, came over her and spoke through her mouth revealing his identity. In her narrative Buddhi Maya mentions the astonishment of the people in her social network that her father’s spirit has come to his daughter and not to one of his sons, because most Tamang healers are men. On other occasions she explained that ancestor spirits would choose someone to continue their work because of the life-style and intentions of that person. Even though Höfer (Höfer, 1974, p. 168) states that the bombo is always a man I have met several Tamang women who are powerful bombo during my three and a half years of fieldwork in Nepal.

The spirit of Buddhi Maya’s deceased father became her most important teacher and along with him his tutelary deities come upon her to advise her how to perform the healing rituals. She emphasized repeatedly that it is not herself who effects the cures, but the spiritual powers that she is in contact with during the healing sessions. Rituals start with long invocation songs, inviting her ancestor spirit and a number of deities.

The following narrative is about Buddhi Maya’s childhood, her family, and the time when the spirit of her father started to speak through her. In other conversations she talked more about the fourteen months of suffering prior to the first revelation of her father’s spirit (Eigner, 1998). Neither doctors nor shamans were able to find the cause of Buddhi Maya’s ailments. In the narrative shivers and trembles are mentioned as indication of the influence of benevolent spiritual forces.

Buddhi Maya also talks about ‘staying in a cave’, an experience that is said to give knowledge and power to deal with illness-causing spirits. The ‘cave’ (Nepali: gupha) usually is a structure made of rice straw, perched atop four tall stilts, used to store grain (Peters, 1998). In Buddhi Maya’s case a tent that was lent by army men, colleagues of her husband, provided shelter for her retreat. The tent was put up at a cremation ground near her home of that time, and the boundaries mentioned were made by ashes, considered to be a ritually pure substance. Exposing herself to the world of spirits gave her the skills and the power needed for her work as a healer. Swallowing burning wicks was one of the tests she had to pass to show that she had gained a bombo’s knowledge. She says that imagination (Nepali: kalpana) leads her to unexplored realms. The ‘soul journey’ is considered to be the minimal necessary element in the definition of the ‘shaman’ by Eliade (Eliade, 1964, p. 5): „The shaman specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld.“ Buddhi Maya explains that her soul (Nepali: hangsa) does not leave her body, but that the union with her father’s spirit and tutelary divinities enable her to gain knowledge about distant places and the people who live there or come from there.

„I am a person coming from the mountains. I don’t recognise a single letter, I am illiterate. During my childhood days I used to cut grass for the animals and graze goats. How would I know anything? In the hills it is not customary to send girls to school. Sons are sent to school to get education, but daughters are thought to be born only for domestic chores. I don’t know anything, I don’t know how deities come over me, but I have got the power to invoke them. Let’s talk about it from the very beginning.

When deities came over me for the first time, my older and younger brothers were with me. It was natural for them to visit me when I was suffering from shivers and trembles for fourteen months. Deities came over me because my father’s spirit had ascended on me. My brothers had a preconceived notion that their father’s spirit would not come over the body of his daughter who had been given away in marriage. There was a long argument among all the people present. Some of them were of the opinion that deities could ascend on me, but others said that no deities could come on me. When this argument was going on, my father’s spirit began to make a confession through me and related the events since the day of my father’s death. He died in the hills, and I didn’t know anything about how and exactly when he died, because I had not been there. The spirit started to confess through me without hesitation that he had died on Wednesday at four o’clock in the afternoon, so and so brought the shroud for him and so and so went to fetch the Lamas. The number and the names of the Lamas were also revealed by the spirit. All the people present marvelled to hear the details recounted correctly as if I had seen everything concerning my father’s passing away with my own eyes. They discussed this among themselves and said that the spirit of our father might really have come on me after all. They decided to confirm it by asking me again. And again the spirit told everything exactly in the same manner. He told them who he was and which of his belongings were given to which persons. He even told them which of his things were with his disciples now. My father had many disciples. When everything was revealed correctly and in detail like that, my brothers had to believe me. And eventually they asked the spirit to ascend on the bodies of his sons also, at least once, if he was really and truly him. I was trembling all the while. Suddenly I stopped trembling and my second youngest brother began to tremble. Then they asked the spirit to move over to the youngest brother. Immediately after they had asked the spirit, the youngest brother started to shiver and tremble. There was also a man, who knew the shaman’s work well. When he saw that the spirit had caught my youngest brother, he asked the spirit to move over to all the brothers. As soon as he had said that, all my brothers began to tremble. Speaking through my brothers the spirit asked the shaman whether he recognized him, and confessed that he was truly my father. Then my brothers stopped trembling and I began to tremble and shake. My father asked again everybody present whether they recognized him or not. This confession left no doubt in my brothers and they fully believed that the spirit was truly my father’s. The spirit told my brothers through me to bring his belongings that were in the attic of the house. Through my mouth he said that if they failed to bring the things to me by a specific date, he would curse them. My second youngest brother gave his word to father and went home immediately, collected all the ritual objects used by my father and brought them over to me on the fifteenth of the month of Saun. Then the spirit said that he would stay in a cave. I was trembling all the while and looked quite emaciated. And he said that he would stay in a cave on the cremation ground. How could I stay there? But the spirit insisted on it. I needed a turban and a long white garment exactly of the kind worn by shamans. The dress I had worn the other day was the same first one.

To be mature and to be experienced you have to stay on the cremation ground and play with the ghosts. That is the only job you have to do when you stay there. After you have done that, you can accomplish anything. A shaman, who has stayed in a cave and returned after performing the rituals, can cure illnesses, drive away evil spirits that have caused the illnesses by blowing magical formulae over the persons, and recognize deities immediately. For example, a shaman will know at once if the goddess Manakamana has taken possession of the body of a patient and that he or she will get better by propitiating the goddess with an offering ritual. The diagnosis is quick. That’s why we should go to a cave and stay there. I had nothing else to do but play with the ghosts for three days and three nights.

When you stay on a cremation ground, you must not come out of the boundary line you draw for that purpose. Only fruits are to be eaten. One should not go out of the boundary line and stroll around. If one is not serious about it, nothing happens – even if he cleans the cremation ground well and sleeps there. Nothing happens unless you have the knowledge to rouse and move the spirits. The shaman has to start playing with the spirits when they taunt and tease him. They can be seen coming toward us with the palms of their hands spread out as if asking for something. To other persons they can be shown in flashes. They can be shown even to people who don’t know anything about the shaman’s work. When we, the knowledgeable shamans, go to spend the night on the cremation ground, we go there and meditate properly. That’s why we are able to play with the spirits fully.

I swallowed a burning wick for the first time when I was staying overnight on a cremation ground. It was there that the deities manifested themselves very clearly and the spirit of my dead father appeared in front of me. There were crowds of people present to cross-question me what was right and what was not. Gods and ghosts were coming over my body without interruption. I played with the spirits for two days and two nights without an end. Such skills are given to me in abundance. They are given to me in dreams beforehand. The deities themselves taught the holy words to my father.

At night in my dream I see a river flowing, I sit on this side and a teacher sits on my right. The teacher asks me to utter certain holy words, to do this and that, and thus he teaches me everything. I see these things and learn them only in my dreams. I don’t know how to read and write. Whatever I know I have learnt from that teacher in my dreams. For two nights I saw only that man who had a full beard and a moustache and whose hair was spread out. He took my hand and led me to a place. Then he asked me to sit down and taught me holy words, which I am not permitted to repeat here clearly. He taught me by leading me to a river. Although I go to bed and my body is lying on the bed, I feel that I have reached by the river, and there by the river the teacher teaches me. That is the reason why I am skilled enough to play with the spirits.

My imagination reaches at other places. The body remains here, but I reach at far away places. At that time nobody should touch my body. I am full of such flights when I am sitting during the daytime also. And even my husband is not permitted to touch me. Nobody should touch me when I am busy meditating inside an area marked for that purpose. At that time I am fully absorbed in my plays and talks with the spirits. I am right now sitting here and you see me as a shaman sitting just in front of you. But I may be playing outside at the same time. Exactly as in everyday life I see a spirit dancing outside. It’s not that I see him because I am asleep. I go on beating my drum inside, but he calls me outside. He goes on calling me and asking me questions like who I am, where I come from and how I am. He can be seen quite vividly. I tell you the truth that he appears in front of me in perfect shape. It’s not that I am asleep, nothing of that sort. How can I be asleep when I am trembling like that? Sometimes I see him with vermilion powder on the parting of his hair and letting the hair fall downward just like that. At other moments I see him coming toward me expressing approval and appreciation with a gesture of his hand. Nobody else can see him. I am the only person to see him. When this continues, he teaches everything to me and reveals his identity.

Now I am fully mature. I have completed my staying in a cave. I have already eaten the burning wick and completed playing with the spirits, and thus I am now fully trained in the art of shamanic performance. You people know how to read and write. You are educated. Aren’t you? Now you will immediately recognize what somebody writes to you in a letter and what message it contains. You can repeat orally what you have read in your books. Exactly the same thing is with us, the shamans. Now the bombo’s knowledge is in us; it has penetrated us completely. If it were not like that, the spirits would come over us only at some moments, leaving us alone at other times. Now I have learnt the art fully well. Deities have already made me experienced asking me to do a thing like this and another thing like that. I do things according to their directions when they are on me, and by the time they leave me the things are already accomplished. I have learnt day by day slowly and gradually. Now I have got the required skills. It was only when I was a novice that I went outside in my imagination; now everything comes rushing toward me.“

A dinner conversation

During the course of a dinner that I organized in a friend’s house in Kathmandu Buddhi Maya’s life history was related in a different context. The Tamang boy working in my friend’s house was asked to help with the preparations and discuss with Buddhi Maya what kinds of food would be suitable for her. Not only personal likings but also shamans’ food restrictions had to be considered. In some of our conversations Buddhi Maya told me that stinging nettles, pork, and food that has been tasted by someone else and is therefore considered to be impure, have a bad effect on her (Eigner, 2009). In Central Nepal it is believed that witches can transmit illness-causing forces through food (Stone, 1977; Wiemann-Michaels, 1994). Shamans are said to be their counterparts, using similar knowledge and power for the good of people, and are therefore especially exposed to the witches’ attacks. Out of that reason Buddhi Maya avoids to eat outside her own house and the little dinner party was one of the rare exceptions she made.

In the relaxed atmosphere of that evening we talked about personal issues, life histories, and Buddhi Maya’s father, the famous shaman. The comments of her husband showed his attitudes and perceptions and also gave some insight into his relationship with his wife. He had left the army a few months before the dinner party with the rank of a jamadar, a non-commissioned officer. Khagendra who also participated in the conversation worked as a research assistant for me at that time. He called the shamaness ‘older sister’ (Nepali: didi) which is a respectful and affectionate kind of address.

Host: Where did your husband and you meet each other?

Bombo: We met each other here in Kathmandu.

Husband: I was in the military service. I met her naturally during my walks around the city.

Bombo: I worked in a Rana palace at that time.

Khagendra: In which palace were you, older sister?

Bombo: First I was in Laldarbar, the Red Palace. When I left the palace, my father came to take me back to the mountain village. But I returned here, because once used to living here in the city I realized that I couldn’t adjust myself in the village.

Khagendra: Did you get employed in the Rana palace as a child or did you go to the palace later?

Husband: No, she was quite grown up.

Bombo: I came to the city when I was eighteen.

Khagendra: Oh, I see! Jamadar Saheb must have fixed his eyes on you since then. How many years did you stay in Laldarbar?

Bombo: My father came to take me back when I had stayed there for three years. I returned to stay there, but again he came to take me back.

Husband: She had to undergo a lot of adventurous incidents. There was a woman who happened to be her aunt by distant relation. That woman took all her precious ornaments and dresses, bluffing her that her father had come to take her back to the village. In the Rana palace her salary was just five rupees a month, but a lot of dresses, blouses, and ornaments were given to her quite often as presents.

Bombo: When I was staying in the Rana palace I had fifteen or sixteen blouses and saris. My aunt was also employed there, and she brought me out of the palace.

Husband: Without her knowledge her aunt had arranged to get her married to an old servant man in the government. That woman had plotted to grab all her dresses and stuffs herself, get her married and send her away. And the landlady ….

Khagendra: Which landlady?

Husband: That aunt’s landlady.

Bombo: The aunt has her own house. The woman you are talking about is her neighbour

Husband: The aunt’s neighbour revealed the secret intention of the aunt who wanted to get her married to an old man. The neighbour made her aware of the fact that life would certainly be hard with an old man like that. But she couldn’t return to the Rana palace all by herself.

Bombo: I didn’t know my way around at that time.

Husband: As soon as she arrived from the mountain village, she was taken to the Rana palace and she didn’t know much about the streets as she didn’t have opportunity to go out. The neighbour warned her of the secret intention of her aunt and advised her to run away. So she ran away from the aunt at night and with much difficulty, feeling the walls with her hands, she was at last successful to reach Laldarbar.

Bombo: Later on, when I went to the mountain village, somebody else was employed in my place in the Rana palace.

Husband: She filed a case against that woman asking the court to get her ornaments back. She was really serious about it. That woman had plotted to give my wife to an old man and make it appear as if my wife had eloped with him, so that she (the aunt) could grab all her ornaments and dresses.

Bombo: But I found out in time and ran away from her. Then I went to the mountains and when I returned, I got a job in the Cottage Industry Department located in Thapathali.

Khagendra: After you had returned the second time?

Bombo: That’s right.

Husband: I have never seen her father.

Bombo: I worked in the wool section of the Cottage Industry Department in Thapathali.

Husband: The Department is not located in Thapathali. It is a little further away from there.

Khagendra: It is in Tripureshwar.

Husband: She says that she used to get four rupees for washing wool from four o’clock in the morning.

Bombo: Our monthly salary was eighty to ninety rupees. The amount was sufficient to pay the room rent and buy some food.

Husband: She has tried many hard jobs and suffered much. When the Soaltee Hotel was being constructed, she went to carry water, filling the jars from the tap and give the labourers to drink.

Khagendra: I see.

Bombo: I had a group of friends there sharing the same fate.

Husband: How much would she get there at that time? Maybe about five to ten rupees a day.

Khagendra: That means Jamadar Saheb had seen you pretty early.

Dagmar: Had you seen her carrying water in the Soaltee Hotel?

Husband: I had seen her earlier than that, when she went to the mountains. She had gone near our village.

Bombo: I was with a friend. I went to his village with my friend.

Husband: They had started to go that direction on a Friday. I was a Friday army-man. Naturally I met them and we walked along together flirting and jesting happily.

Khagendra: By ‘Friday army-man’ do you mean that you went out shopping on Fridays?

Husband: No, I was free on Fridays and Saturdays. I used to go home in the weekend and come back for my job that began on Sundays.

Host: What did you talk when you met for the first time?

Husband: She was with her friends carrying cauliflower, garlic and stuff like that. I was watching her all along and made joking remarks. We are army-men, you see. We like to behave like that. Her friend asked me to spend the night in their house. But I had to reach home and return the next day to arrive here by late evening. So I left them. And you know the life of a military man. From Sunday on I had to do one-two and left-right. My companion at that time was one of her cousins by distant relation.

Khagendra: You mean when you were going together with her and her friends? Right?

Husband: Yes, that’s right. My companion was from her parents’ side of the family. Therefore he didn’t flirt. But I jested and flirted. I even said to her: „Hey baby! Come on, let’s go to my house!“ But they stayed in the market town there and we went home. Later I came to know that she was seriously ill after she had reached the house of her friend’s aunt. Somebody had caused her to suffer during her menstruation.

Khagendra: You were ill at that time?

Husband: She told that she was almost dead.

Bombo: I don’t know. Perhaps I was troubled by some evil spirit. I was seriously ill at that time.

Host: How old were you then?

Bombo: Maybe I was twenty. When I first came to Kathmandu I was perhaps seventeen or eighteen.

Host: Then you met each other after some years?

Husband: No, it’s not exactly like that. There are many more serious and deeper things in her life, you see. Her father had three or four wives. He kept a Newar woman also as his wife. Her own mother is with us now.

Host: I see.

Husband: It sounds strange, but the old woman ran away with another man. After her mother had eloped she naturally lacked affectionate care and was neglected. And, during the course of his visits to a Newar woman in order to heal her, that woman was made pregnant by her father. Therefore her father had to accept the Newar woman as his wife and take her to his house. Her own (Buddhi Maya’s) mother had kept sugar, flattened rice and other dry food inside a wooden chest for her daughter before she went away with another man.

Bombo: I was a small child at that time.

Husband: She says that she was just nine years old. She used to walk around in a short male tunic.

Host: So you were only nine years old. Did you go with your mother when she eloped with another man?

Bombo: No, I didn’t.

Husband: How could she go with her mother? She was in deep sleep. The old woman went away, picking up a new husband after tying the key of a wooden box in a knot to her daughter’s tunic string.

Khagendra: The mother must have felt pity for her daughter.

Husband: If you ask my sencere view, I feel that this old woman is a criminal. Now my wife has brought her mother here and is giving her food and shelter. She had lived in Ramechap for twenty years. We had to spend twelve or fifteen hundred rupees while bringing the old woman and her husband here. They didn’t have any children. So, we had to bring her here. The husband of the mother is living also.

Khagendra: Is he still living?

Husband: Yes, he is. What should we do with him? We gave that old man food and shelter once for five months and another time fot three months. Then we sent him away. The old man is such that he requires two bottles of alcoholic drink every night. And if he got the drink according to his wish, he talked with us, but if we didn’t provide him with the drink, he was angry and didn’t talk with us. He was suffering from short breath and we thought that the old man would die soon and we sent him back. The old man had been a police sergeant in the past.
Bombo: He gets an old age pension also.

Husband: Now I know that their whole life was spent by drinking. He looked as if he would die soon when we had brought him here. We wanted the mother to be here with us and there was no reason to give him food and shelter. That’s why we sent the old man back with expenses and some other gifts. The old man went away saying that if he didn’t die he would come to see my wife in the coming Dasain Festival. I am really in a strange situation whether to see his well being there or here.

Bombo: What should you see? The one who has to see his wellbeing is me and not you.

Husband: Suppose he dies tomorrow. Won’t that be a nuisance? Why are you talking like this?

Bombo: I tell you that I will carry his body myself if he dies.

Husband: To leave her child all alone and run away in the middle of the night! This old woman is a criminal! And she cried calling her mother several times, the old woman heard her cry like that in the field where she had reached. Then she hesitated and was in a fix for some moments before she continued running away.
Bombo: Did you see it all?

Husband: We felt pity for the old woman, and out of sheer humanitarian reasons we brought her here to stay with us. She doesn’t have a house of her own to live in, no property, nothing. Her husband’s condition is wretched. That’s why we brought her mother here.

Khagendra: How many wives did your father have?

Bombo: My father? My father’s first wife is still alive.

Host: The first wife of your father is still living?

Husband: Yes, she is.

Bombo: Yes, she still lives, but he has never seen her. Whatever he says is a shot in the dark. He has guessed everything listening to me from time to time.

Husband: I have never gone to her childhood village.

Bombo: I have a brother. My oldest stepmother is in Chitwan, in the south.

Khagendra: And the second one?

Bombo: The second one is my own mother. The third one is my youngest aunt, my mother’s younger sister.

Khagendra: I see.

Host: Is she your mother’s own younger sister?

Bombo: Yes, she is her own younger sister. She has a daughter.

Host: Did your father bring her after your mother eloped with another man or before that?

Bombo: Before that.

Khagendra: Your father was a Casanova!

Bombo: What to talk of my father? If a man in the mountains is well off he will naturally behave like that. He was a village official having powers to arrest offenders and try petty cases.

Husband: He was popular with women because he had to go from place to place healing people.

Host: How could he feed so many wives at that time?

Bombo: We have a lot of land in the mountains, and my father was regarded in high esteem.

Dagmar: What is the village called?

Bombo: Melung.

Dagmar: Melung? I see. And was his government job also there?

Bombo: The government offices were all there in the past. Now they have been moved to Carikot, but all the offices were located in Melung in the past. There is also a big parade ground and tall trees all around the ground. Now there is a high school. My parental home is really very beautiful.

Khagendra: Is the third wife at home now?

Bombo: No, she isn’t. She went away with another man. My father had another woman before all this. He had come to Kathmandu to be employed in government service.

Khagendra: In which department was he employed?

Bombo: I don’t really know, they said third company or fourth company.

Host: Was he a soldier in the army?

Bombo: Yes, he was a soldier, but he was not used to hard labour. After one year he left the job in the army and returned home. There is a village known as Nanglebare from where he picked up a girl and went home with her. It was after my oldest stepmother was wedded to him, but before he married my mother.

Host: Why did girls run after your father? Was he quite handsome or what?

Bombo: My father was as tall as you. He was quite handsome and smart looking. I am the only unattractive. My father was extremely attractive, and naturally girls ran after him.

Husband: You see sir, that girl went with him because he had cast a spell on her. He really did that.

Bombo: No, he didn’t do that. He took the girl from Nanglebare and had a daughter from her.

Khagendra: Is the daughter still living?

Bombo: Yes, she is still living. One has to labour hard in the mountains but she has always been quite lazy.

Khagendra: What ethnic group does she belong to?

Bombo: She is a Tamang, too, belonging to our own ethnic group.

Khagendra: Then she was the second wife of your father, wasn’t she?

Bombo: That’s right, she is his second wife. — Why are you using the telephone so much? It is obviously because you are getting the opportunity to use the phone here.

Host: It’s quite all right. He must invite people during the Dasain Festival.

Bombo: And when my grandmother saw him with her she rebuked him for bringing a girl of an unknown group and of dubious character. She scolded him harshly and didn’t allow him to take her inside the house. He was obliged to keep her in a cowshed and later he took her back to Nanglebare and left her there. My father didn’t like his first wife. So, he married my mother with her parents’ consent. After my mother had given birth to two or three children, he brought another wife. This time she happened to be his youngest sister-in-law.

Host: And he brought a Newar woman above all those wives, right?

Bombo: It didn’t look nice to keep both the sisters together and my grandfather and other senior persons separated them. My aunt was given away in marriage to another man. It was after that incident that my father brought the Newar woman as his next wife when he was going from place to place as a shaman.

Khagendra: Is she at home now?

Bombo: Yes, she is. She has given birth to two of my stepbrothers.

Host: He had five wives altogether, right?

Bombo: That’s right.

Husband: We will invite my younger brother-in-law during the Dasain Festival. He lives near here.

Host: Sure, please do invite him.

Bombo: It’s all right if we invited him tomorrow.

Host: Did your stepmother look after you well when you were a child or not? Stepmothers are universally known to neglect their stepchildren. Most of them are cruel to the stepchildren.

Bombo: Although they tried to treat me cruelly, my father didn’t allow them to say bad things to me or treat me in a cruel manner.

Host: I see.

Bombo: My father said that all children are the same. He loved me most of his children. This was because my mother had left me. We children didn’t have to work hard at home. We were sent to graze the goats only. All the jobs of cultivating the fields were done by hired labourers. I was my father’s favourite child because I was left by my mother when I was very young.

Bombo: All those spirits my father used to play with when he was alive come to me now also and help me with my work. At the moment I am exactly like you, but when I sit on my seat and start doing a healing ritual all the gods and goddesses come on me.

Khagendra: But your father’s spirit ascends on you before all those, right?

Bombo: That’s right. My father comes to me first of all. Only when his spirit is on me I know everything, at other moments I know nothing at all.

Host: At the shore of Lake Gosainkund there is a temple for the god Mahadev. Shamans go to that place on a special day to worship Mahadev. Right?

Bombo: Yes, we see the image of Mahadev at that time. Those who have stayed in a cave for meditation and have learnt to master the spirits go to visit the Mahadev temple at Gosainkund.

Host: Why do you also go the Kumbheshwar temple (in the Kathmandu Valley)?

Bombo: Kumbheshwar is also Mahadev. After the visit to Gosainkund we must go to Kumbheshwar.

Host: Why?

Bombo: There is a saying that the water of Gosainkund flows down to reach Kumbheshwar. Coming back from Gosainkund we have to offer water to the image at the Kumbheshwar temple. Ordinary people take a bath in the Kumbheshwar pond, but we shamans go inside the temple compound and perform a ritual. All gods and goddesses and ancestor spirits come and ascend us. Those who are still not fully trained as shamans and are inexperienced can get in contact with the deities there and gain more power.

Host: What do you feel when you reach there?

Bombo: I feel delighted and I feel very light all over. Gods and goddesses ascend on me in a full swing.

Host: What do you mean by feeling light? Is it like flying?

Bombo: Yes, I feel extremely light. After I reach there I feel something totally different all over me. I don’t even feel that I am dancing. Gods and goddesses make me dance like that, I don’t do it because of my own wish. Look at me! I don’t know to dance a single step right now.

Dagmar: What is the meaning of dancing?

Bombo: I feel that they are happy to see us visiting them with due respect. If I had studied fully and learnt history I could tell you the purpose of their causing us to dance.

Husband: She did not get the opportunity of learning about all this from her father. Had she seen her father perform the rituals, she could have learnt much.

Bombo: We girls did not go to see my father work as a shaman. In the mountainous villages women and girls are generally restricted in their movements. They are not permitted to go out freely. If the rituals are performed in the neighbourhood, we can go there for a brief period with friends and relatives, but we cannot go to distant places. Only sons can go wherever they like. Here in the city, of course, girls enjoy more freedom.

Khagendra: Drink some more sherry. It’s just like coca-cola.

Host: It’s not strong. A little stronger than coca-cola, but not like spirit.

Bombo: I have been asking you repeatedly to leave the phone alone. You won’t listen to me. You are really stubborn, aren’t you? — Yes, this is the kind of drink suitable for us.

Host: It is quite light.

Bombo: This drink doesn’t make the throat dry. It is quite suitable.


Bista, D. B. (1967), People of Nepal, Ratna Pustak Bhandar, Kathmandu.
Eigner, D. (1998),  “Der Weg zum schamanischen Bewußtsein: Krise, Reinigung, Hingabe”, Ethnopsychologische Mitteilungen, 7/2, pp. 145-162.
Eigner, D. (2001), Ritual, Drama, Imagination. Schamanische Therapie in Zentralnepal, WUV Universitätsverlag, Wien.

Eigner, D. (2009),Transformation of Consciousness through Suffering” in  Devotion and Meditation, Yogic Perception, Meditation and Altered States of Consciousness, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien, pp. 369-388.

Eliade, M. (1964), Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Pantheon Books, New York.

Hofer, A. (1974), “Is the bombo an Ecstatic? Some ritual techniques of Tamang shamanism”, Contributions to the Anthropology of Nepal, Aris & Phillips Warminster, pp. 168-182.

Peters, L. (1998), Tamang Shamans. An Ethnopsychiatric Study of Ecstasy and Healing in Nepal, Nirala, New Delhi.

Stone, L (1977), Illness, Hierarchy, and Food Symbolism in Hindu Nepal, Ph. D. thesis, Brown University.

Wiemann-Michaels, A. (1994),  Die verhexte Speise. Eine ethnopsychosomatische Studie über das Depressive Syndrom in Nepal, Peter Lang Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften, Frankfurt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *