Shaman belonging to the Wayuu tribe. Guajira, Colombia.
More ancient than any religion, shamanism is followed in diverse ways throughout the world by peoples fortunate enough to have been overlooked by the institutional religions. Variously described as medicine men, witch doctors or oracles, shamans perform mystical rituals to mediate between the physical and spiritual realms on behalf of their flock. ( Western society has its “shamans, too – faith healers and mediums, for example).
Shamanism is the traditional religion of most of Nepal’s native ethnic groups, and while many have adopted at least outward forms of hinduism or buddhism ( depending on their location), it is still widely practised in the eastern and western hills ( In Nepal, hills are the buffer zone between the Himalayan mountains and the Taraï plain) . In Nepali, the most common words for shaman are “jhankri” and “dhami”, but each ethnic group has its own term. Forms and practices vary from one community to another, but a “jhankri” usually carries a double-sided drum and wears a headdress of peacock feathers.
The “jhankri”‘s main job is to maintain spiritual and physical balance, and to restore it when it has been upset. As a healer, he may examine the entrails of animals for signs, gather medicinal plants from the forest, perform sacrifices, exorcize demons, chant magical incantations to invoke helper deities, or conduct any number of other rituals. As an oracle, he may fall into a trance and act as a mouthpiece of the gods, advising, admonishing and consoling listeners. As the spiritual sentry of his community, he must ward off ghosts, evil spirits and angry ancestors. Sometimes by using superior strength, often by trickery. All this, plus his duties as funeral director, dispenser of amulets, teller of myths and…, put the “jhankri” at the very heart of religious and social life in the hills. Little wonder that hinduism and buddhism have been so shaped in Nepal by these shamanistic traditions, producing a unique melting pot of religions.