Tuesday 18 December 2018

The Secret Life of the Shamans in Dzongu

My homestay in Lingthem, Dzongu
I arrived one late evening in Dzongu at my homestay. I had travelled from Gangtok where it was cold and I had assumed it would be much colder in Dzongu, so I had worn thermals. But to my surprise, as soon as I landed at my home stay I had to go excuse myself and take off the thermals.
"It’s pretty warm here. Doesn’t it get cold?” I asked my host. “Well, it does get cold when it rains. Now that there is a wedding in the village, the Shaman has requested the Rain spirits to hold on until after the wedding”, she replied casually. And this answer did not raise my eyebrows either. I was here to meet the Shamans, the bearers of the Nature worship rituals of the Lepchas.
It may have been around three years ago that I had read somewhere that the Lepchas, the indigenous tribe of Sikkim, still worship Nature and have maintained their Nature worship rituals, and that is what sparked a thirst and eagerness to meet them and know about these rituals.

Shamans are the spiritual leaders in Animist communities. And before the existence of organized religions, I guess we were all animists. Shamans have the ability to enter altered states of consciousness and communicate with everything around-trees, animals, and spirits of both humans and non-humans. It was in the 1970’s that Buddhism spread to Dzongu, the reservation for the Lepchas, a closed community which had fended off external influences until a few decades ago, and though most of the Lepchas in Dzongu are Buddhists (of the Ningmappa set of Buddhism), they still maintain their animist traditions. So, even though there are Shamans in Dzongu who are Buddhists, they practice their Nature worship rituals.

I thought this was remarkable as well as important considering how unique traditions have been obliterated in the wake of organized religion.
The Lepchas have a total of 108 clans and each clan has a Shaman. So, if there is a birth, death, wedding, house warming ceremony, or the family ‘puja’, the Shaman of one’s clan is called to perform the rituals. But since the young generation has adopted a more general way of life and many people have moved out of Dzongu,  the Shamans of other clans are called, too, these days for rituals. The dominant clan in Lingthem village, where my home-stay was, is Chortholing Puso. However, my host belongs to the clan called Ateam Pocho on his father’s side, but lives in his Mother’s village-Lingthem.
Kachyo Lepcha, my host, who teaches Lepcha culture at Sikkim University
The Shaman is called ‘Bomthing’ in the Lepcha language. Currently there are two Bomthings in Dzongu. One is elderly around 80 yrs of age and the other in his 50’s. When I had contacted my host, Kachyo Lepcha, I had told him that I would like to meet the Shamans and he said that he will arrange for it. But when I landed in Lingthem at his home-stay, I got to know from his wife Premit that Kachyo lives in Gangtok, where he teaches Lepcha culture at the Sikkim Univesity and visits Lingthem only on weekends. So I had to wait till the weekend to meet Kachyo who would then take me to meet the Shamans. That Kachyo was teaching Lepcha culture was like a cherry on the cake for me, because I was eager to know more about this Nature-worshipping community.
On the way to Shaman Netuk's house
On a Sunday, we walked a considerable distance through the stunningly beautiful forest to meet the elderly Shaman, named Netuk, at his house. His son informed that he had gone to the farm. So after drinking some tea which Netuk’s daughter-in-law offered, we walked towards the farm where we hoped to find Netuk. We reached the farm and Kachyo scanned the crops to spot Netuk sitting amidst the green peas crop. We walked towards him and I said ‘Khamri’, the equivalent of ‘Hello’ in Lepcha language. Kachyo explained that I was here to meet him and know more about the Shamans. Now, Netuk is currently 80 yrs and above and his hearing faculties were failing. Although Kachyo explained loudly into his ears the purpose of our visit, he did not hear us correctly and responded with something else. We realized it would be difficult having a conversation this way. I said “Agonee” and “Tokchi” meaning ‘Nice to meet you' and ‘thank you’ and we took leave of him.

You may like my blog post of the Wild vegetables festival
Shaman Netuk
The next day we planned to meet the younger Shaman in his 50’s called Tithi Gyatso Lepcha. It started raining in the morning and it was finally in the early afternoon that it stopped, so we could finally leave. It was 4 pm when we left and Kachyo said it would be a 45 minutes’ walk through the forest to the Shaman’s house. We started walking and were soon in the dense forest. Giant trees, enormous ferns and colossal bamboo groves greeted us. We crossed streams, walked over slippery stones and some slush. Part of me was freaking out. The sun sets early in the east, especially so in the mountains, which means we would have to walk back in the dark over slippery stones and slush, not to mention narrow paths overlooking steep declines. 
The dense forest on the way to Shaman Tithi Gyatso's house

Kachyo is as sure-footed as a mountain goat in his flip-flop!

Beautiful colours of the forest
I noticed that Kachyo was wearing an ordinary flip-flop and didn’t even bother looking down and walking even on narrow paths. He was as sure-footed as the mountain goats, as is the case with all mountain people. I, a city woman, in trekking shoes and trekking pole had to watch each and every step. I wished I had more time to slowly walk through the forest and savor the beauty, but we had to meet the Shaman and return before it was too dark.
Shaman Tithi Gyatso
I silently requested the forest fairies to ensure that it didn’t rain and that we cross the difficult patch through the forest on the way back, before dusk. I couldn’t help noticing that both the Shamans had their homes, befittingly, in the middle of the forest, and the way to each was delightfully green, pristine and overwhelmingly beautiful. In fact, these were paths walked on only by Shaman’s family members or other villagers when they were visiting the Shaman.
View from Shaman Tithi Gyatso's house
Tithi Gyatso welcomed us at the entrance of his home. He could understand Hindi but couldn’t speak the language so it befell on Kachyo to become the translator. I asked him a few questions about his life and this is the gist of it. Tithi Gyatso began having strange dreams at the age of 18, with voices commanding him to go into the forest and look for answers in life. There was an inner calling about his inner power which required to be tapped into. He consulted the then Shaman who confirmed Tithi’s calling to be a Shaman. 
In Lepcha culture, there are no scriptures as such. For rituals, Shamans use their own words and compose their own prayers. But one could take the guidance of an older Shaman if the need arises. Shamans are allowed to marry and have a family. Among Shamans there are those who conduct regular rituals like house-warming, blessing a new born, etc which does not require interacting with supernatural powders or entities.  And there are Shamans who perform death rituals, and rituals involving the cleansing of a person’s aura from other entities, etc, which requires the Shaman to get into an altered state of consciousness. Tithi Gyatso performs all kinds of rituals including the death ritual in which the Shaman guides the spirit to the base of the Kachenjunga.
The Kachenjunga peak.

The Lepcha culture is full of stories that shows how their lives are intricately intertwined with Nature. Firstly, they believe that they were moulded out of the snow of the Kanchenjunga Mountain. In fact, the original name of Sikkim is ‘Mayal Lyang’ which means secret paradise. That paradise, the Lepchas believe still exists at the base of the Kachenjunga. For that reason, the Kanchenjunga is very sacred to the Lepchas and a cloudless and clear sighting of the mountain peak in the morning is considered auspicious. I saw many Lepchas stopping on their paths and bowing to the peak on a clear day. Even today, when a person dies, the Shaman guides the souls to the ‘Mayal Lyang’.
Shaman Netuk performing a ritual. Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

The offering of flowers, fruit and chi to the Nature spirits.Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

The altar and the ritual. Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

Even their wedding rituals abound with analogies to Nature. The Shaman blesses the bride and groom with the benediction that their marriage may be as long as the rivers Teesta and Rangeet have been flowing.
Offering of the chi with butter to the nature spirits. Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

Village people partaking of the chi after the ritual.Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

The onset of seasons is also heralded by birds which are believed to fly out from the base of the Kanchenjunga, where the secret paradise lies, to inform people about seasonal and weather changes. The racket tailed drongo, especially, is considered very important in Lepcha culture. The detached ‘racket’ feather of the bird, if found, is considered very lucky and is used as adornment on men’s traditional hats.
Traditional attire of the Lepcha man with the 'racket' feather of the racket tailed drongo on the hat

I saw a documentary of Shaman Netuk where he leads a group of people to the upper reaches of Dzongu. Before crossing a river or a stream or a sacred grove, the Shaman makes an offering of flowers, fruit and the local brew ‘chi’ to the spirits of the forest and seeks their permission to enter.
The ‘chi’, the local beer brewed from millet is very integral to all Lepchas activities. They themselves drink copious amounts of Chi and also offer it to the Gods and spirits on every occasion, be it weddings, funerals, house-warming or just casual get-togethers. Another important ritual that happens annually is the propitiation of the Kanchenjunga. This happens sometime in January. An altar is created facing the scared mountain, with wood and flowers and an offering of fruit, meat, eggs and chi is made. The Shaman leads the ritual by asking the Kanchenjunga to protect her children from all calamities and ensure a good harvest. At the end of the ritual, the Shaman breaks open 3 eggs and reads the pattern it forms to predict what lies in store for the Lepchas.
Fortune telling by breaking the eggs. Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

What do the eggs say?Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

At Shaman Tithi Gyatso’s home before taking his leave, I asked him to give me a message without the rituals, because we didn’t have time for that. He said that I should avoid travelling for the next 2-3 months as I may fall ill. That could have been true because I was inflicted with a recurring throat infection around the same time. I thanked him for his message and we started our way back to the home-stay across the same slippery rocks, streams and enchanted groves. The Nature fairies had heard my prayer. We arrived just as the sky was swallowing the last remnants of light.
In a place where Shamans and Nature reign supreme, could it have been any other way?
The sunrise on the morning I left

The dramatic sky
In ancient Lepcha communities, owing to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, cut off from urban civilization, where the sustenance was entirely on forests, Shamans would have had a greater role to play, I am guessing. But I am happy, I could meet the Shamans of Dzongu and gather information on Nature worship rituals and gain an insight into their way of life.

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very informative and interesting piece. Thanks for sharing Priya.

  3. Throughly enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you for sharing your experience and enlightening us .

  4. I enjoy while reading your blog and nice write up

  5. I love your blogs. This is among my favs. Keep on writing.

  6. Such a beautiful account!!! Thanks a lot for sharing :)

  7. Very informative, thank you! Not much documentation is available about the shamanic traditions of India...

    1. Yes Yashodhara. Not much information is available about Shamans. Glad you liked it. Thank you. :-)

  8. how lovely Priya!
    Its so fortunate...last night my old old shaman friend dropped in out of now where and we sat recounting our old friendship till morning. Today I get to read your lovely account. I come from a line of Shamans ordinarily called Bhagats in Gujarat and spent years n years grappling with how to balance my gifts. I clearly miss nature and my tribe. I hope to find my way to them and be at peace. Your writing n her visit has brought much clarity. Can I ask you to please share your hosts contacts. I am visiting them in January.

    1. I am so sorry, I am reading this only now. It's lovely to hear that you come from a lineage of Shamans. If there are Shamans practising in your native village, I would love to go and meet them. Have you visited Sikkim or are you planning to? You may contact Kachyo Lepcha on 9800074211.


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