Exotica article


With the explosion of information technology and mobility, the world seems to have lost most of its exotic charm. The onslaught of modernity is wiping out indigenous cultures, and old ways of life are getting homogenized into a bland sameness. Whereas one can argue endlessly in favor of modernity, and many of the arguments are no doubt very persuasive, we should perhaps pause and think and wonder what we have lost or are fast losing. And it is at times like these when living traditions are dying out, that we are in need of a reminder of the value, wisdom and sustainability of their ways. This reminder resonates in Anu Malhotras’ latest documentary film, “Shamans of the Himalayas”. Here she gives us a glimpse into their fascinating world.
I have always sought to capture India’s rich cultural heritage and vibrant living traditions through my films. “The Apa- Tani of Arunachal Pradhesh”, “The Konyak of Nagaland” and “The Maharaja of Jodhpur” remind the viewers of the importance of sustaining and learning from the traditional wisdom of these ancient systems. My latest documentary film, “Shamans of the Himalayas”, comes at a time when the world is once again in urgent need of reassessing its relationship with nature and spirituality.
Every journey is a search, a quest to unravel the self.
This time, I set out for Devbhoomi, the Land of the Gods, to encounter the reality of experience and the collective consciousness of a system of belief, that is unique in its cultural context, but common to all our histories…
Basking in the shadow of the majestic Himalayas, Kullu valley is a pastoral delight. Here people live off the land, mostly in villages and Manali is its only cosmopolitan oasis. The old part of the town is a popular tourist haven, where the aroma of tandoori chicken mingles easily with those of cappuccinos, German pastries and other sweet smells.
But even beneath this urban veneer, ancient myths and legends live strong... I discovered that every village here is home to several Gods and Goddesses (Devta and Devi’s). Some Deities are manifestations of mainstream Hindu Gods, while others are ancient village Deities, entwined in a complex and unique mythology of Devbhoomi.
My quest to document this unique culture was sparked when I had attended a festival celebrating the birthday of Hadimba Devi in May. She is the patron Goddess of Manali, an avatar of the Hindu Goddess Kali and renowned as an omnipotent wish fulfiller. The festival was a riot of color and sounds. Folk dancers performed the Naati, a traditional Himachali dance, local men wore their customary caps signifying their region or village and the women were wrapped in their traditional Pattus, a woolen cloth woven by many at home.
But the cynosure of all eyes was the colourful palanquin of Hadimba Devi. The palanquin was adorned with several masks and carried on poles by four men, and is the Devi's vehicle to move around in. Hadimba Devi, as well as all other Deities of the valley, are considered as living Gods, and not just confined to their temples. These peripatetic Gods participate wholeheartedly in all aspects of village life. And at her festival, Hadimba Devi was enjoying dancing with her people!
I was soaking up the photo opportunity when suddenly I heard a strange conversation and was highly intrigued by what I saw… A heavy-set man with long hair, dressed in a knee length white cloak, was trembling and shaking, while speaking authoritatively in a local language to the crowd… And the people seemed to be listening to every word with rapt attention!
This was my first encounter with Tularam, the Shaman of Hadimba Devi. Tularam was apparently in a trance... and Hadimba Devi was conversing with her people through him!
Gur Tularam / Devi: I am the wind that blows… the fire that burns...
Devotees: You are our mother, Devi. We will do as you wish…
Gur Tularam / Devi: Listen people, I am Goddess Kali, I am Shakti... I help people who are facing difficulties…
The interaction continued for long, and left me spellbound. So, I turned to my local friend and guide, Meru Chand for an explanation. He told me that each village in the valley is home to several Gods and most of these Gods have a Shaman, locally called Gur, who acts as a medium between the mortal and the divine. The Shamans come into a divine possession trance and the Gods talk to the people through them!
The next day, Meru and I made our way to Hadimba Devi’s birthday celebrations that were continuing at the Manu Temple in Old Manali. Unfortunately, it looked like it was going rain. But the ominous weather failed to dampen the celebratory spirit of the gathering crowds.
Hadimba Devi sat resplendent in silks and jewellery in the temple courtyard. But, I was keen to spot Gur Tularam – her Shaman. And when I did, he was dressing up in the Shamans ceremonial robe. The Musicians began drumming a rhythm... I noticed another cloak clad figure. Meru told me, that he is the Gur of Sage Manu, as every Deity has their own Shaman. Together, they began to ritually invoke Hadimba Devi.
The Gurs began to chant mantras while deeply inhaling the traditionally prepared incense of Juniper. The officiating Priest aided them by ringing the Devi’s sacred bell. The drumming picked up tempo, as rhythmic music is critical to induce trance. Tularam plucked a hair, as an oath to the Devi, to pronounce her will correctly. Divine visitation was finally invited by the dropping of the cap and Tularam let loose his hair. The mark of a Gur is his long hair, which is believed to be an aspect of his power. The ceremonial horns were blown…
Suddenly, Tularam began to shiver… and then shake violently. I was amazed as his persona visibly changed before my eyes. He was now in a trance - an altered state of consciousness, which allowed the spirit of the Goddess, to enter his body. Tularam began to speak as the Devi. And the entire congregation listened respectfully and then began interacting with their Devi.
Gur Tularam / Devi: I am very powerful… I can turn day into night and night into day... 
Tularam was absolutely awe-inspiring- transformed into the Devi’s medium. Hadimba Devi addressed the chief concern of the people that day – Would the rain ruin the festival?
Devotees: Oh Devi, please ensure that there will be no rain…
Gur Tularam / Devi: I can see rainfall… but I will withhold it… there will be no rain during my festival…
I asked Meru, if what Tularam had said would come true. Meru corrected me, saying it was not Tularam but the Devi who had spoken. Tularam was just Hadimba Devi’s medium and once her spirit enters him, everything he says is her words.
Hadimba Devi began her yatra back to her temple, which nestles in a beautiful cedar grove in the heart of Manali, in a huge procession led by a huge band of musicians, followed by Gur Tularam and several village folk. Meru and I followed - feeling a mysterious surge of energy! Amazingly, as Tularam had promised, the rain abated and it suddenly became quite sunny!
Hadimba Devi’s palanquin made several stops at village homes, where devotees made offerings to their Devi. I noticed that everyone prayed to the palanquin, as it is considered as a divine personification of the Devi herself. The procession finally reached the festival grounds to a jubilant welcome from a huge crowd. Nine Devis and Devtas, from neighboring villages, had also been invited to Hadimda Devi’s birthday festival, and they arrive accompanied by much fanfare, music and dancing.
 As living Gods, the Devi and Devta’s of the valley are bound by ties of friendship, kinship and social obligation, pretty much in the same manner that local’s are! They often visit each other at festivals, birthdays and sometimes even on whim. The Gods of Kullu have such an active life that their affairs are managed by a Council of village members – a Priest who conducts prayer ceremonies, a manager who oversees all the affairs and the musicians,  who have learnt over generations to play the music to the dance of the divine. Infact, where ever and whenever a Deity travels, one family member of each household is also expected to escort the Deity.
At the festival, I noticed in amazement that palanquins rushed towards each other. Meru explained that the palanquins are energized with the power of the Deity, and they pull the bearer to whichever direction the Deity wants to go to. I watched enthralled as the palanquins ran with unrestrained delight to greet other Deities, showing great excitement by shaking vigorously and tilting towards each other. It was hard to believe, but as I watched closely, it did seem that the palanquins had a mind of their own, seaming to drag the bearers, who carried them with honor and reverence, despite the weight. The sense of prayerful celebration was euphoric…
I realized that the way of life there was emotionally vibrant… and so far removed from my urban existence. It was a different reality which was sustained by a rich mythic belief system, and it formed the collective consciousness of the people there. By actively participating in sacred rituals, people invited inspiration, guidance and blessings of the divine. But I was still curious about Shamans. Were they just ordinary people or did they possess any special powers? And what exactly was their trance? Was it a divine possession or just a performance?
Back in Delhi, I met up with the eminent psychoanalyst and author Dr. Sudhir Kakar, to get his point of view on Shamans.
Sudhir Kakar: Well, the Shamans role is very important one in any community and the most important is to connect it to the sacred. He is also the transmitter of the past and the mythology of the community. He communicates the myths of the community through very effective ways of dramatic performance, which is more effective in communities which are not literate, or even literate communities prefer drama much more because it involves emotions, which impresses the psyche at a subconscious level.
Anu Malhotra: What about divine possession trance?
Sudhir Kakar:  A shaman in divine possession trance is in an altered state of consciousness, where he accesses another personality. Now most of us don’t have personalities in our unconscious, we have various kinds of small bits and pieces. In the Shamans through long practice all those bits and pieces have combined into one personality - the Devi.
So, the Shaman and the psychoanalyst- both represent two diverse world views. Were these two viewpoints incongruent?
I asked Meru to introduce me to other Shamans to further my investigation and returned to Himachal to meet with Gur Hardayal, in Shuru Village. Shuru village is named after Sharvari Devi, a manifestation of Goddess Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva. Sharvari Devi is considered to be an extremely powerful Goddess known for her immense healing powers and benevolence. And Hardayal, her Gur, is a popular oracle and adept at magico-religious practices.
We went to Shuru to witness another fascinating interaction between the mortal and the divine- a popular divination practiced, known as a ‘Pooch’. During a Pooch, devotees directly put forth their requests and queries to their God through the Gur.
Hardayal sat on a designated sacred seat, in the temple compound, and devotees had gathered around him. He ritually invoked Sharvari Devi and people waited expectantly for the divine visitation…. Suddenly, he began trembling and then shaking uncontrollably as he slowly dissolved into a divine possession trance and spoke as the Devi.
Gur Hardayal / Devi: I have always blessed you people… and fulfilled all your wishes…but your faith in me is declining…
Devotees: Devi, we are your children… please be benevolent...
The somber ambience of the pooch now transformed into a vibrant question and answer session with the Devi. One family was there to ask the Devi for the cause of their spell of ill health.
Gur Hardayal / Devi: My children, you have some problems at home…
Man: Please tell us what the problem is, mother? My family keeps falling sick…is it an evil eye?
Gur Hardayal / Devi: It’s not an evil eye…you have committed the following mistakes…
Man: Please forgive us for our mistakes mother!       
I noted that the locals openly discuss all their problems with their Devi. They came to her even with their mundane issues, like causes and cures of illnesses, dates for sowing, harvesting or weddings, et al. Financial troubles or personal problems are all brought to the feet of their Devi for solutions, which were readily offered through Gur Hardayal. I found this ease with which people talk to their Deity very fascinating! It was like a hotline to God! The shaman was only a portal – a facilitator in their cosmic conversations!
The summer months melt into the rains of July and August. I set out to explore several villages in the valley to experience for myself the incredible system of belief. I find that people here are in a dance with the divine everyday of their lives. People conducted their lives according to the will of their Devtas and take the permission of the Deity before undertaking any task.
Besides individual problems, Deities are always consulted for all community issues like the construction of a new temple, asking the Deity for rain or respite from it, auspicious dates to hold festivals, or any other problem. Deities order solutions ranging from appeasing weather Gods, prophesizing future events, or conducting certain magico-religious ceremonies, which are religiously followed.
Infact, I find that village Deities govern the social, cultural, moral and religious life of the village folk in all matters, mundane or grave. Here in lies the importance and relevance of the Shaman. The Gur is most imperative to mediate between the people and the spirit world. And thus for the local community, a Shaman is their only source of their history, their mythology and of course their only link to guidance from the Gods.
And faith is the key. Being born into this belief system and experiencing it on a daily basis through childhood builds a strong bedrock of faith, in the omnipresence of the divine. The Devta here is not a faraway God, but a here and now God - and always on call.
In my explorations, I also discovered that Shamans were adept at curing not just physical ailments, but spiritual as well. And this role of Gurs as Sacred Healers is what I set out to explore next. Meru took me to the village of Bataar, where the presiding Deity, Devta Jamdagni Rishi is renowned for his curative powers.
Suddenly, I heard horrific sounds coming from inside the temple. From the entrance, I saw a young woman screaming. But, I was stopped from entering the temple. Peeking from the window, I watched the mysterious proceedings. A man brought out a clutch of iron chains and put them around the womans neck and instantly she quieted down. The Devta’s Shaman, Gur Rudramani, in divine possession trance spoke to the woman, while she listened quietly.
Gur Rudramani / Devta: You are under a spell of black magic… I have suppressed the spirit for now, using the Devta’s sacred chains… but don’t worry, I will cure you with a holy bath.
The iron chains were removed and the woman was given Holy water to drink, after which she seemed completely fine. This was my first intriguing experience of sacred healing. The lady left, refusing to talk to me, but I was invited inside to watch the rest of the pooch session, where lots of people presented the Devta with their problems.
Man: Devta, my wife has been falling sick often, but the doctors don’t know why…
Gur Rudramani: I can see that someone has cast an evil eye on her. You will have to conduct special prayers and have a sacred thread tied on her.
Gur Rudramani later told me that spirit illness problems were quite common in the Valley. People believed that ill health or misfortunes were, in most instances, the result of an evil eye, black magic or spirit possession and their cures required sacred healing.
Over the next few weeks I traveled around the valley to witness various sacred healing techniques. Besides the more common cures like tying a sacred thread and bathing in holy water, in more extreme situations a Gur may have to conduct an exorcism. Shrouded in mystery and fiercely guarded from the outside world, my filming of an exorcism by Gur Hardayal a few days later was a first in the visual documentation of these secret occult practices, for which I had to seek permission from Sharvari Devi.
A few nights later, Meru and I made our way back to Shuru village. A family, whose members had been possessed by an evil spirit, had gathered in the temple courtyard. The atmosphere was solemn and everyone seemed anxious. Soon, the elaborate process of exorcism began. Hardayal began to ritually invoke his Devi. His cap fell and he went into a divine possession trance. The family began conversing with Sharvari Devi.
Lady: Devi, please have mercy on us…
Gur Hardayal / Devi: Listen family, the problem is from your past…
Gur Hardayal / Devi: but if you do as I say we can solve it now.
Devotees: Ofcourse, we will Devi, you are most powerful!
Now, a sheep was brought to Hardayal and he blessed it, while chanting mantras. Hardayal’s trance began to intensify. I saw his eyes glaze over… His persona seemed to change…  He picked up the clutch of iron chain and began to beat himself… It was a chilling sight – the energy around us became electric.
Meru explained that the Devi was battling with the spirit that afflicted the family… Hardayal took a stem of a sacred plant and waved it around the family and then patted it onto the sheep. Meru explained that the Devi was transferring the evil spirit afflicting the family onto the sheep. Hardayal then picked up the sheep and encircled the family with it. Hardayal then rushed off…  And the sheep was carried out after him to be ritually sacrificed, freeing the family from possession. This was a bizarre experience for me and I wondered how sacred healing worked and was it effective?
That is the question, I ask anthropologist Prof. William Sax, who has spent several years researching Himalayan society and culture.
William Sax: Its like medicine, sometime it works and sometimes it doesn’t. If you ask a psychologist, he might tell you that the family was having some kind of psychological problems. Me, as an anthropologist, would say that there was a disturbance in their social field, and the family relationships were upset, which were unhealthy and causing tension. So the therapy was focused toward the family as a unit and that’s how, I think these rituals work. A few scientific studies have shown that the ritual healing has a rate of success that is comparable with psychotherapy.
Anu Malhotra: I guess it really hinges on faith. At the end of the day, If you have the faith, then your mind or your sub conscious will believe it and if you don’t have the faith, it’s not going to work.
William Sax: Ya, I think that’s absolutely right because the belief is actually essential for any cure or healing to work.
Modern Psychotherapy was certainly relevant in my contemporary urban reality. But in Devbhoomi, the norm is Sacred Healing - the blending of traditional methods of psychotherapy with the conscious experience of the divine. And Shamans are the sacred healers – the doctors, priests, astrologers, oracles, psychotherapists, counselors and transmitters of spiritual energies.
Back in Manali, Meru revealed another incredible facet of the Himachali Shaman. Some Gurs could commune with the Spirits of Nature and when things go wrong, it is they who attempt to restore the harmony between man and the natural world.
Gur Inderchand is one such Shaman who intervenes with natural elements. He has a great affinity for nature, and spends many hours meditating outdoors. When we went to meet this unique Shaman, we found him conducting a Pooch to commune with the Rain God. Meru explained that being primarily an agrarian society, the local’s dependence on natural elements was constant.
Devotees: Devta… please give us rain.
Devta: I am omnipresent… don’t worry, you will have rain in a few days…
After the pooch, Gur Inderchand explained to me that a universal web of energy supports all life – from humans to all elements of the environment. Since, we are all interconnected, a mutually supportive balance is essential for our survival and well being. Shamans, in trance, accessed the world of spirit, to bring back insights on how people may achieve this balance and live in harmony with nature. I was deeply humbled by Inderchand’s profound insights… something that we, in the modern world, had forgotten!
My year of documenting Shamans ended with filming the famous Kullu Dusshera, which takes place in Autumn, with unparalleled pomp and splendor! Thousands of locals, visitors, Deities, Gurs and processions from all over the valley make their way to Kullu. Raja Maheshwar Singh of the erstwhile royal family, presides over the magnificent festivities.
Meru and I made our way to the King’s palace, where we had been invited to witness the pageantry. Soon, the King’s palace courtyard was a menagerie of myriad palanquins and Shamans, as various Deities came to bless the King and his family. Along with the familiar faces of Tularam, Hardayal, and others, many of the Gurs went into divine possession trance and conveyed their Deities messages to the King.
Gur Tularam / Devi: I will ensure that all goes well in your festival… as the form of Kali, I will protect you…
The elaborate Dusshera processions then made their way to the festival grounds, which was transformed into a one-stop destination for the divine. The palanquins of almost 300 Devis and Devtas from the entire Valley punctuated the swelling crowds. But the biggest and most impressive of them all was the palanquin of Lord Raghunath (Lord Rama), who came to be known as the ruling Deity of the Valley in 17th century when the local King Jagat Singh installed an idol of Raghunath Ji in his temple. Since then, all the Gods converge in Kullu during Dussehra to pay homage to Lord Raghunath. The energy was exhilarating as the Gods ran amok cutting through the mass of mortals and I watched awestruck as multiple Gurs went into trance simultaneously. The monumental sense of joy, sanctity and divinity was overwhelming...
Yet as I watched all the Gurs, I had come to know so well now, I reflected on how difficult their lives were. They are on call 24x7 to ensure that the Gods were accessible to their people. For them everything was secondary to their calling of serving their communities and in documenting their lives and craft I had experienced an extraordinary reality, in many ways more vibrant, spiritual and emotionally uplifting than my own urban myth.
Those interested to know more about the intriguing ‘Shamans of the Himalayas’ are welcome to attend the premier of this documentary film by Anu Malhotra on October 21st, at 6:30pm in the Gulmohar Hall at the India Habitat Center on Lodhi Road.