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
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
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
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
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,”
The filmmaker has opened a discussion on the traditional cultural beliefs
in India built around her documentary on the social networking media.