An Overview of Shamanism in Nepal

Shaman performing a ritual in a Samarthali Village of Nepal ⓒ Monalisa Maharjan

In Nepal, Shamanism was practiced before the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism. Now it is integrated within both of these religions. Depending on the credo of a particular ethnic community, shamanistic rituals have no monolithic shape but the core value of shamanism is consistently upheld. Shamans are commonly known as dhami or jhakri though ethnic communities have various terms assigned for them. Traditionally, shamans act as mediators between the spirit world and the human world. They are healers, soothsayers, advisors, and priests. Shamans are common people who work as farmers or in some other day job, and they just happen to practice shamanism, typically in the evening.

Among many ethnic communities in Nepal, Tamang, a cultural and linguistically distinct community, practices shamanism. They believe spirits in the environment help shamans solve people’s problems. In the Tamangworld, spirits are present as microbes in our environment; this worldview is never written, only maintained by oral culture. Some even say that they learn some mantras in their dreams. It’s also very important to have a master and to learn more mantras from them. In addition to teaching mantras to his disciples, a master also helps shake the body and control trances. The disciple-master relation is important and is seen during rituals.

Tamang shaman rituals are impressive to watch as the shaman also renders a captivating dance performance during the ritual. The attire of white dress and feather headgear he wears helps bind the people’s gaze. He uses a garland of 108 rittha seeds and rudrakshya (seed of Elaeocarpus granitreus). They wear bells arranged like a belt, producing sounds when they shake during the rituals. Along with the attire they also require ritual objects like phurba (three headed dragger), tiger bones, and materials like incense, uncooked rice, and seed of oroxylum indicum tree (which is almost like white petals). Beating a drum made of deerskin is one of the most important ritual objects. By beating and shaking his body, the shaman goes into a trance where he communicate with the spirits and finds the cure or answer for the clients’ problems. After every ritual, the shaman tells the people the solution to their problems, which he finds during the rituals. Many people in remote parts of the country still rely on the shaman for cures where they don’t have medical facilities. But in places that have medical facilities some people still go to shamans if  doctors cannot cure them.

During janai purnima (full moon of August or September), shamans have a special day when they gather at holy sites and perform rituals. It’s also a day to boost power among the other shamans. There was a time when all shamans were men. Today, however, though not too significant a change, a small number of women are also shamans.

This research was funded by Fundação Oriente.