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Talking Story

Talking Story

It was late afternoon by the time we headed toward Baraunse, the first of the Nyimba villages. The October air was cool and crisp, but the sun still felt warm on our bodies. I looked up at the sharp peaks bathed in deep saturated blue and it began to sink in that I was really here in the Himalayas. In the distance, women carried baskets of grain strapped to their heads, with their dzos (yak-cows) walking beside them. We crossed paths with children shepherding goats who made room for us by coaxing their charges over the steep edge as we passed through the veil of their dust clouds. Farther up the narrow trail, we stepped aside for a man who was behind us, carrying a newly carved log ladder about eight feet long across his shoulders. He smiled as he passed.

We were at about 9,800 feet elevation and it was a relatively easy, steady climb—a good way to get acclimated for our first day. Although stopping to shoot the scenery slowed down our travel time, I was grateful for the opportunities to take in the beauty, enjoy the quietude, and catch my breath in the clean but thinner air. I heard Cora reminding me, “Exhale twice. Inhale once.” She had trekked in high altitudes many times and explained that this would prevent me from hyperventilating—a common occurrence with inexperienced trekkers who have the tendency to continually gasp for air in an effort to get more oxygen while forgetting to exhale.

Coming across some cairns that looked like mini stone houses indicated that we were at the edge of Baraunse. Overlooking the village, we could see a cluster of multilevel rectangular homes terraced into a steep hillside and surrounded by fields. We found the next dhami we were coming to visit, Sonam Gyalpo, by spotting the large trident posted on his rooftop, the common indicator of a dhami’s home.

Sonam, who must have been in his late twenties or early thirties, was the youngest of the Humla dhamis. His short, black, curly hair peeked out from under a wool cap rather than a turban. He was extremely shy but welcoming, immediately inviting us for tea in the kitchen and living area of his home. Climbing down a ladder from a hole in the rooftop, we were plunged into the darkest and smokiest room I had ever been in. As is typical of homes in this area, for insulation purposes, the kitchen has only one small square window for light and ventilation. Many of the local women suffer a constant cough from the many hours spent in these smoky and dusty spaces.

Having come in from the bright afternoon light, we were operating nearly blind as we fumbled to set up a camera and sound gear. Seeing nothing but black, Joseph asked Karel to try to eke out more light with a reflector, but there wasn’t much for it to reflect. Someone grabbed my foot while searching for the microphone. I leaned back into someone’s chin trying to find the wall. We finally surrendered to settling down and feeling our way to our seats by crawling along the rug on the dirt floor. When our eyes adjusted and we were at last able to see something, we could make out the silhouette of Sonam seated next to Thomas, the outline of Sonam’s wife working at the woodstove in the middle of the room, and the glow of the embers. The cameras were able to pick up more in low-light situations than our naked eyes, so it wasn’t until we reviewed the footage and photos later that we realized, in addition to the dhami and his wife, there was a roomful of kids quietly staring wide-eyed at their overexcited guests.

Karel and I had some romantic notions about drinking yak butter tea, as if partaking in this ancient custom would somehow authenticate our Himalayan experience. We were very excited when Sonam’s wife poured hot water into a butter churn that contained tea leaves and yak butter. Having had some experience with this, Cora advised us to drink the tea with moderate pacing. It is customary to keep the guests’ cups filled, so drinking our tea too quickly would put pressure on the host to continually fill our cups, while drinking too slowly could insult the host, and would cause the tea to cool and the yak butter to congeal and separate to the surface. As Sonam’s wife repeatedly moved the plunger up and down, she joked with Thomas and Sonam about the local belief that the way a woman churns yak butter tea hints at her skills as a lover. After the first few sips, I could see the white of Karel’s teeth—the big grin I would come to depend on throughout our travels, and I decided that if I thought of the salty creamy tea as soup, rather than as a beverage, it was actually quite satisfying.

Thomas then explained to Sonam our project to document healing traditions in Humla and our desire to witness a healing ceremony. Sonam assured us we would be invited should there be a need for his healing work, but added, “I have been very busy with farm work, and there has been very little illness in the village.” He hadn’t been called to perform a healing ritual in three or four months. It seemed unlikely that we would be able to shoot Sonam in trance during our visit, but he kindly agreed to an on-camera interview the following morning.

Taking advantage of the remaining daylight, we decided to catch a glimpse of village life. We found a middle-aged couple hard at work digging a hole about three feet deep and equally wide, with a fire beside them. Preparing the storage of cattle fodder for the winter, they layered slices of dried turnip into the hole that was lined with cornhusks and later sealed with ash and dirt. Continuing down a narrow lane between houses, we found ourselves in the middle of a herd of goats returning home after a day of grazing. In the chaos of the mass homecoming, the din of bells, shepherd whistles, desperate calls of nanny goats in search of their kids, and the babies’ responding bleats suddenly engulfed us.

It was pleasant to meet some of the villagers who greeted us with smiles and kindness. The only exception was the other village dhami, with whom we did not schedule a meeting. As he passed by, I caught his scornful look. I was later told he was deliberately giving me the “evil eye.” Apparently, he’d been insulted that we did not ask to interview him, even though he had been a dhami longer than Sonam had been. Although I felt sensitive to the idea of offending someone, it was a great reminder that like my teacher in Seattle, healer or not, these people are prone to human frailties like the rest of us—jealousy, fear, ego struggles.

At nightfall, I was happy to retire to our tents, which had been pitched outside on the upper level of Sonam’s home. Having been up since 4:30 a.m., flying, trekking, and shooting, I was beyond ready to sink into my sleeping bag. Just as I was relishing settling in, though, we got word that we needed to gear up: the dhami had unexpectedly been summoned and was already on the move toward the patient’s home. It did not feel right to be excited that someone was ill and in need of healing, but the opportunity to witness and record our first dhami ceremony was thrilling enough to make me forget about my fatigue.

We scrambled in the dark between houses and along a dirt path. All that was visible were the narrow patches revealed by flashlight beams. Arriving at the patient’s home, we entered the already crowded kitchen and living area. Surrounding the patient, Gelkit, were her three husbands, several children, and mother-in-law. As is traditional for many Humlis, Gelkit practices a form of polyandry in which one woman is married to all the brothers of a family. This custom helps to control birth rates and to keep family resources centralized. When I realized one woman was responsible for all the domestic needs of several husbands and children, I was not surprised to learn that fatigue was among Gelkit’s symptoms. She was also suffering from insomnia, and pain in her stomach, back, and chest.

Nyadak, the dangri (dhami’s translator, ritual partner), had already started setting the stage by lighting butter lamps—small metal vessels reminiscent of Aladdin’s lamp fueled by yak butter, with strips of rolled cloth for wicks. Dangri Nyadak then placed barley grains onto a rug and laid them in the shape of the Tibetan swastika, an ancient, auspicious symbol used for protection and blessings. The dangri began chanting a mantra to invoke the spirit of the deity and to induce the trance state of the dhami.

Joseph and Karel had just enough time to hook up the boom microphone and hang a forty-watt battery-powered light bulb, the only lighting source we had brought. Dhami Sonam yawned and looked as if he were about to fall asleep. Dangri Nyadak’s rhythmic invocation began to calm the effects of the adrenaline that had been coursing through me since we got our call to action. Suddenly, Dhami Sonam snorted and shook violently. As his body jerked, his wool cap flew off his head. His arms clasped his crossed legs, which allowed him to remain seated while his body was jolted by the energy coming into him. This happened in two waves. The dangri fell silent. The deity embodied.

The deity could only communicate with gestures through his host because Dhami Sonam had not yet acquired the power of speech while in trance. It’s not appropriate for laypeople to speak directly to a god, so the patient must address questions to the dangri. The dangri, serving as intermediary, then translates the deity’s prescriptions and instructions to the patient. Through Dhami Sonam’s hand signals, arm movements, and head nods, the dangri ascertained the diagnosis: a hungry ghost was attacking Gelkit. When she crossed paths with some women from another village near the grain mill, the phantom parasite jumped from those women and attached to her, causing her illness and disturbances. The prescription included the dhami performing some healing and exorcism procedures, and Gelkit having to make an offering of flour, sugar, yak butter, and a mix of ash and chicken egg to prevent the ghost from returning.

Dhami Sonam removed a shallow black metal ladle that had been heating over coals. Dhamis often demonstrate their trance healing powers by handling a hot ladle or drinking boiling oil from a ritual bell while exhibiting no pain or evidence of burns. Dhami Sonam licked the hot ladle, blew his breath on the patient, and repeated this three times. He then rubbed his foot with yak butter and pressed some barley grains against the hot ladle with his heel, which created a dramatic sizzling and smoking effect. Dhami Sonam stretched out his leg and pushed his heel against Gelkit’s chest and stomach, while her mother-in-law steadied her. She let out a slight groan and grimaced. He completed the healing ritual by lightly lashing the patient’s head and back with a whip made of wool straps to chase away the ghost. The dangri said that the deity indicated that she would feel well in three days. When the ritual came to an end, Dhami Sonam snorted, jerked violently once, and threw grains in the air. He returned to his body, pulled his hat onto his head, and was free of any memories of what had just occurred.

With the excitement over, weariness began to creep over me again. Jigme, one of our local guides and translators, intercepted me on the way to my sleep sanctuary. “The women of the village are ready to sing for you now,” he said, smiling. I had forgotten that earlier we had requested to listen to and record the village women’s traditional songs. They had waited patiently for us to return from the healing ritual. There was no way I could refuse them now. Through their kitchen cough, hacking, and laughter, they sang their hearts out. When the chang (barley beer) began to flow, I realized our eternal day would continue its run into the night.

When my head did finally hit the pillow, which was really just my rolled up shell jacket, it was hard to fathom that we had only landed in Nepal four days prior. As we moved higher in elevation, we were moving deeper into the mystical. My body was exhausted and all it wanted to do was sleep, but my mind was stretching, bending, and twisting, trying to wrap itself around all the sights, sounds, and people we’d encountered, and this had only been our first day in Humla.

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Excerpted, with the author’s permission, from Talking Story: One Woman’s Quest to Preserve Ancient Spiritual and Healing Traditions by Marie-Rose Phan-Lê. Also visit Talking Story, an original documentary film that explores the spiritual and healing traditions of indigenous cultures worldwide.

Marie-Rose Phan-Le
Marie-Rose Phan-Le

Marie-Rose Phan-Lê has 20+ years’ experience in film/TV production. She has traveled extensively from Hawaii to the Himalayas for her award-winning documentary film and companion book, Talking Story (North Atlantic Books). Marie-Rose transitioned her flourishing healing practice, working one-to-one with individuals, to focusing on the one-to-many through her media projects and consulting work. Currently the Chief Operating Officer and Creative Director at High Impact Inc., she applies ancient wisdom to the modern challenges of running a successful business. She is also the founder of Healing Planet Project, a non-profit organization whose mission is the preservation and presentation of spiritual and healing traditions. Marie-Rose was born in Vietnam, emigrated to France, and later to the United States, and currently lives in Hawaii. Talkingstorybook.com