Enigma of Spirit-Possession as a Healing Practice: Negotiations with Modern- Medicine

Abstract: On being encountered by disease/illness we develop remedial measures to cope with it. These remedial measures may be seen as the operative health systems in a given culture. This, however, is not to assert that there is, and can be only one operative system of health care. It could be the case, as it often is in India, there are multiple systems contributing to the operative health care in a given community thereby raising questions about the underlying principle that explain the coexistence of these, sometimes non aligning, systems of medicine. This paper is an attempt to bring to light these questions through the practices adopted by and among the Nepali community in Darjeeling.

Keywords: dis-ease/ disease, healing, culture-specific health practices, possession, healing, Nepali community in Darjeeling, modern medicine


Cultures in their encounter with experiences of dis-ease2 have developed certain indigenous modes of coping with these experiences by evolving certain practices that emerge as remedial or preventive measures in face of these encounters. By and large, it can also be argued that the coping practices that are adopted are essentially anchored in the concept of disease/illness that is found prevalent during the time of their emergence. In other words, one could hold that the concept of dis-ease unfolds within the broader category of health. Thus it could be argued that the concepts around disease/illness as well as the coping practices adopted are intrinsically determined by what is considered as being healthy. Particularly in questions of health, these remedial measures that are adopted within a given medical system to remain healthy may be seen as determined by the health care paradigm that is prevalent within a given culture.

The discourse on medical practices suggests a dominant trend of adopting a categorisation of the medical systems available to us today that is posed in a fashion where the modern (allopathy) is placed as distinct from those that are broadly categorised under the category of ‘alternative medical systems’ such as Ayurveda, Homeopathy, Unani and Siddha and particularly the local healing practices3 that are in a way peculiar in certain respects to the community in which they are prevalent. This categorisation implicitly operates in a mode where the former is presented as the modern and the latter becomes representatives of the non-modern (particularly the oral, non-written, practices of the layman) and thus these systems stand as two different and often opposite categories. It was the discourse of Enlightenment during the 17th and the 18th centuries that gave an impetus to the discourse on modern medicine. It thus developed within a framework that was dominated by the notion of the ‘rational’ and ‘methods of reason’4 which by the 19th century had been comfortably reduced to the notion of the ‘scientific’. It is this alliance of modern medicine with the ‘rational-scientific’ that enabled the discourse of modern medicine to lay a claim to universality by virtue of the transferred universality of Reason that consequently legitimised its claim for global acceptance and dominance. Thus, the idea of the ‘normal’, and a ‘healthy, disease-free person’ is understood mostly in terms of the standards set by the discourse of modern biomedicine; a discourse that has as its governing principle of the ideal of ‘separateness’. The operative ideal of ‘separateness’ of modern bio- medicine does not merely manifest itself in its operations by separating itself from the other medical practices, but more importantly is conspicuously marked in the mode in which it “separates mind from the body, the individual from its component parts, the disease into constituent elements, the treatment into measurable segments, the practice medicine into multiple specialities and patients from their social relationships and culture” (Gaines, Floyd, 2004: 98). Thus, the discourse on modern allopathic medicine has set certain standards of being healthy based on the principles of anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry. Illness therefore is a deviance from these already set medical norms where the explanations lie within the domain of the scientific which have quantifiable diagnostic categories or bears naturalistic explanations. This is often understood as opposed to the indigenous/local healing practice which in contrast is perceived as going against the operative ideal of ‘separateness’ in so far as it is seen as operating with a holistic ideal in its approach towards health and hence looked upon as an approach that is not a diligent adherer of the ‘scientific’ paradigm.

This paper explores one such local healing practice among the hill-community of Darjeeling5 with a focus on spirit possession as a process which leads a person to become a healer in the community. In doing so, the exploration intends to understand the process of spirit possession as a phenomenon which in itself can be seen as a case of belief-negotiation. Spirit-possession legitimises itself by transforming itself to a legitimate practice. It is a transformation from being initially viewed as a ‘diseased’ condition as ‘possession’ is considered to be a deviation from the established ‘normal’ defined by the discourse of modern-medicine. The cultural belief system of the community transforms the phenomenon of spirit possession, which is initially taken to be a deviation from the normal, into a phenomenon that is meaningfully accommodated within a system of belief that is not necessarily opposed to the paradigm of the ‘scientific’ or incompatible with modern medicine.

Though the narratives of spirit-possession bring forth varied notions of health, illness and normalcy, these notions emerging from a holistic paradigm of health and within the local healing practices are not perceived as being external to the notions held by the medical norms. Rather, in its negotiations with the standards of the modern, the notions get enigmatically redefined and culturally appropriated in the process of spirit possession. Thus, the paper argues that the cultural understanding of the phenomenon of spirit possession among the people of the Hills of Darjeeling is not a discrete process that is external to modern medicine; but the cultural understanding rather gets constituted by its constant interaction with modern medicine thereby leading to a cultural construction of the concepts of ‘health’ and ‘illness’ that is internally aligned to the paradigm of modern medicine through a process of cultural negotiation rather than being external and opposed to it. We thus begin this exploration by taking a look at the notion of spirit-possession as it is understood within the community in question.

Spirit Possession

It seems to be a well spread belief across cultures that we inhabit a place that is not exclusive to us but is rather a space of cohabitation with not merely other beings but with other modes of beings or spirits as well. Further, the belief that an individual and his/her behaviour can be influenced and even controlled (possessed) by such spirits is also spread across cultures. In fact the English term ‘possession’ anchors upon the concepts of ‘ownership’ and of ‘control/ domination’ (Bourguignon, 2004:137). Following Bourguignon, one could hold that possession beliefs are rooted in the concept of human being as consisting of several elements (such as body, mind, personhood, self, name, identity, soul or souls, even part souls), where one or more of these may be replaced, temporarily or permanently, by another entity or being. Though the behavioural manifestations of possessions, or displacement6 of a person’s soul or other key element by another being vary widely, there is a tendency, following Bourguignon, that by and large, they be neatly categorised into two main groups in terms of the negative changes in physical health or behaviour and enhanced powers, or in terms of alterations in state of consciousness and behaviour.7

However, the kind of boundaries that Bourguignon provides to the concept of ‘possession’, through her acute focus on the behavioural and psychological aspects, confines the concept to its psycho-behavioural dimension at the cost of negligence towards the cultural aspects of possession. One can take recourse to the much fuller definition of Crapanzano who defines it as “any altered state of consciousness indigenously interpreted in terms of the influence of alien spirit,” thereby managing to bring in the aspect of the cultural (Crapanzano, 1977: 7). The bringing of this cultural aspect is important since it manages to foreground that possession is not something that is essentially circumvented or to be fended off but rather, as Ioan Lewis (as cited in Bowie, 2000: 192) holds, is a phenomenon involving the domestication rather than the exorcism of the spirits that possess the individual. This idea of spirit possession as a form of domestication of the spirit has also been spoken about by Boddy (1988) in his study on Zar possession. In fact, Lambek (1998) holds that the phenomenon of spirit possession can be seen as a continuous attempt to establish a continuing relationship with the spirit throughout one’s life, which is why he refers to the phenomenon of spirit possession as the socialisation of the spirit.

Lambek’s notion of ‘socialisation of spirit’ in fact provides an appropriate lens to capture the phenomenon of being embodied by a deity that is found among the people in the Darjeeling Hills, especially given that the attempt here too is to establish a mutually acceptable relationship between the deity and the person possessed by the former except here, the aspect of socialisation is taken even further by directing the phenomenon of such a relation by transforming it into a practice of healing. Consequently, the phenomenon of possession is looked upon as an initiation for a person to become a healer in the community by virtue of the person being preferred by the deity and possessed by the deity. It is the disclosure of this fact of preference made by the deity that is indicative of the individual’s potentiality to become a healer and to perform healing within the community.


This phenomenon of possession is referred to as utrinu in the local dialect of Darjeeling. The term utrinu literally means ‘to descend’ or ‘to come down’ as in from the stairs or from a higher floor of a house, or to ‘step-down’ from a vehicle, etc., and is here employed in describing the phenomenon metaphorically to imply the descent of deities on specific individuals who the deity deems fit to inhabit. It is in a deeper sense suggestive of the higher plane of being attributed to the plane of deities and spirits or deuta8.The term ‘utreko’9 is therefore commonly used to refer to the individuals who have experienced this descent or been possessed by higher spirits. In a sense, though the phenomenon of utninu is a private affair since it engages the self solely as a being that is in a specific form of relation to a spirit of another plane, it is nevertheless also undeniable that these very bodily and behavioural changes that accompany this private affair transforms it into an event that unfolds in the shared space of the world. Further, it must also be noted that since as a phenomenon it is a socialisation of the spirit, therefore, utrinu here is not merely an event restricted to one particular point in time but is rather to be seen as a process of becoming of a being, a transition of the possessed person as it passes through various phases after being possessed transitions involving struggles and negotiations with the deity and various others who populate the space of this practice and actively participate in it.

Since the process of utrinu begins involuntarily, with the deity choosing a specific individual, among many to inhabit, the choice or preference expressed or ruchi10 of the higher spirit in one person over the others is held to be based on the characteristics of the person that qualifies him/her as an eligible medium for possession. These attributes, as suggested by one of the healer, include the nature, purity and capabilities of the chosen individual. She states that “they [the possessed] are preferred by the deuta, liked by the deuta since they know that he/ she is chokho11 (pure) and can take up the responsibility” (Rumba12).However, given the vagueness of these criteria, these attributes, in a sense, are more of preconditions or prerequisites rather than the guarantor of the choice of the deuta. Moreover, though utrinu, appears to be lucrative given the fact that one is chosen by higher spirits, therefore a blessing, in reality it is in fact unanimously defined as a ‘struggle’, and ‘suffering’ by those who are thus chosen. In fact, the pain and suffering initially is also unanimously seen as akin to some form of illness. This state of being ill is termed as bimari, and is not merely confined to the boundaries of the body in terms of the physical pain experienced but also transgresses into the terrain of the psychic, like the feeling of restlessness or helplessness, anxiety etc., and the social like being marked as being mad or touched by lunacy. It is however, important to note that the term bimari that is used to describe the experience of the onset of a possession is a term that is used in the local dialect to indicate any condition that requires medical attention. In other words, informed by the modern medicine, the experience of any pain or unease is interpreted, first and foremost, through the lens of modern medicine. That is, the experience is sought to be made sense of within the paradigm of modern medicine. The term bimari, however, does not make a distinction, as suggested in some literature, between ‘disease’ which is taken to be suggestive of physiological dimensions and ‘illness’ which is taken to be suggestive of cultural perception of a condition. Rather bimari is a term that is used to suggest almost all kinds of feeling of dis-ease. Though, there is the term ‘bisanco’ also available in the local dialect; but it is frequently used to suggest a feeling of uneasiness or mental discomfort like anxiety, lethargy etc. By and large, the term bimari is used to signify a sense of objectivity to the cause of the discomfort or unease, while the term ‘bisancho’ could also denote a feeling of unease without any objective cause. Thus any bodily symptoms or behavioural and psychological deviation from the ‘normal state’ is taken to be a bimari where the ‘normal’, as is clear, is determined within the bounds of the paradigm of modern medicine. Thus, the community, given its exposures to western medicine is not blind to the fact that one could be mistaken about the interpretations of the symptoms of possession.13 In fact, as it becomes clearer during these interviews, possession has to cross a negative barrier, that is to say, that within the community one is not possessed but merely ill unless proven otherwise. For instance, experiences like heaviness of the body or ague are first and foremost thought of as deviations from the standard of the ‘normalcy’ and hence perceived as illnesses thereby leading the ailing person to resort to medical practitioners. In fact, more often than not, it is the failure of the efficacy of modern medicine upon the ailing person that leads a person to the door of a healer, who is supposed to be versed and conversant with the phenomenon of possession. Interestingly, sometimes these healers themselves recommend the ailing person to seek help of modern medicine if he/she happens to visit them first and the healer is convinced that it is not a case of possession.14

Below are some of the interviews with the healers describing their experience of possession that elucidates the point being made here:

…Nothing had happened to me till I was in college. I was in North Bengal University doing my M.A. and I was staying in the hostel. It was then I fell ill all of a sudden. It wasn’t like being home sick but something difficult to understand. I could not understand what bimari had caught me; I would feel as if I have fever but it wasn’t fever. I would always be restless, never felt like staying on one place. Early morning something would just drag me to a Maa Kali shrine. There was a Sal forest which had a temple of Shiva. I would be urged to go there. I would never realise but I would be there and when I would come back everyone would be looking for me. Somehow my other inclinations were waning and I was dominated by the inclination towards puja (ritual of worship). I would be asked to do namaskaar (an act of paying homage) to Surya bhagwan (god) facing towards Kurseong (a town and sub-division of Darjeeling district), though I would do that unknowingly (Shakuntala15).

I had the feeling of being bimari for I would have no control over my urges and inclinations. For instance, I would be playing something and then something within would tell me to go and light the diya (lamp) in the morning and evening. Even when I was just sitting I would feel like going and doing puja. In a sense, these inclinations were beyond my control. (Kumari16).

…There was a cowshed here (she points towards the left side of the room we were sitting in) when I was small. From there a bald-headed short man with a crest would appear. He used to wear a frock. He had necklaces and bells around his neck. He used to carry two hens on either side of his arms. He would force me to go with him. I used to shout, ‘mother he is coming to take me, send him away!’ and go under my bed but my mother would not see him. He would speak in a language which was difficult to comprehend but I would understand what he was saying through his action. When I refused to go, he would grow into a huge figure. He would say ‘it is time for you to go.’ He would hold my hand and I used to scream. When I refused he would throw the hen on me. Later I began to see him every day, even in my dreams. Then I used to shout and panic. My family and neighbours had to hold me during these panic attacks. Everyone knew that something was not normal here and that I was bimari and needed medical attention for I was seeing visions that none could see. My family agreed that I was suffering from a medical condition that made me delusional (Lagen17).

These are excerpts from the narrations of three different individuals of Darjeeling describing their inception of possession. Though these three narratives narrating the onset of the phenomenon of possession vary in their details pertaining to the onset of the phenomenon18 and do not qualify to be posited as a definite symptom of possession, it can be seen that they all nevertheless, converge in so far as they all foreground the fact that the experience of possession is primarily seen through the lens of a bimari or an illness which is suggestive of the paradigm of modern medicine by which they are informed and within which they essentially operate. These experiences are perceived as illnesses not primarily because of the bodily or psychological discomfort that they bring about but is rather perceived as states of illness by virtue of the deviation that is highlighted from the ‘normal’ in terms of their experiences and their behaviour which is marked by the prospect of being explained through the naturalistic explanations available within the paradigm of the ‘scientific’ or ‘modern medicine’.

In fact, narrations of mata/guruji suggest that the attempt is always to first look for natural explanations by the possessed and the ones around him/her at the onset of the possession. For instance, experiences like heaviness of the body or ague are usually thought of as illnesses which call for medical intervention. Jyoti Dewan19 narrates her initial experience of possession as follows:

…My throat used to get dry, my brother used to go and get Dr. Bob whom we had nearby…

Similarly Mahendra20 narrates,

…I used to feel I was having ague, my body used to undergo kampa (shaking of the body), and my mother used to think that I was suffering from fever so she used to spread quilt after quilt on me but later I realised that it was not a symptom of chills and fever but actually I was shaking because of possession. When I was in class ten I went to mataji (at Singha dham) and she said that a deity is there in the body.

These initial experiences on the onset of a possession, as suggested, range from illnesses which have a ready plausible naturalistic explanation that are easy to point like the experience of Mahendra and Jyoti to those that are not easily understood like the earlier descriptions of Kumari, Shakuntala and Lagen, but nevertheless they are all invariably captured within the ambit of the category of ‘illness’, highlighting that the community initially attempts to make sense of the phenomenon of utrinu in its diverse manifestations and the range of experienced by the ‘possessed’ in terms of the paradigm of modern medicine. Such perspectives towards these experiences have, more often than not, prompted the person to first seek the help of a medical practitioner. Shakuntala, for instance, narrates,

…I visited the doctor at Planter’s. I was waiting outside in the waiting room with other people. Amongst them were two old ladies from Ghoom21. As we started talking and expressing the reasons for our visit to the doctor, they suggested that this might not be a bimari and that it could be the case that a deuta might have chosen me. Her observation was based on the fact that her granddaughter was going through similar problems and medicines were of no avail till they realised that the deity had come into her granddaughter’s body.

For others too, the doctors practicing modern medicine are the first people they resort to for help. However, this is not to say that people do not operate with an etiology that is employed to differentiate between those that require medical help from those that demand the attention of the healers. This can be observed even in the description of Shakuntala where the two women were able to suggest that it is not a medical problem. Thus, the healers provide therapy for problems which may range from bodily to non-bodily problems.22

It is so believed that in case of possession, it is the established practicing healers who are able to ascertain the nature of the being that has possessed a person. Kampa or the shaking of the body is one of the indicators of being possessed by a deity. However, even though there is a certain etiology that is understood and followed by the people yet the symptoms of being possessed by the deity have to go through the process of eliminating the possibilities of ‘hysteria’ or ‘mental illness’ or any other illness as defined by the medical condition. Shakuntala further narrates;

Later since it was her (diety’s) ruchi (wish), all of a sudden during my sleep she gave a darshan (a vision). I dreamt of flames of fire like in the movies where the atma (soul) wanders. That flame came towards me. I was unwell even then. I woke up all of a sudden. I was unaware and that was the time when a number of thefts were taking place so I screamed and ran. But after sometime I just could not walk, I could not even keep my feet on the floor. My illness aggravated, it seemed like a problem

related to the heart. I even did a long medical procedure thinking it is a heart problem. I became a case of experiment for all the doctors. The doctors relate these kinds of symptoms to hysteria but it was later realised that it was not hysteria in my case.

The deviance from the ‘normal’ that utrinu leads a person to, particularly during the initial stages, is often not discernable from a state of ‘madness’ since the ‘chosen’ people ‘run around’ or ‘dance on the streets’ or ‘dress all in red and go around’ when the deity comes to displace their self during possession.

Thus, utrinu, though a divine calling for one to become the healer, is not always described as a positive experience. It is sometimes even seen as a rather ‘shameful’ one by some. Thus, these experiences and deviant behaviour that the person undergoes is not free of its constant encounters with the idea of the ‘normal’ according to the medical standards. The standards of the modern medical system also become important for the question of legitimacy that the healing practice of the lay man has to undergo. Though utrinu and the consequent practice of healing through powers bestowed by the spirits is one of the significant parts of the culture, it nevertheless has to negotiate through the discourse that brands this practice as being ‘tradition of-superstition’ or ‘culture of blind-faith’.

In the case of illness caused by the coming of the deity upon a person, it is the only the mata/guruji who is able to identify and validate the deity that has come unto him/her. Diwas’ mother23 narrates instances where he was identified as being chosen by the deity by a healer.

When he one and a half year old, he was very unwell. It was Saturday morning when I was taking him to a doctor; Dr. Pinto was the specialist at that time. On my way, I met someone I knew. He was a Bengali working at the co-operative office. He was a healer, one on whom Kali had descended and lived in Haridashatta. He asked me, where I was going. I told him that the child is unwell and I am taking him to the doctor. I had wrapped him in a blanket. He removed the blanket and looked at the child and clicked his finger thrice. Then he told me that there is no need to take him to the doctor, this is not a bimari which requires him to be checked by the doctor, nothing will happen. But I took my child to the doctor, nevertheless.

Similarly for Mahendra, it was during his tenth standard when he was unwell and undertaking treatment. But then he was subconsciously drawn towards the shrine of the established healer he had dreamt of, Kumari from Maa Sigha dham24 at around eight o’clock at night to meet her. Though he was unaware, he was later told by his mother and neighbours about it. Though he had never met the healer before, he led his family and few neighbours to Maa Singha dham. It was in her shrine that Kumari questioned the identity of the possessing entity, when it was confirmed that he had a deity descended upon him. Once the identity was disclosed the training process began for him.

Thus, like in the case of Diwas, though the already practicing healers identified his case as utrinu, it is a necessary condition that the deity which has come upon the person speaks through the person. This speaking of the deity is referred to as bakya phumnu, where the term bakya stands for ‘voice’, ‘word’ or ‘phrase’ and phumnu literally means ‘to break’; thus the deity has to begin to speak through the person. It is through this symbolic event that the deity residing in the body reveals his/her identity. The experience of the phenomenon of bakya phumnu is an arduous one25 Jyoti narrates:

…My throat used to hurt and I would not be able to speak, it was because it was difficult for the deity to speak through me for the first time…The deity did not speak through me. I went to the guruji at 6th mile but he could not do much…then they took me to Kumari mata but she could not do anything…Even Shiva dham guruji, Rockville dham guruji could not help…

With bakya phumnu the phase involving the training begins for the people undergoing this process26 to understand the ways of the practice.

However, what is important is the mode in which the phenomenon of bakya phumnu is conceived of as the cause of the bodily discomfort experienced by the person at the onset of possession thereby rendering the initial experience of illness a perfectly mechanistic and naturalistic outlook. This outlook transforms the whole phenomenon of possession from a plane of the supra-natural to a phenomenon that is ‘supra within the natural’. This in fact allows the enigmatic relation between the belief in spirit possession among the people of Darjeeling and their equally ‘scientific’ outlook with their indubitable faith in modern medicine to synthesise as a unified outlook where the former is not opposed to the latter.


The process of utrinu can thus be looked at enigmatically as both an illness as well as a therapy since it is a practice of healing, though the healer to be a healer has to, at an earlier phase, undergo the suffering of akin to that of an ailment. In is in this relation that negotiations are made to construe the ‘illness’ as ‘healthy’.

The process of being possessed by a deity brings forth a certain etiology, an idea of ‘normalcy’, which though specific to the process in itself is not devoid of the interruptions by the modern medical understanding of being ‘normal’ and is constantly informed by it. Even when it is a culturally accepted phenomenon and a recognised practice, it is, as can be seen, constantly negotiating with the idea of the ‘normal’ that is operating in an alignment with the standards of the modern medicine. The seeking of explanations for the experiences on the onset of possession in terms of ailments within modern medical systems and the constant comparison with hysteria, madness, and other possible forms of mental disorders and in its trying to prove that it is not any one of these, the process of utrinu shows that this cultural phenomenon constantly interacts, negotiates and intersects with the normalcy as accepted in the modern medical systems. In doing so, despite these interactions, what is brought about is the cultural construction of illness which is different from the diagnostic characteristics employed by the modern medical practices. Thus, the non-modern healing practices are not external to the idea of the modern but pave its way through the idea of the modern since it manages to negotiate and construct the very idea of ‘health’ and ‘illness’ that is much broader and open to accommodate states that would not be deemed ‘healthy’ within the strict paradigm of modern medicine.


1 This paper would not have been possible without the support of my respondents. I would like to thank my respondents for sharing their personal life histories and providing consents to make their narratives public without the clause of anonymity. I would like to thank my supervisor, Prof. Ramesh Bairy for his constant guidance and motivation for this project and Prof. Sharmila for her valuable inputs, insights and suggestions. I would like to thank Prof. P. G. Jung for taking the time and trouble to undertake the tedious process of going through the rough drafts of this paper and giving his valuable comments and suggestions.

2 These experiences of dis-ease are intended to be captured through the categories of “disease” and “illness” which becomes central to any discourse of health. In the attempts made in the literature to distinguish one from the other, the notion of “disease” is said to refer to the abnormalities in the structure and/or function of organs and organ systems and the pathological states that are objective and independent of cultural determinants; while the notion of “illness” on the other hand is understood as making a reference to an individual’s perceptions and experiences and thus is seen as a notion that is culturally informed and hence not limited to the boundaries of “disease”. In other words, “…illness-experience [as distinct from disease] is an intimate part of social systems of meaning and rules for behaviour, it is strongly influenced by culture [and] culturally constructed” (Kleinman et al, 2006: 141).

3 See Dunn (1976), Leslie (1977), Kleinman (1983)

4 Here the “rational” and “methods of reason” must not be taken to be opposed to “empiricism” as is usually the case in which the history of Philosophy is framed, but rather as accommodative of it. Here the term “rational” stands to represent the opposition to the speculative and dogmatic modes of knowledge production which permits explanations that cannot be reduced to explanations that are either “naturalistic” or justified through the use of “reason”. In other words, here it stands opposed to knowledge-claims based on faith.

5 A district in the state of West Bengal.

6 However, Bourguignon holds that though it is rare, nevertheless it is perfectly possible that the displacing being may also be thought to enter the body of the displaced without displacing the soul of the host, even though the behavioural manifestations are those of this additional presence (ibid 137)

7 These aspects are generally labelled as Possession (non-trance possession) and Possession trance respectively, thereby indicating that the trance (dissociation) is absent in case of the former.

8 Deuta is a generic term for gods and goddesses.

9 Utreko is the noun from derived from the verb utrinu.

10 Literally meaning ‘interest in’.

11 Here purity does not necessarily imply bodily purity and it is not an age or gender specific phenomenon since this can happen to both men and women of all ages.

12 Rumba, Gopal. Personal interview. 25th August 2010. He (75 years) has been practicing as a Jhakri for the last fifty years in his Shiva Dham which was built ten years ago.

13 Moreover, the matter is further complicated by the fact that such experiences are also possible when the body is embodied by a boxi or churel or bhut(evil- spirit) rather than a deuta.

14 However, in case the legitimacy of the fact of possession is confirmed, and given that a person can be embodied by good as well as by evil entities, the first task of the healer is to determine the nature of the spirit. Though the descent of the deities upon the individuals is higher in the hierarchy in comparison to the coming of an evil spirit into the body but both may lead to conditions which are not considered normal and therefore demand assistance. The assistance is to identify the entity that possesses the body and on identification, to judge whether the route of exorcism is to be undertaken or the “socialisation of the spirit” is to commence. The therapy to either remove the entity or to assist in establishing a mutually acceptable relationship between the possessed and the deity if it is a good entity/ deity can only be performed by the chosen few who have undergone the process of utrinu themselves and are established mata/guruji (practicing female/male healers) within the community.

15 Rai, Shakuntala. Personal interview. 23rd Dec 2012. She (43 years) is unmarried and practicing healing in her own personal shrine at Haridashatta.

16 Sinchury, Kumari. Personal interview. 12th Dec. 2012. She (54 years) is unmarried, possessed since birth and practices healing in her personal shrine, the well-known Maa Singha dham

17 Yolmo, Lagen. Personal interview. 12th Nov. 2011. She (28 years) practices at Seti Devî shrine and was possessed at the age of seven and has been practicing for twenty years since.

18 They are similar in so far as all the three narrations project a relation to a deity. For instance, while the first two experiences feature some explicit form of deity and is woven with an important component of the urge to perform or offer pujas. In Lagen’s narration, one can discern an implicit reference to a deity in her reference to the short man who could be seen as one of the deities among the pantheon of deities that the community believes and worships, bojudeuta (often referred to as mother goddess or satehangma) as illness. Though the experiences in its various linkages do point out to the deity or being possessed by the deity but for the people who were undergoing these experiences these only qualify as an illness for which they needed help from an array of therapeutic facilities that were available to them.

19 Dewan, Jyoti. Personal interview. 16th Nov. 2011. She has been married for the last 16 years and has been possessed after her marriage though she showed some signs of possession during her childhood.

20 Pradhan, Mahendra. Personal interview. 20th Dec. 2012. He (30 years) was possessed when he was in his tenth standard and had to give up a year of his studies during that time and is now married and working as a teacher.

21 A small locality in the outskirts of Darjeeling, well known for its railway station and has the record of being the highest railway station in India at an altitude 7407 feet.

22 The healing that is provided by the healer is not restricted to bodily, pathological problems but it also ranges to social problems as well. Divination is one of the main tasks that the healers perform for which the people visit them. It is by virtue of being chosen that one can divine and foretell the future, answer queries of people and provide the solutions.

23 Chettri, Krishna. Personal interview. 11th Jan 2013. She (52) years is a housewife and assists in the shrine of her son Diwas who is a renowned healer and also a teacher in a school.

24 Dham in the local dialect means the place or shrine where an established healer of the community practices. But in its larger connotation it denotes a place where the higher spirits descent upon the chosen ones. The prefix to the term usually denotes the spirit which descents there.

25 Though in some rare cases it is merely a step that needs to be taken and does not accompany the physical discomforts that the person has to go through, these are nevertheless looked upon as a relief for even they recognise the ordeal that they have been saved from. For instance, in the case of Radha the ordeal of bakya phumnu was as easy as it could get. She narrates; “…on the 4thof November 1998, the day of Guru Nanak’s birthday, on a full moon day, I went to my friend’s shrine (who was a healer). When I went to the shrine I had kampa and suddenly the Identity was revealed. Fortunately for me, it was not as difficult as it is in case of others”. For her, after the deity spoke through her, the mantras (incantation) came to her on its own accord from the next day onwards when she sat down to pray.

26 During the training the chosen individuals who becomes an apprentice stays in the temple in order to get trained in the practice. This training is not only to learn about the rituals but also to learn to domesticate the deity (socialisation) which comes into the body of the person. Manish, another apprentice of Kumari, talking of his experience says “…for that one year I did sewa (service)in the shrine, I did meditation. It was also an opportunity for me to stay in the shrine and learn good things, breathing control, bhajan (hymns) This phase of living in the shrine is considered a phase where one learns to get back to normalcy after having displayed deviant behaviour during the earlier phase of utrinu. …People usually say that one stays in the temple to become a mata/guruji but nothing can be further from the truth… One needs to stay in the temple. In order to come to grips with the possession so that one can lead a normal life. You learn things in the temple that helps you in the process. In the temple I was not idle, I used to do sewa (service), cleaning the temple, going around buying things and doing things that are normally done”.

Once the training is complete the apprentice receives the diyo-batti(lamp) from the guru [the established healer who oversees the training of the possessed] after which the apprentice can begin his/her own practice in his/her own personal dham(shrine). Till the time the apprentice does not receive the diyo-batti he/she is not allowed to practice on his/her own. However, for Kumari, though she had a guru she mentions that it was the devi herself who “ascended on me and gave me diyo-batti, she was the one who gave me the diyo-kalash (lamp and a pot) in my dreams”. She adds that this is like a “certificate that is given after the completion of training”. After this, the person becomes a part of the practice and begins to practice healing in his/her shrine.


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RINZI LAMA. Rinzi Lama holds an MA in Anthropology from University of Pune. She is pursuing her doctoral thesis in Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. The tentative title of her doctoral thesis is Healing Practices Among the Nepali Community in Darjeeling. She has presented papers in several national and international conferences and has also worked as a field ethnographer in the field of market research for Lumiere Business Solutions, Nerul, Mumbai.

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Rinzi Lama holds an MA in Anthropology from University of Pune. She is pursuing her doctoral thesis in Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. The tentative title of her doctoral thesis is Healing Practices Among the Nepali Community in Darjeeling. She has presented papers in several national and international conferences and has also worked as a field ethnographer in the field of market research for Lumiere Business Solutions, Nerul, Mumbai.

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