Between Worlds, Walking with Shamans, by Randhir Khare
Randhir Khare is an award winning poet, artist, writer, playwright, folklorist and distinguished educationist who has published numerous volumes of poetry, short fiction, essays and novels and educational handbooks and has travelled widely, reading and presenting his work, nationally and internationally. He has presented his work at the Nehru Centre in London, at the Ubud Writers Festival in Bali, the India Festival In Bulgaria, at the Writers Union in the Czech Republic, in Bulgaria, Slovenia and at the Europalia Arts Festival in Belgium. In India, he has performed his poetry with various traditional and contemporary musicians and founded (and leads) MYSTIC, India’s first poetry-music band. Randhir is the recipient of The Sanskriti Award for Creative Writing, The Gold Medal for Poetry awarded by the Union of Bulgarian Writers, The Human Rights Award, The Residency Grant 2009 for his lifetime contribution to literature in English awarded by The Sahitya Akademi and The Palash Award (for his lifetime contribution to education and culture) among others.
This article is the first in a series of three by Randhir Khare. He talks about his experiences with three types of shamans: The Spirit Healer, The Story Healer and The Physician. For the last three and a half decades he has shared a meaningful and enriching relationship with shamans. Randhir is presently working on a book….WALKING WITH SHAMANS.
This way, he said walking ahead of me, a lantern swinging by his side. This way. Don’t think, just walk. Keep my pace. See how I move, feel how I move, become me. Then he chuckled, but you’ll never really become me, that’s for sure so just imagine that you are me.
The lantern splashed light along the broken road as we trudged along. The glowing eyes of hyenas appeared on either side of the road. Nathu Baba sang a string of praises to them…
O you friends of the dead and of the living,
O you wretches who stink of nothingness,
O you spirits who walk in the realms of the living,
When you eat the heart of a carcass, think of me,
I am a friend of the dead and of the living,
I stink of nothingness,
I am an angel who walks in the realms of the living…
We are brothers.
Later that night we sat in a small grove of ancient trees, warming our hands around a small fire. The fragrance of the smouldering wood filled the night. This is wood from an ancient Kheriya tree. It is sacred to my people. He began singing softly till his words seem to suffuse the air and hang suspended in the night. Some seem to fall on me like stardust. A stillness descended.
Smoke of the Kheriya give us the power to travel worlds of being and non-being,
Leaves of the Kheriya bless us with the songs of the wind that we never forget the spirit of dance,
Bark of the Kheriya be our shield against those who envy us,
Wood of the Kheriya help us understand the strength of belonging,
Trunk of the Kheriya build bridges between worlds,
Roots of the Kheriya drink the sacred juices of the earth and spread its light.
We dance to you, we dance with you, we dance, dance, dance, dance.
My eyes closed and I rested back and listened to his words. They had lured me into a quietness that I had never experienced before. I lay there in an ancient wood, a night flooded with stars gently quilted me.
For three consecutive nights I trailed Nathu Baba, the Badua (or Shaman) of the Bhilala tribal community living in Alirajpur, Western Madhya Pradesh and each occasion led me deeper into myself. On the morning of the fourth day, we sat sipping piping hot tea outside his home in the village of Jhinjhini.
You are not a city fellow, you belong here. You are a Bhilala. I watched you when I was singing. You were dancing. You walked in circles like a Badua does. You touched the trunks of trees. You were one with them. I know that you have died many times. Tell me. How many times?
I looked into his large watery eyes. Five times, I replied. Nearly died.
The first time, you died, my friend. It was by drowning. They brought you back.
Yes, he was right. I was seven and drowned in the river Hooghly in West Bengal. They brought me back. But I tried to forget what I saw. What I heard. What I felt. I left the experience behind.
You should have seen yourself, moving your arms as if you were swimming. Sometimes swimming, sometimes dancing.
I didn’t reply. I was confused. In the presence of a shaman I lose my sense of self and dissolve, forget.
If you really want to heal your wounds, he said quietly, if you really want to patch up all the tatters in your spirit…stay here through the seasons, one year. Each season offers its own special healing ways – the trees, the air, the heat, the cold…and so much more. Then one day you will accept yourself and the healing will begin. You must be strong to heal others. You have been on the other side…don’t forget that.
Nathu was a Badua of the highest degree. He was a Spirit Healer. Few people around him actually understood what he was capable of. At the time I had met him, his community had begun to ignore him because he couldn’t do (or didn’t want to do!) what other Baduas offered to do – heal ailments and exorcise unwanted spirits. Of course he was still accepted as the only Badua in the area who could bless and empower a sacred pithora wall painting which had been installed in a home in preparation to welcome a new born child, bless a marriage, ensure the safety and security of livestock, propitiate the harvest spirits and call upon the powers of the Other Side to accept and guide a dying person.
Baduas of the highest degree were special beings who few chose to recognise and accept in everyday life. In fact no one ever visited such a spirit healer during the daylight hours. They turned up at his doorstep after he had had his last meal for the day and was reclining on his rope and bamboo bed which was placed in the open between the cattle shed and his living quarters.
When I asked him if there was a reason why he had placed his bed in that position he explained. That is the most exposed part of my household.
Exposed to what?
To the elements, he replied. Besides, our livestock is part of our lives. If the animals can’t live inside our homes then they must live near us. My sleeping position here helps link them to us. All my life I have been the spirit who knows how to bring life together to live as a whole. Everywhere, my people are getting scattered, they are losing their old ways, they are losing their connection with the land and the seasons, they are losing touch with their own spirits. My people are fragments held together by everyday needs and hopes and have discarded ritual and custom, awareness, respect. They don’t realise that they need to be healed. I am the last of the Spirit Healers. Before me my father Bhoona Baba was a Spirit Healer. He already saw it coming. He struggled to heal people. I am struggling too. There is no one after me.
It took me a long time to return to Jhinjhini. When I did, it was too late. Nathu Baba had left his body and there remained a void. I checked in to a small guest house in the township of Alirajpur which was an hour’s drive from Jhinjhini and spent the night for nearly a week in the grove of ancient trees. A kind Bhilala accompanied me. Then one day, Nathu Baba’s bow and arrow wielding younger brother turned up and asked me to leave. You don’t belong me. Go away. All that has passed.
Respecting his warning, I left.
My sources informed me that during the next monsoons, most the cattle in Nathu Baba’s household perished when the roof of the livestock shed caved in. Snakes set up home among the boulders clustered in the courtyard of the house and every night through summer, a pack of hyenas lounged around just outside the boundary fence.
Spirit Healers are a vanishing breed. As each one leaves his/her body, our world loses yet another connection with the secret life of the self.
© Randhir Khare