An audience with an Oracle My first witness of a spirit-medium in her trance

By Tenzin Menkyi Leh, Oct 17, 2014
Leh :
She was chanting the invocation prayer of Gangs ri' lha brtsen, while ringing rhythmically a bell which she held in her left hand and a drum, damaru, in the right. The invocation was sung to induce the spirit to assume possession of her body.

She wore a plane white scarf on top of her head, on top of which is a head dress, five-lobed crown,  rigs lnga, adorned with long tussle or a scarf of five colour representing five element. A rainbow coloured projecting flab were affixed to each side of the crown. These fans supposedly symbolize the descent of the consciousness of the spirit, which is envisaged as a rainbow light. The predominant colour of her ceremonial garments; a brocade mantle over a brocade chupa, were brilliant red, which is the characteristic colour of the btsan spirit.

A simple low altar for the ceremony had been erected in front of the family altar in a small, seemingly 9x9ft, room. The melong or ritual mirror for the ceremony was inserted upright into a small bowl of rice. The circular copper alloy mirror is used to direct and shelter the spirit of the trance. There is a mandala offering, a butter lamp, a flowerpot and a bundle of peacock feather suppose to have a cleansing power were placed on the same alter along with two set of ritual water bowls. Images of Buddha, Green Tara, Guru rinpoche, Lineage Thanka, Palden Lhamo, Mt. Kailash along with pictures of her root lama were hanged on the wall, in front of which she bows and prostrates.

In the beginning, kneeling in front of her altar, the prayer were chanted or rather muttered loudly in a deep sharp piercing noise with fluctuating tempo and haphazard pitches. There were heavy breathing and puffing in between. During the course of the invocation, drumming of damaru and ringing flat-bell (shang) halt for a period. The utterance slows down and the words of prayers were more apparent and comprehensible. She soon picked up with the damaru and flat ritual bells rang. She began to chant again, this time with more force with intense vibration in her voice with the notes stretched for longer, this gradually build up in intensity to a fevered pitch. She then produced some hissing sound combined with heavy panting and growling, along with murmuring of a repeated verse. Her assistance present her with ceremonial scarf, khata, and she bow to the altar over and over again. She began to spit the ether around her, which supposedly cleanse the atmosphere within the room. The utterance were vague again, damaru and bell rang with gusto drown the prayer she recites. The invocation, which lasted for around five minute concluded with an abrupt notes she produced. The entire act of fits like rapid movements and the sounds she produces purportedly herald the advent of the possessing deities. Apparently, she was possessed with the spirit and become its spirit-medium.

The oracular function of the trance which began around 10am on a Sunday, came to a conclusion with the beginning of the curative session in all its earnest lasted till 1 pm. They say that the primary reason for calling upon the such spirits is to heal the illnesses of those who seek him or her out and also to give advice and to predict the future.

Her small alter room was jam packed with tightly seated 35 patients on the floor, both Tibetan and ladakhi locals with a ratio of 4:6. Under the influence of her spirits, she frequently uses her drum and flat-bell during the session. A thin pipe of copper, smaller than a feet, called puri was used to suck out disease-causing impurities from their bodies. She made a deep gurgling noise while carrying out this procedure. After each sucking session, she sputter out the saliva in a small bucket containing soil which is placed near her knee. She is seated in lotus position on floor mat of a red carpet.

From some patients, the spirit-medium displayed a tiny dark substance and placed it on a small cut out newspaper on the small suitcase in front of her. This is understood to be the contamination removed from the patients. These impurities or grib are sometimes envisioned as being in the form of worms. There are believed to be many types of grib, each causing different kinds of sickness.

The first patient, a women, came to seek advice for her son, who is going through a trouble times. For which the lhamo replied: "the best solution is to sort it out, rather than not sorting it". She asked her to recites certain kinds of prayer to get rid of the obstacle. The woman passed a bottle of water, tied with ceremonial scarf to the spirit-medium through her assistance, to bless the water with power she seems to have vested in her spit. The lha-mo, as Tibetan and Ladakhi referred to the spirit medium as, along with reciting some prayers she spits into the bottle. The water is now blessed and has the healing power.
An old Ladakhi women in her 70s, has her son gone mad. She came to seek prophecy on what to do about him. Lhamo's instruct her to bring the son to her as she could not suck the grip if the patient is far. Apparently, some lhamo suck the disease out of a patient even if, the patient is not present physically. Spirit-medium asked her assistance to give away some talisman to protect her son.

A man in his 50s has some pain in his body so she sucked his body through the puri. When I met him afterwards, he said: "I am a believer and regular patient, her sucking power really heals".
One women consulted her about things going bad with her family and their car. Lhamo's response was: "a person who lives nearby is jealous of your family. He has a tall physique and a had plain round face. He is a probably a drug smuggler and is well off. So, watch out for the man". She made a big talisman out of ceremonial scarf, put some supposedly sacred grains in it, along with it she bind some colour ribbons which she tore from the tussle adjoining her head dress, she ties few knot on it and advice her to hang it in the car, beside an image of Guru sNangsrid zilgnon, Palden Lhamo and not to let anyone else but her family touch it.

The most interesting part of the day was when she saw me taking pictures of her. The sole reason why I visit her was; I was curious. I have never seen any live oracle in there trance. Of course, I took her pictures ever since I enter the room. Her assistance saw me, but didn’t say anything. I thought it would be okay to proceed. I thought the spirit-medium must have been somehow aware that her movements were being watched critically and from close proximity by rather a sceptical observer. When I was some three feet near her and took her picture, it was then that she admonished me and asked me to stop taking her picture.
Of all the things she said against me was one thing that made me more sceptic of the village oracle or her. She said: " Obstacles will come to you. You only see the outer part of me, which seems fancy. You don’t know what is within me. It is surprising that you regard yourself as par with me. One has to be a deity to consider oneself equal to me". She also mentioned that she works for the welfare of people with her kindness and compassion.

There was a commotion in the room when she scolded me. Every one ask me to apologise. I did. I had to restrain my eagerness to respond her questions, however, keeping quite seems the best decision, after all, all of them were ardent believer. Her words doesn't  bother me at all, but I don’t want to disturb the proceedings for I am here to observe.
My mother was scared. So, she rolled a 100 rupees notes in a white scarf and gave it to me to present it to lhamo asking her for an apology. People who visits presents her 100 rupees as a consultation fees.  Lhamo accepted the khata, but took out the note, gave it back to me and said: "I don’t need the money". Not knowing if I was forgiven, I put to her directly if my apologies are accepted, she says "it's fine now". I left the room as her curative sessions continue.

I asked one of relative how she gets out of possesses state: she says:  " rigs lnga falling from her head signals the divine possession was over.

John Vincent Bellezza, a cultural historian, spend years researching on village oracles on Tibetan plateau came up with many books on oracles. He says such act are the state of self-induced psychosis where there is a disassociation with the normal personality and other types of personality, perhaps more deeply seated in a psyche emerges and becomes a new persona. According to the most traditional description of trance state; the consciousness of the medium is displaced and actually removed from his or her body and exist somewhere else in a mirror or exist in ether, but actually leaves a person's body and replace by consciousness of the spirit. The problem lies in the fact that, consciousness is not satisfactorily delineated in a scientific fashion, so how can we understand the phenomena of medium-ship which is based on consciousness when we don’t even have a firm understanding of what constitute human consciousness.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai lama was once interviewed by a foreign scholar about his thoughts on village oracle, His Holiness replied: "these are mundane spirit, one should not consider refugee in them. Human beings have more power than those spirit. Unfortunately, due to lack of knowledge about Buddha dharma, many people treat them with absolute faith, which is totally wrong."

The 15th Ngari Rinpoche, Tenzin Choegyal said: "There are no authentication process other than the acceptance by the local population, thus many results in fake possession. Many village oracles who go into a trance has the ability to fake it as well, so to earn money and it becomes a tremendous source of income. Essentially, they are suppose to be a consultant in spiritual development, not in earthly welfare.