Understanding the Shaman’s Tribulations

Understanding the Shaman’s Tribulations
– By Taba Menia –

The scholarship of shamanism is closely related to ideas about traditional healing and their knowledge. Found across the world in concern with the relationship between health and the super-natural, Shamans are observed as custodians of the human realm. Becoming a shaman involves expertise in traditional knowledge and transcendental abilities. Many researchers have focused on the initiation in Shamanhood and their roles. However, few discuss the Shaman’s own accounts of their hardships

I came across Shaman understandings of their work when I was carrying out my fieldwork in Arunachal Pradesh, high in the Himalayas in the far east of India between December 2020 and March 2021. My study focused on the types and functions of traditional divination practiced among the dwindling Nyishi Donyi Polo followers, and prophetic visionaries among the growing Nyishi Christian population of Yazali and Yachuli administrative circles. These consist of large number of Nyishi Christians living along with a lesser number of Donyi Polo followers.

These circles under Lower Subansiri district are homogeniously populated by the Nyishi tribe, and they are among the 26 major tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Rich in oral culture, the Nyishi trace their origin from their mythical ancestor Abo Tani. Their traditional faith is Donyi Poloism, worshiping the sun, moon and nature deities. At present with the participation with larger society, they are rapidly converting into Hindu and Christians. For four months I traveled through villages to document traditional Nyishi Divinations.

Many rites and rituals performed by the Shaman are known as Nyub in Nyishi. They hold prestige and influence. A Nyishi myself, but not a fluent Nyishi speaker, I used mixture of Hindi, Nyishi and Assamese while seeking local Shamans. Sharing a border with Assam, Pidgin Assamese and Hindi is commonly spoken among Arunachali. The villagers would often remind me, “Nyub are always busy and they seldom stay at home so if you want to meet the Shaman you have to go to their house in early morning or in the late evening.” The unpredictable rainy weather was in my favor and I was able to meet some Shaman who stayed home.

A few kilometers away from the local police station along a newly constructed Trans Arunachal highway is a small village, Peni. There I met Taba Modo a famed Nyub. He had a cheerful persona and belonged to the class of high Shaman called Nyub Buth that uses trances to converse with the spirits. He showed profound joy as he shared his experiences in solving theft cases, and carrying out healing rituals. As our conversation grew longer, his voice grew weak. Taking the last sip of his tea, he remarked, “I was gifted with good oration which I used for the betterment for everyone. I was able to help people recover their health, and also find their stolen property. I negotiated with the divine beings, yet such ability did not make me wise enough to value a happy family, as I often stayed away from home to carry out rituals… I lost my first wife which is very regretful because I never had the time to properly look after her.”

“…I lost my first wife which is very regretful because I never had the time to properly look after her.”

Taba Modo was 70 years old when I spoke to him in 2021, and his experiences were written on his wrinkling face. He was living with his young wife, children and grandchildren. The melancholic statement was lucid, and his expressiveness became comforting in my presence. During the many interview sessions, it became apparent that, along with sharing their experiences, the Nyub  also described their hardship that comes with their calling.

Fig 1. TabaModo in his traditional Nyishi attire

After a few days traveling by car, I reached Possa village, which is 9 kilometers away from the nearest town. There, I was to be able to meet a well-known local Nyub named Tao Takap and his Oldest Son, Tao Tana. It was a grey day with sunless sky, to warm ourselves we sat around the fire hearth of their traditional stilt bamboo house. Nyub Takap, like Modo, is a Nyub Buth and a popular figure in his surrounding locality.

Fig 2. Tao Takap by the fire hearth inside the bamboo house

Takap’s placid disposition matched his gentle smile. His face was timeworn, and in his calm voice he narrated, “I was born in the year 1942, I started practicing as a Nyub when I was 25 years old. I first started as a Bu that is an assistant of a Nyub, and I followed the chantings with Son and Topu. By the time I turned into an adult, I learned all the rites.”

He is 78 years old in 2021 and living with six of his children and grandchildren, it has been a year since his wife passed away. Due to weakening eye-sight he stayed at home and wove bamboo baskets. He remembered that, “In the year of 1991 in Chukhu Nibi’s house where I carried out my first ritual that included sacrificing of a Mithun…” Mithun is a semi-domesticated bovine (Bos Frontalis). Sacrificing of Mithun by the Shaman is considered a key step to attain complete Shamanhood.

It is often observed that Shamanhood was inheritable in many families, Nyub Takap was one among such Nyub, “I was the last among the five siblings Nikhi, Tara, Kacha, Tagi, and three of my older brothers are not with us anymore and they didn’t practice Shamanhood like me. I became a Shaman like my father Kara and he was Shaman like his father Sania.”

Fig 3. Mithun tied near the sacrificial altar of NyokumYullo festival
Fig 3. Mithun tied near the sacrificial altar of NyokumYullo festival

As the conversation flowed, the thought of how Mithun, the indigenous bovine species of Arunachal Pradesh, are culturally valued in Nyishi culture struck me. I asked if being a Shaman provided enough money? To this question, Tao Tana replied, “Shamanhood is for those people who don’t seek materialistic pleasure.” As per tradition, Shaman are often given 1 to 10 beads tied as a Dumpso, a left forelimb portion of the sacrificed Mithun, some blood of sacrificed Mithun and in 2020-2021 sometimes remunerated with 5000-8000 rupees ($US 65-105). Traditional remunerations are still practiced but it is not clear if this will continue in future.

Takap’s oldest son is an engineer and his other daughters and son has graduated with a bachelor degrees and a master’s degree.  When asked how he was able to afford education for all of his children, he answered, “Since I never had the time to do farming and go hunting or earn enough money for my family, I had to sell around 10 of my Mithuns and beads to meet the expense of educational fees for my children.”

Fig 4. Alw Lwl (left shoulder plate of Mithun presented to the Nyub after the ritual hang near the entrance of a Nyub’s house)

“It was hard to go to everyone’s house who requested for my service. For days, I didn’t get proper sleep, I had to stay at others’ homes for many days and sometimes weeks to carry out the rituals.”

Fig 5. Chanting to invoke the Uyu (Deities) starts from the early hours led by Tao Takap as a chief Shaman.

In the day before the interview at Possa village, at around 5 a.m on a February morning, I attended chanting sessions led by Takap for Yullo ritual. It started by 2-3 a.m. by the Nyub and his Bu which continued for the next 10 to 12 hours. A ,Shaman’s vigorous participation is required. He had to be unfailing in his duties and has to move to different places when called. The following day I awaited his description of such experiences. Takap recalled the past days when he was physically well, “It was hard to go to everyone’s house who requested for my service. For days, I didn’t get proper sleep, I had to stay at others’ homes for many days and sometimes weeks to carry out the rituals.” The chanting went from early morning to late hours, and some rituals are carried out for three days and extended to a week.

Fig 6. Tao Tana

“…There were hard times that we went through which were left unspoken… one of them was my father’s repeated absence. He had to stay at far villages for days… and in his frequent absence, the physical work which is usually done by a father and taught to his son was never taught to us.”

Sitting beside Takap was his oldest son Tana. He is 42 and an engineer. He is enthusiastic about the revival of their traditional religious practices. Following his father’s footsteps, he is practicing as a shaman. He bore a strong presence and participated in the discussion. He too had his share of stories. “My father is well known in our locality, he has served the people who needed his assistance, so we were blessed by Goddess Aan Donyi. People from different places recognize us as Takap’s son and they respect and love us, but along with that, there were hard times that we went through which were left unspoken… one of them was my father’s repeated absence. He had to stay at far villages for days. Responsibilities were shouldered by my dear late mother.” Adding more to his experience he said, “Society has lots of expectations from a Shaman, and it is a status that requires efforts and hard work. My father suffered to raise us, and provided us education, and in his frequent absence, the physical work which is usually done by a father and taught to his son was never taught to us.”

As I turned off my recorder and turned to Takap who was keenly listening, I asked him, if he were given a chance to re-live his life, how would he live? Listening to me carefully with a tender smile he replied, “If I was born as a young boy and I had the freedom to choose how I want to live, I would live just like other villagers, then I will earn money, I will look after my Mithun, I will go hunting, I will go fishing, I will do the farming, because then, I would have time of my own.”

Miss Taba Menia, belonging to the Nyishi tribe, currently lives in Arunachal Pradesh, and is a Ph.D candidate in Anthropology, at Rajiv Gandhi University, Itanagar, India. She is interested in studies of religion and material culture, currently preparing for research on changes in vernacular architecture in Arunachal Pradesh. Her email address is tabamenia43@tmail.com