National Geographic Channel
May 21, 2004
In a small stone house in Ladakh, a Himalayan region in India's state of Jammu and the disputed territory of Kashmir, a hair-raising healing ritual is taking place.
A Buddhist man ailing from liver problems, a Muslim woman suffering from depression, and a Judeo-Christian New Zealand trekker needing spiritual guidance have all come to the region seeking the healing powers of a lha-mo, or female oracle.
In front of them, Ayu Lha-mo—also called the Oracle of Sabu, after her village—is dressed in a multicolored robe and a golden hat with sharp edges. Shrouded in a veil of juniper incense she is praying and chanting loudly, rocking back and forth on her knees, beckoning a spirit to enter her body so it can heal patients through her.
"Ayu Lha-mo is probably the most famous oracle in Ladakh.
She's known for taking a knife from a fire and burning her tongue with its tip to show patients her powers and invulnerability," said Frank Kressing, a cultural anthropologist at University of Augsburg in Germany.
Kressing has interviewed more than 20 oracles in Ladakh.
The rituals of Ladakh oracles are little known to the outside world, even though as many as 200 may practice in the region.
The rites and rituals likely derived from the cultures of animistic tribes and shamans of Central Asia, China, Tibet, and Mongolia.
These days most oracles are Tibetan Buddhists, one of the primary religions in Ladakh.
Oracles usually meet patients in their houses, bringing them to an altar in the kitchen.
Generally, the oracle works with several patients simultaneously and talks with each about their ailments before going into a trance. It is said to take about 15 minutes of chanting, ringing bells, praying, and beating drums for a spirit to enter an oracle's body.
Oracles usually invite spirits to take them over, but some oracles report that they become possessed when they don't want to.
Spirits that possess oracles during trance states are usually said to be from the pantheon of Buddhist deities. But sometimes lesser known or unknown spirits, even those from other religions, can control the oracles, they say.
Oracles Suck Diseases Out of Patient's Bodies
"Once possessed, oracles perform therapy by sucking out disease-causing substances from their patients," Kressing said.
"The oracles later show these substances—usually black mucus or little tar-like pieces—to the patient and audience, and then spit them into a bowl or on the ground."
Oracles also use straws or pipes for sucking out substances from patients, placing them directly against ailing body parts—for example, the chest of a patient suffering from asthma. Seeds, cups of blessed water (and sometimes alcohol), incense, and other instruments assist in the ritual.
The oracles also play the role of exorcist—expelling or controlling malign spirits believed to be in patients. Newcomers witnessing the rituals are often startled by oracles in violent trances wielding weapons.
In some cases oracles cough, shout, and beat their own bodies until bruises appear—to gain control over a spirit. In extreme situations, male oracles cut themselves with swords, bloodying themselves.
Oracles may also treat the patient violently. A man suffering from liver problems due to alcohol abuse may get yelled at or even hit.
"Oracles sometimes fly into a rage and chastise patients while in a trance. It's not uncommon for oracles to blame patients for their diseases and shout at them for not following the tenets of Buddhism properly," said Elan Golomb, a psychologist with a private practice in New York City.
Golomb's interest in traditional healing techniques led her to a session with Choglamsar Lha-mo in Choglamsar village, Ladakh.
"When I was 18 the Dalai Lama blessed my path to become a lha-mo. I spent many years in the mountains training and learning these powers," said Ayu Lha-mo, now in her early 60s.
Beyond healing, oracles also prophesize and perform divination, depending on a patient's need. Styles, performances, and specialties vary widely between oracles.
Some, like Hundar Lha-pa, a male oracle from Hundar village in the Nubra Valley, Ladakh, collaborate with Western doctors to combine traditional and modern medicinal treatments.
Patients Come For Healing, Regardless of Background
A typical day for Ayu Lha-mo brings a mixed clientele. Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims—who make up half of the region's population of 200,00—visit her often.
"In Ladakh, where traditional Islam is still practiced, Muslims sometimes go back and forth [across] religious boundaries—this includes some Muslims visiting Buddhist oracles," said David Pinault, a professor of religion at California's Santa Clara University.
Pinault has studied Muslim-Buddhist relations in Ladakh.
Reactions to the oracles' healing rituals vary. Some patients claim to be healed immediately. Others say there is little improvement in their condition.
Some visitors come only to be near a lha-mo or lha-pa—which translate to "divine male person" and "divine female person," respectively.
"I think the healing works for most people," said Tsewang Dorjey, a monastery guide for tourists whose base is in the city of Leh. "I've gone twice for stomach problems and it made me feel better."
Patients, if they can afford it, pay oracles for their work.
The amount is meager. With just a couple of patients each day, Ayu Lha-mo is no wealthier than the average Ladakh farmer—earning the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars a day for battling spirits and healing the sick.
"I'm often [[[feeling]]] beat up after a days worth of work," said Ayu Lha-mo, who appeared physically shaken even one hour after she said the possessing spirit left her body.
"But it's my path to do this work and it's satisfying to heal people."