Gurung Dharma, or the Gurung shamanic traditions …
… are now considered – also by its supporters – as an ancient system of shamanic beliefs, which is only a remnant of the former powerful cult.
The Gurungs – in their language – Tamu-mae – combine practical everyday life with rich cosmology, inhabited by innumerable good and evil spirits. The Gurung religion is an interesting combination of Buddhist, Hindu and animistic traditions.
During Nepalese holidays like Holi or Dashain, they make sacrifices for characters from the Hindu pantheon. For various occasions privately performed pujas are also held, such as ‘snake puja’ or ‘eighty-fourth birthday puja’.
To this day, tradition speaks of the great spiritual energy of these people. Each village of Tamu-mae is surrounded by many minor animistic objects of worship. Sometimes it is a small temple, and sometimes the place of worship is only a large stone, but it has always its specific name defining the object of worship. Once or twice a year, the villagers go to the place of worship and give sacrifice – rice, flowers and leaves, and meat – goat or chicken. Everyone can individually make sacrifices in such places of worship to ensure fertility, cure ailments or provide blessing to their family.
If the spirits are neglected or insulted, they are believed to be able to make people sick or destroy their crops or animals. However, they are not spontaneously bad.
According to Gurung dharma, there are also evil spirits, which are distinguished as follows:
First of all – there are ghosts called ‘bhut’ or ‘pret’, which live mostly on rocks and in forests – they attack people by surprise.
Secondly – there are spirits of people who died in an accident who never had funeral activities and now they are constantly wandering around without being safely carried out by the world of the dead.
And thirdly – there are also witches. In Tamu-mae village there may be a dozen or more women suspected of witchcraft, usually older, with a strong character. It is dangerous to be rude to them or deny them small favors, so contacts with them are limited. It is unlikely that they would be openly accused or molested. In the past, some of them were ordered to leave the village, but now it is considered illegal to call anyone a witch.
Probably visitors will find it difficult to collect any information about witches in the village – it is considered dangerous to even talk about them, not out of fear of the law, but for fear of themselves. It is believed that they are the cause of most misfortunes that happen in the village. Calming witches does not make sense. They must be imprisoned by making food sacrifices. But their suffering never fails and the forces of evil are never fully controlled.
The main task of a village priest is to fight evil spirits using rituals.
Believing that evil spirits and spells are causes of illness, sudden death or earth landslides, does not prevent people from using other, more practical methods of prevention. The Gurungs gladly collect all kinds of western and eastern theories about the causes of accidents; they can go to the hospital, use western medicines, or use the services of clerics performing rituals against the forces of evil. Although they are increasingly calling the brahmin priests and performing Hindu pujas, the Gurung are also Buddhists and animists. Buddhist rituals are usually carried out by lamas trained in Manang. Sometimes, is also invited someone who can read scripts or perform a puja with drums and ringtones. They are usually employed by the chaar jat clans.
It is very interesting that with all these beliefs – more than other people of the hills – the Gurungowie also preserved the worship of the forms of pre-Buddhist religion bon, which thrived in all of Tibet and Western China two thousand years ago. They also retained elements of even older shaman beliefs that are a strong alternative to Bon religion.
There are two types of priestly state: ‘poju’ and ‘ghyabri’.
The priests of the poi
Poju is the heir to the tradition of shamanic priests who practiced long ago in western China.
The shaman poju operate both within the Gurung community and the Hindu community in Nepal. Their practice mainly involves the interpretation of supernatural phenomena. They are influenced by Buddhist teachings and often cooperate with lamas. It is also believed that they communicate with ghosts and local deities, often they are called to outline predictions. Poju perform many types of rituals.
An example of such a ritual is a ten-hour fight with the disease, during which the poetry recites a series of ancient myths, performs small figurines of rice and millet representing the forces of care and the forces of darkness. Poju bears a shamanic belt, and a feather hat. When repeating singing and shamanic drums, full spoons of very hot ash and water are thrown onto the patient, while he hides crouched under a basket of rice. Ashes, the door is also dusted, then the signs of the appearance of evil spirits are read. Outside the house, a goat sacrifice is made, and then the poison falls inside, holding the goat’s head in his teeth. A burning arrow is sent into the darkness. With such a ritual, evil is already removed from the house.
The priests of ghyabri
During the last centuries, the Gurungs maintained the tradition of the priests of ghyabri, heirs of the ancient pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet.
When visiting the Gurung, we can witness Pae Lava’s farewell ritual. It includes many elements of tradition and symbolizes the ancient culture of Tamu-mae, it is also the most important institution of these people.
After someone’s death, the body is taken to either the village cemetery, where it is burnt or buried, or to the river, where cremation is also carried out. After the cremation or funeral, the deceased’s family puts up a tiny temple on the hill where it offers a food for spirits that are fed and do not bring misfortunes to the family.
The ghyabri shamans are particularly involved in post-mortem rituals. They have no literature, all rituals and prayers take over directly from the teacher and learn them by heart. The holy word is called Pye tan Lu tan. The secret language of Gurung-kura, in which rituals sound, is no longer understood by the Gurungas themselves, but only by some priests.
Pae Lava ritual
The amount of money spent on carrying Pae depends of course on the well-being of the deceased’s family. Antique rituals require sacrifices from buffalo, sheep, goat and chicken. In addition, the cost of rice with sauces and drinks for guests – means that Pae can cost over 20,000 NRS – the average cost of a new home – half of which, however, returns in the gifts brought by guests. The tradition of such lavish hospitality can be a good solution to the wealthy inhabitants of the countryside, allowing for the redistribution of their wealth, thus being a type of death tax that prevents the collection of money by one family.
The ritual opens by drawing a likeness of the deceased. The likeness must be framed in a bamboo frame, which is wrapped in white material. The clothing of the deceased – jacket, blouse or shawl, and sometimes newly purchased clothes are wrapped around the frame. Attractiveness is raised by flower garlands, stuck money and cigarettes.
The priests begin the song accompanied by drums and cymbals, and then they perform a slow dance around the image. Singing and dancing last for three days and two nights. The content of the songs are myths explaining to the deceased how he should deal with the difficulties that may be encountered on the way to the land of the dead. Close relatives, usually women, cry loudly. Animals are killed during the breaks and everyone sits on the ground and eat rice with meat served on the leaves. Large boilers are used to cook rice and meat.
On the second day, the main ritual symbolizing the passage of the deceased is celebrated. Male sex, a relative of the deceased – preferably the husband of his younger sister – takes a stick and sticks it into a bamboo circle symbolizing the breaking of barriers on the way to the land of the dead. Then a procession of priests and mourners is formed following a long strip of white material stuck on a pole representing the path to the land of the dead. They are led to a nearby field, where the battle ritual takes place. Krewny, he holds in his hands a small branch and a bone from the donated animal. Dance fight takes place between him and ghyabri. They circle each other, attacking and retreating, ghyabri hitting cymbals dressed in a long robe with a Tibetan-style cap, trying to take the bone off of an imaginary opponent. Ultimately, the shaman must triumph and the spirit of the deceased is symbolically released from family ties. At the end of the Pae ritual, baskets of cakes, rice cakes, cigarettes, fruit and other goods and drinks are put on the ground.
Mourners are obliged to taste the meat of the donated sheep representing the deceased person. Intended for a sheep sacrifice, she should eat as the first favorite favorite of the deceased and when she is then offered, it is believed that there should be no trace of food in her stomach. All sacred animals accompany the soul of the deceased on the way to the land of the dead. This ritual is an effective cleansing for mourning mourners. The guests’ support and their compassion towards the relatives of the deceased, the full spectrum of colors and the rhythmic play of drums and songs make this event a particularly effective path to overcome with sadness. It is interesting that many Gurungów who moved to Pokhara leaving their homes on the hills still support the performance of the Pae lava ritual.
According to the Gurung, death causes dissolution of the elements of the body – earth, air, fire and water. These elements are associated with a series of rituals – nine for men and seven for women.
One of the rituals to bring the soul’s soul free is that gyabri, with the help of a string, injects the spirit of the deceased into a captured bird, which behaves somewhat unnatural and seems to recognize family members. The bird is symbolically donated by plucking a few feathers. These feathers are taken by family members, after which the bird is released.
It is believed that life in the Land of Ancestors continues and looks just like here, however the deceased is able to accept a new body. Ghosts staying in the Land of Ancestors are still interested in the lives of their relatives.
The death ritual closes when ghyabri turns to the ghost and sends him to his resting place. Then, the temple on the top of the hill is dismantled. Then the priest recites supplications for the ‘ghosts of the four sides’ to treat the spirit of the deceased kindly. The departing soul, ghyabri, advises in the choice between reincarnation and staying in the Land of ancestors, and also admonishes him to stay away from world concerns and not return prematurely to the ground.
The sons of the deceased keep fast for six to twelve months, during which they abstain from meat and alcohol. At this time, the spirit is still connected and wanders around the village. In order for the ghost to leave the village, it must be led through the ‘soul path’ to the land of the dead, located above the mountains.
It is necessary to carry out the Pae Lava ritual within a few years of death. The date is set by the priest. Invites relatives and friends from neighboring villages, and on the roof of the deceased person’s house hangs a white flag.
The ritual is traditionally run by poju and ghyabri, and there are often more than two. At present, lamas of Buddhist tradition also perform this ritual, usually without animal sacrifices.
The influence of Buddhism
The further we travel north within the Tamu-mae-inhabited territories, the more likely it is to encounter the Gurung who perform lamaic rituals. Essentially, all Gurung people believe in the existence and protection of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
Tamu-mae’s shamanic tradition changes thanks to cultural influences from Tibet, especially the Nyin school
In Pokhara, where more and more Tamu-mae people have settled in the last few decades, there is a temple of shamanic rituals and caste meetings. There are also several Buddhist monasteries, among others, on the initiative of the Gurung brothers who support the Lamaist traditions. Among them, Bouddha Arghou Sadan (BAS) has the vast majority of Gurungów in Pokharze. For our meeting with Bouddha Arghou Sadan read here.
Initially, the monastery lamas followed the Nyingma Mahayana school by collaborating in rituals with priests of shamanistic traditions – poi and ghyabri. In the early 90s, they switched to Buddhism of Kagyu Mahayana and shamanic rituals have since been held rather separately from Buddhist rituals. For the lamas of the Buddhist traditions of Kagyu, the issue of the legitimacy of offering animals during rituals was debatable.
Currently living in urban areas, the Gurung resign from submission of animal sacrifices as part of the shamanic ritual, which is a kind of adaptation to urban conditions. Many Tamu-mae now view the animal sacrifice as a backward and unethical practice, obsolete in modern times.
The Gurung have several non-Indians festivals together with other Mongoloid groups, such as the Tamangs.
Some Gurung festivals
Poose Pandra, the 15th day of the month of Poush, i.e. full moon in December – evening groups of people arrange picnics – kill a buffalo or a goat and eat a meat meal together.
Magh Sangrati, on the 1st day of the month Magh, it is in mid-January – the inhabitants of the village bathe in a nearby river. In large villages, Sikles gather together from the same family from neighboring villages and drink Rakshi (millet vodka) together, organizing various games and competitions, such as shooting from a hatch or throwing a stone to the target.
Baisak Purnima, or the full moon in the month of Baishakh, i.e. between mid-April and mid-May – it is celebrated not only by Gurung and Mongoloid groups. In the village of Gurungów, the Garda sheba festival takes place for three days. It includes a few days ritual, the main element of which is the dance of Garda Sheba telling the story of the wife of King Thakuri. Other Gurung groups say that this is the story of Parsurama – the sixth incarnation of Vishnu – and his wife. According to the legend, she was obliged to the ‘sati’ ritual after the death of her husband, that is, to burn him with him on the funeral pyre, but then she came back to life. Young girls aged up to 14 years dressed in beautiful dresses embroidered with gold, gold necklaces and bracelets and flower garlands take part in the dance. The dance is accompanied by the rhythm of drums and low-voiced male voices. The dance can last for over twelve hours and the whole event usually takes three days. The ritual is carried out for a specific household or a person who will pay money between 100 and 1000 NRS. Over the past decades, the sheba was usually procured by the returning soldiers of Gorkh returning to the village.
Saawe Sangrati, or the first day of the month Shravan, i.e. around July 1 – takes place in the evening before nightfall. The family breaks down some fresh corn, rice, vegetables and fruits. It is a kind of harvest festival. Glowing sticks are taken from the hearth and carried away from the house, and each member of the family sweeps around with such a stick of the head and body of their loved ones saying prayers, so that ultimately all the ailments and evils that could manifest leave the family. Burning sticks are thrown away from home. Then everyone eats a meal together. Musicians come – people of the caste Damai – who circle around the house playing on their drums and curved corners and take away the food put out for them.