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Sikkim’s Forgotten Shamanic Buddhist Heritage


Before any religion enters a stateless culture, it confronts some type of colloquial, uncontrolled, and animistic belief system. Because of the importance of the medicine man and his reliance on nature to cure human ailments, both emotional and physical, these faiths are often labelled as “Shamanic.” 

Nergui, swaying from side to side, in the center of the room chanting, “Great sky, please come here.” Eyes closed, and he gripped a cluster of colored cloth strips. His voice was rough and the melody repetitive, like an ancient ballad: “Oh, great blue sky, which is my blanket, come to me.” 

Image by Theguardian

Mongolian shamans, or buu, take part in a ceremony marking the summer solstice in the grasslands. 

Nergui is a boo, as Mongolians describe to male shamans. He considers himself to be a bridge between the visible and secret worlds of spirits and gods and very much he depicts with a faded dark brown Del, a traditional Mongolian robe, with a yellow belt and a blue silk ribbon around his neck. A pair of old blue corduroys poked out as his robe swung. His feet were clad in custom-made reindeer-skin shaman boots. He entered a trance after meditation and chanting, the time when the spirit from the unseen realm was free to enter his body. “Oh, my soul, I’d ride 10 Mongolian cows to see you.” Please direct me to the spirit by the golden cuckoo.” 

Helping spirits guide shamans and spirit travelers through other worlds and assist them in healing individuals, the community, and the planet.

When Buddhism was firmly established in Sikkim, the region already had another kind of religion. It was Shamanistic in character and is the Lepcha people’s traditional polytheistic, animist, and syncretic religion. It is older than the seventh century. Because of its animistic nature, the natural world serves as the foundation for its practice.  

Some of these practitioners are mediums to spirits, therefore they are referred to as Shamans, and their religion is shamanistic in origin. Malag Ajo Pawo, the father of Pawo Nadu, in the current Tieng Chim village, a great shaman who could bring back accounts of the deities’ mansions. Like Nergui, he would begin each séance by chanting a bon oral text, and the ‘wind’ would then transport him to the abode of the supernatural beings and sacred Sikkim locations such as Tashiding, Pemayangtse, and Rabdentse, where the deities are said to reside. He was, however, the last of them in his area and, most likely, in Sikkim. 

Image and caption by Theguardian 

Headdresses and mouth harps are intended as tools to allow spirits to use the bodies and voices of shamans 

Shamanic belief is gradually becoming extinct due to two factors: first, the dominance and syncretic character of Buddhism, which has swallowed the traditional faiths of Sikkim’s people since its introduction. A Thangka exhibited at the Namgyal Tibetology museum in Gangtok, where Lord Kangchendzönga is added to the local pantheon of Buddhist deities, is an example. The second factor is the high cost of shamanic rituals, which drove many to turn to Buddhism, which offers the same but economical way for problem-solving and illness-curing rituals. 

Sikkim, formed in 1642 by few visionary Nyingma lamas who constructed both a new governmental framework and, to some extent, a new religious order, was truly such a kingdom where Buddhism turned shamanic and shamanism became Buddhist. 

Sikkim remained a Buddhist kingdom from its inception, where the people’s shamanic worldview was unchallenged by missionary lamas, the land was sacred, ancestral gods and the country’s protectors resided in its mountain peaks, and the source of illness and misfortune was to be found within some imbalances of this relational whole. Tibetan immigrants, ancestors of Sikkim’s Lhopos, who arrived in Sikkim beginning in the thirteenth century, coexisted and even intermarried with the Lepchas, who, despite their conversion, never abandoned their shamanic traditions. 

Image by Theguardian

A group of shamans throw milk as an offering as the ritual begins. 

As the monarchy ended in 1975, the most significant state ritual was Pang Lhabsol (dPang lha gsol—’offering to the witness god’), Kangchendzönga’s national feast, which was attended not only by lamas but, more subtly, by Lepcha shamans. Pang Lhabsol was a national shamanic ceremony that highlighted people’s relationships with the holy land and its deities. The concept of relationalism is considerably more common among Sikkimese people. The instance being their body and patrilineage are linked to the terrain via their pho lha mo lha, who live in the high mountains and, in certain circumstances, in particular regions of their own bodies. One of the most important of these lineage protectors, the mountain god Kangchendzönga, was also worshipped as the protector of the kingdom during the ‘old days’ by everyone who considered himself first and foremost as Sikkim’s people, thus linking and uniting the person, the lineage, the village, and the state under the Chogyal, former monarchs of Sikkim. These ties to land, ancestry, and ancestors define a person, and they connect villages together. Within this worldview, village lamas and shamans interact and collaborate, as best demonstrated by ceremonial treatment of disease.  

Buddhism symbol – ritual shaman pillars Serge with colored ribbons.

Because of the ease of routine, this particular bond is now being swallowed by common religious views that are sweeping the youth. Sikkim, an important pilgrimage site, is now losing tangible culture as monasteries that store the people’s histories crumble over time. The most prominent religious institution in Sikkim, Pemayangtse monastery, is in disrepair, with the magnificent paintings of the major prayer rooms peeling, the colors fading, and the antiques amassing dust and mildew. This monastery was originally the site of the establishment of royalty, but it is now in ruins, forgotten, and so disregarded.