Covering Nepal for an international news agency takes you into all kinds of weird situations.
I recently took part in a shamanic exorcism in Kathmandu. Here is the account I wrote for AFP.
The shaman’s body begins shaking as she mumbles an ancient mantra to the syncopated beat of a dhyangro drum, coaxing snake spirits from a young Nepali man who has “lost his soul”.
Iron bells hanging around her white shirt ring as she jumps around her patient in a shamanic trance, her head dress of peacock feathers waving wildly as she springs up and flings her arms around him.
In the background, awestruck white Westerners in headbands and beads watch the ancient, animistic ceremony, not in a remote mountain pass or a jungle clearing but in a comfortable, 21st century house in suburban Kathmandu.
“The boy has lost his soul and we are helping him find it,” says Mohan Rai, the 80-year-old founder of the Shamanistic Studies and Research Centre Nepal and a man on a mission to restore what he sees as an dying art in the Himalayan nation.
After decades of modernisation when witch doctors were almost wiped out, “urban shamans” are enjoying a renaissance among Nepal’s metropolitan middle class and Westerners looking to be healed, cleansed or awakened, says Rai.
He has been on the front line of this renaissance since setting up his centre in 1988 to revive a practice he says “has been left behind” by science, technology and the big world religions.
“Shamanism is 75,000 years old. But it is dying out in the villages and I want to keep these traditions alive,” said Rai, who is highly critical of the religions and governments he believes have actively plotted to kill off the practice.
“I have thousands of students a year and, more and more, they are Westerners looking for something else where Western medicine has failed. Many of my students are medical doctors looking to integrate shamanism into their own practices.”
Shamans, known in Nepal as dhami-jhankris, claim to find the lost souls of the sick by travelling between three worlds — lower, middle and upper — connected by an upside down tree called Kalpa Vriksha, the tree of immortality.
They say they commune with the deities and spirits — both benign and malignant — inhabiting each world.
Tobias Weber, 33, a farmer from Germany travelling in Nepal, said he was drawn to shamanism after becoming interested in healing but disillusioned with the limitations of Western medicine.
“Shamanism can complement what doctors and nurses in the West are able to do. Clearly, if you have broken your arm you are probably going to go to a hospital but there is also so much you can get from the spiritual side of healing which people never get to experience.”
Rai, who is in polygamous marriages to two sisters and speaks English, German, Spanish, French, Sherpa, Tibetan and Hindi, has enjoyed a colourful life.
Born into a Bhutanese farming community, he grew up helping his father, “a powerful and well-known shaman” with healing rituals for the sick in his village.
He joined Nepal’s legendary Gurkha brigade aged just 17 and has been a trekking guide in Kathmandu and a mountain rescuer in Alps.
He first came across Nepal’s shamans when he was an assistant to foreign anthropologists trying to locate witch doctors among the country’s indigenous tribes.
He realised that shamanism was of great interest to the developed world and set up his research centre to spread the message, employing shamans from the Tamang, Rai, Sherpa and Gurung Himalayan mountain tribes.
In his centre sits a photograph of a six-year-old German boy Rai claims to have healed after the youngster, riddled with cancer, was given just two years to live.
He also relates the story of a paralysed man he helped to walk within just a few healing sessions.
Australian Laura Martino is taking a course at Rai’s centre and wants to help people in her home town of Melbourne reconnect with their spiritual side.
“I came here with a totally open mind, which I had to because of some of the amazing experiences I’ve had here, like trips to the mountains and sleeping in graveyards.
“I think the Western world has lost something in its approach to healing and we really need to get in touch again with nature.”
Shamanism has had its critics, however, in a country where ancient superstitions can have a devastating effect.
In February a group of villagers accused a neighbour of witchcraft and burned her alive because their shaman had told them she was a witch.
The crime caused widespread revulsion, with Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai appealing to Nepalis not to listen to the injunctions of shamans.
“In villages especially, faith healers are from the local community while western medicine practitioners are from cities and towns and are often regarded as outsiders,” said Ravi Shankar, assistant professor at Manipal College of Medical Sciences in Pokhara, Nepal’s second city.
Many academics in the West believe that shamans rely on a powerful “placebo effect” — the tendency of any treatment, even an ineffective one, to show improvements in health simply because the recipient believes it will work.
Even doctors who distrust Nepal’s shamans have in the past relied on their services, training them to use rehydration salts to treat diarrhoea and cotrimoxazole antibiotics in pneumonia cases.
“There is the negative aspect where diseases like epilepsy and mental illness are regarded as entirely due to supernatural causes and modern medical treatment is neglected,” said Shankar.
“But then this was the case in the West also about 150 years ago.”