I have always sought to capture India’s rich cultural heritage and vibrant living traditions through my films. My mission is to document cultures that are fast disappearing and remind viewers of the importance of sustaining and learning from their traditional wisdom. But more than just documenting ancient systems of belief, I have experienced them first hand and these experiences have been exceptional! Dancing at an Apatani death ceremony, smoking opium with former Naga headhunters and participating in the Maharaja’s Durbars in Jodhpur et. al. have allowed me to travel back into our history and gain unique access to reveal the splendors of a secret India.
My latest docu-series and docu-film, “Shamans of the Himalayas”, comes at a time when we are once again in urgent need of reassessing our relationship with nature and spirituality. This time I set out 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- a system known throughout the world as Shamanism- and to document its manifestation in an India.
Shot over 14 months in Kullu Valley in Himachal Pradesh, the “Shamans of the Himalayas” delves into an extraordinary world of “Dev Bhoomi
”- The Land of Gods as this Valley is known. Every village here is home to several Gods and Goddesses – Devta
’s. Some deities are manifestations of mainstream Hindu Gods, while others are ancient village gods, entwined in a complex and unique mythology of Dev Bhoomi
. Revered as living Gods, the deities here are not just confined to their temples but move around on beautifully decorated palanquins and as such these peripatetic Gods participate wholeheartedly in all aspects of village life.
At the forefront of this fascinating world are the powerful Shamans (locally called Gurs
), who mediate between the material and spirit worlds, acting as key conduits between the mortal and the divine. I discovered that almost every deity in the Valley has its own Shamans and the locals truly believe that their Devta or Devi communicate with them through their Gur! To facilitate the divine visitation, the Shamans must go into a divine possession trance- an altered state of consciousness, which allows the spirit of the deity to enter his body and speak through him.
Being in the presence of a Shaman, especially when he goes into divine possession trance, is truly an unforgettable experience. My first encounter with a Shaman in trance was at an enchanting festival in the village of Old Manali… While I was soaking in the photo opportunity, I saw a heavy-set man with long hair, dressed in a knee length white cloak trembling and shaking uncontrollably. He was speaking authoritively in a local language to the crowd… And the people seemed to be listening to every word with rapt attention! I was intrigued when the deity’s spirit took over his body and his personality changed in front of my eyes..! Overawed by the experience, I decided to learn more about these enigmatic men and their non-ordinary reality.
As I traveled through Kullu Valley, I found that people here are in a dance with the divine everyday of their lives. People conducted their lives according to the will of their Devta
s and Devi
s and took permission of the deity before undertaking any task. And they put forth all their queries and desires to the deities through the Gur
in a lively question and answer session known as a Pooch
. The people asked their Gods for solutions to all matters mundane or grave, like causes and cures of illnesses, dates for sowing, harvesting or weddings, financial troubles et al. And there was an ease with which people communicated with their deities through the Gur
s… It was like a hotline to God! I realized that the Shaman was an indispensable portal – a facilitator in their cosmic conversations…
Despite having met and documented a multitude of Shamans from all across Kullu Valley, I was still amazed at their abilities. For the locals, a Shaman is not only their source of their mythology and guidance from the Gods, but they are also the sacred healers of their communities– the doctors, priests, astrologers, counselors and psychotherapists! Some Shamans can even commune with the Spirits of Nature and when things go wrong, they restore the harmony between man and the natural world.
I am certain that many of us have traveled to Kullu Valley many times, but how many of us actually know about the existence of Gurs and this mystical microcosm where the ordinary and occult co-exists everyday? And this is why I believe films like Shamans of the Himalayas are invaluable in introducing a country to it self, and reminding us of the timeless wisdom of our traditions that have sustained themselves for centuries, in harmony with the natural and spiritual worlds.
The world-wide success of Avtaar,
brought back into our imagination the idea of a holistic existence where human life and nature, every aspect of her- the trees, mountains, animals- are inextricably linked. Where as James Cameron had to create his Pandora, I was able to find one of our own Indian Pandora nestling under the shadows of the Himalayas…