I tiptoed into a village lying on the popular Annapurna Base Camp trek to explore shamanic practices in the Himalayas. Funeral directors, dispensers of amulets, tellers of myths; shamans are placed at the very heart of the religious and social life in Nepal.

I have to admit that I had a very skeptical attitude toward shamanism until I went to see a traditional healer in Kathmandu almost three years ago. I remember being surprised at the sight of the large clientele and startled as the old man started pinpointing what kind of pain I was going through. Despite the advent of modernisation, shamans, known as dhami-jhankris in Nepal, continue to play a crucial role in maintaining and restoring the spiritual balance of their communities.

Following the shaman's call
Jum Bahadur Gurung © Bibbi Abruzzini

Jum Bahadur Gurung, 79, lives in a small house in one of Ghandruk‘s stone alleyways. He served the Indian Ghurka Army for 25 years before becoming a well-known and powerful jhankri in Ghandruk.

“Not everyone can become a jhankri, I started practising when I was just eight years old. Since then I  do what I can to heal sick people in the village and ward off ghosts and demons.” 

Jum Bahadur Gurung has three sons, he lost his wife twenty years ago and has never married since. Wrinkling face, skinny body, sparkling eyes; during the day he works in the fields, he usually performs rituals at night. Throughout the plantation season in Ghandruk the demand for shamans increases as people get sick more often. As a jhankri, Jum Bahadur Gurung gathers medicinal plants from the forest, perform sacrifices, exorcize demons and chants mantras to invoke helper deities.

“People visit my grandfather in the middle of the night, waking everyone up. I told him to quit but he replied that he was born to do this,” Ram Bahadur Gurung, Jum’s nephew, told me.

According to the Shamanistic Studies and Research Center in Kathmandu, shamanism is 75,000 years old and there are thousands of shamans in Nepal – mostly men. Academics believe that shamans rely on the “placebo effect” – the tendency of any treatment, even an ineffective one, to cause improvements in health simply because the recipient believes it will work.

Following the shaman's call
Terraced rice paddies, Ghandruk. © Bibbi Abruzzini

“Shamism is dying out in the villages but here in Ghandruk many – especially the older generations – still prefer jhankris to doctors.  Their healing powers may work partly through the patient’s strong belief that the jhankri’s treatments are capable of healing their body and soul. It’s mostly psychological,” says Rupa Aryal, doctor at Ghandruk Health Post.  In Ghandruk doctors and shamans increasingly collaborate.  The Sanjiwani Public Health Mission Nepal has been organising trainings for traditional healers.

But as more and more people embrace Western medicine, traditional healing practices are increasingly perceived as just hocus-pocus, abracadabra.

“I never trust shamans. Many of them do it just for money and have no idea on how to cure a sick person ,” says 22-year-old student Pant Gurung.

What side are you on?