Do they have witches in Germany? asked Pushpa S., a 26- year-old Nepalese woman from Dharan at a Nepalese get-together in the Wasserracker Strasse 1 in Freiburg, a university-town in south-west Germany.
It was an interesting question. I thought about the symbolic burning of witches during the fasting period of Fasnet in the Allemanie areas, and also about the recent exorcist trials, and said: “Yes, there are witches in Germany.”
“Ever since I’ve come to Germany I’ve been bitten by a boksi (witch). And I also have nightmares when a boksi bites me.” The Nepalese word for it is “aithan-paryo.” When you’re asleep and you have a heavy feeling on your chest and this heaviness increases, as though someone is placing weights on your rib-cage. Your breathing becomes heavy and difficult, you sweat and gasp and suddenly wake up, and find yourself drenched in prespiration. What you’ve had is an attack of “aithan.” And very often a black cat darts from your bedroom.
Pushpa said, “When I’ve had an attack by a witch I have red patches where the witch bit me. And after some hours it becomes blue.”
I asked if she had had such bites in Nepal.
“Oh yes,” she replied, “I had it often in Dharan and Kathmandu.” “What did it precisely look like?” I asked. ‘Was it like an insect bite?” I was thinking of Dharan’s near sub-tropical climate, the air infested with tropical insects like mosquitoes.
“It looks like a bite,” she answered sharply as if reading my thoughts, then added, “but here in Germany you have to look for insects because everything’s so clean and sterile. It’s difficult to find insects here because of the wanton use of insecticides and pesticides in urban areas.”
She was right. In Nepal you only have to go into the Terai or to Chitwan and you’d see tigers, leopards, elephants — and it’s an entimologist’s paradise.
The other guests at the Wasseracker Strasse 1 were a German-Nepali doctor couple. I translated what Pushpa said because Werner’s Nepalese isn’t that good, and asked him what he thought about it. He was of the opinion that it could be a psycho-somatic phenomenon because of the fact that Pushpa was new in Germany, didn’t have friends, lived with her husband alone in a strange environment, and was unhappy because she didn’t speak fluent German, and couldn’t talk with ordinary Germans in the town of Kulmbach (Bavaria), where she lived.
In Nepal, Pushpa’s problem with the boksi-bites would be no news at all, for every village has its own village shaman who takes care of psycho-somatic and religious “ailments”, and treats the problems either by mantras, seances, herbal medicine, or in modern times, by the competent use of modern medicine.
It might be mentioned that in the 80,000 mountainous hamlets of Nepal there are at least 40,000 shamans and traditional healers who have been, or are being taught the basics of first aid. With the influx of tourists since 1950, Nepal’s shamans have marched with modern times. The winds of change have swept Nepal, where once the shaman wasn’t supposed to get rich and make a profit through his healing profession. Today, he blesses a life-saving electrolyte solution for the treatment of diarrhoea, and makes himself useful by selling ritualised anti-birth pills for a commission, thereby helping the government’s family planning efforts. Moreover, the Nepalese shamans have been given an official status while also bearing the title “Practitioner of Traditional Medicine,” and being trained in the applying of modern.
The village shaman is, therefore, gaining more importance and aquiring skills in the healing trade in the Himalayan kingdom.What is emerging is the welcome and useful combination of traditional and modern medicine.
I thought about an ethnologist I knew in Freiburg who’d written a thesis about Thakali-shamanism and had spent a few years in Nepal. She even had a Jhankri drum (dhangro) with her, but wasn’t concerned with the healing aspect of shamanism, and didn’t possess the ability to heal a patient. When I told everyone about the German expert on shamanism they all laughed heartily. Perhaps it was the thought of a western woman with a dhangro that provoked the laughter. There is a woman in England – Jill Purce – who uses chanting influenced by Mongolian and Tibetan shamanistic techniques for healing and transformation. A weekend course costs 59 Pounds Sterling.
And then Pushpa went on to say, “Even my husband has bites on his arms.” Her husband, who’s a food technologist, answered in the affirmative. Since it was a Nepalese evening, the main language was Nepali, but our conversation was studded with German words so that our German guests wouldn’t feel uneasy and out of place.
Just as the Germans have a grillfest with steaks, wurst and beer, the Nepalese buffet consisted of: dal-bhat-shikar, rounded up with momos, and delicious achaar. And there was soft Nepalese ethno-music accompanying the conversation and delicacies.
“I had an uncle in Nepal who first had dreams about shamans,” said Pushpa S. She said the old experienced shaman of his village had died. Her uncle had begun to see the shaman in his dreams, but had dismissed the dreams. But the dreams became persistent. Whenever there was a shamanic seance in the village, her uncle would start shivering and shaking as if in a trance. The drums of a shaman would incite his quiverings.
Some time later, he’d seen the shaman in his dreams again. He said that the shaman had shown him where he’d hidden his shaman’s paraphernalia: the dhangro (drum) and gajo (stick) were behind a certain bush, the headgear of porcupine quills in another place, and beside a big boulder by the rivulet were his malas and belts-with-bells, and nearby the brass bumba (jug) and his thumri, a wooden ritual dagger.
It was a call to Pushpa’s uncle to be a shaman, and the younger man after the fashion of the layman’s etiology, had asked his elders and neighbours for advice, and they had concluded that he should take up the mantle. So he went and collected the dead shaman’s ritual objects and became a shaman.
I mentioned that I’d read a book written by an American named Larry Peters, who’d done a stint of shamanism in Tin Chuli in the outskirts of Kathmandu. Mr. Peters worked as an assistant Jhankri (shaman) and beat the dhangro, but said he did not believe in the spirit world to which the Jhankri, Bhirenda, was introducing him. He refused to enter a de riguer initiation psychosis. Sadly enough, when he and his son were seriously ill, they preferred the missionary hospital to the shaman. The son, however, died in the hospital. And Bhirendra the Jhankri was understandably not on speaking terms with Larry because of the breach of confidence (Vertrauensbruch).
The question is: would the boy have survived if the traditional healer had treated him? Perhaps the modern doctor should also learn to send his patients to a shaman when he gets baffled by certain symptoms. The shaman will then banish the cause of the illness, namely an invisible power that becomes active in the visible world, causing suffering and illness. For the shaman establishes contact with the invisible world and the earthly sphere, and forces the evil power that takes residence in human hosts to reveal their identities, ask them what they desire, and eventually make them promise to leave the somatic environment of their hosts. And that is traditional faith healing through a ritual.
Asked about life in a small German town, Pushpa S. said “Man-parey-na!” which means she didn’t like it. She longs for the mountains of Dharan in Eastern Nepal, and she worries about her two children who are still in the small Himalayan kingdom.
In the meantime, Pushpa S. has been to a modern German doctor and has had blood and allergy tests, but her boksi-bites will be healed when she returns to Nepal forever this autumn — and visits her local shaman.
Satis Shroff is a Nepali writer living in West Germany.