shaman india
All photos: Noel Foning

I Help Connect People With Their Dead Loved Ones

We spoke with a shaman from the Eastern Himalayan region on guiding the souls of the dead and bringing closure to the living.

In early June this year, Sunny Subba’s older sister died by suicide. Distraught, 36-year-old Subba – who lives in Khargapur city in West Bengal, India – helplessly looked for answers to explain his sister’s final decision. When none made sense, he decided to seek out a shaman. 

“Only a shaman could show the right path to my dead sister’s soul and answer our questions,” he told VICE. 

And so, Subba arranged for a special travel pass amid pandemic travel restrictions to ferry a shaman from the city of Darjeeling that’s a 17-hour drive away. “Kharagpur has no space for shamanistic beliefs, and so we called up our acquaintances in Darjeeling to find a shaman for us. They referred us to Man Bahadur Limbu. We learnt a few interesting facts about our sister through the shaman.”


Man Bahadur Limbu is a “phedangba,” a shaman priest of the highest order in the Limbu community. The Limbu tribe belong to the Kirati ethnic group that is native to Nepal, Bhutan and the hilly regions of West Bengal and Sikkim in India. 

Man Bahadur Limbu is a “phedangba,” a shaman priest of the highest order in the Limbu community.

Man Bahadur Limbu is a “phedangba,” a shaman priest of the highest order in the Limbu community.

For the last three decades, Limbu has been communicating with spirits and, as he puts it, “guiding a lost dead spirit to its ultimate destination.” The 50-year-old says he is the chosen one in his community to help unite these spirits with their ancestors – a profession that has survived centuries of ridicule and persecution. 

Shamanism has been practiced for centuries, in various forms and by various cultures, from the Indigenous people of the Amazon to the native Inuits of the Canadian Arctic. “The belief system has been in practise since many generations across several Indigenous communities in the Eastern Himalayan region, too,” said Amit Khawas, a sociologist based in Siliguri, West Bengal. “Shamans are considered community peacekeepers, faith healers, and medicine men with knowledge of local herbs and medicines that could be used to cure common illnesses.” 

Limbu was initiated into shamanism when he was a teenager living near the Nepal-Tibet border. He was born into a family of priests from Taplejung in Nepal. “Both my parents were shamans, and they realised early on that their youngest son was a little different from the rest of the kids in the family,” he said.


The turning point was when a teenage Limbu was returning home after gathering wood in the forest. “I saw a mythical creature that looked like a bald young boy,” he said. “In a hypnotised state, I followed him to a hilltop but I don’t recollect what happened there. A few hours later when I returned home, I was holding a bunch of medicinal plants that are usually used by the older shamans to cure pneumonia, sore throat, cuts and bruises, and skin allergies. These plants are too rare for a teenager to identify, but the incident told my parents that I might have received the shamanic wisdom in my hypnotised state.” 

The next morning, Limbu’s parents organised a ceremony that initiated the teenage boy into priesthood. After the ceremony, a senior phedangba from the community took him under his wing. He gradually taught Limbu to identify medicinal plants and taught him how to conduct community rituals like marriages and funerals. 

In the early 90s, when Limbu was 18, the Limbu community in Darjeeling called on him to work as a priest, so he moved to the tourist-thronged hill town known for its emerald green tea plantations.

In the eastern Himalayan region, ethnic groups label their shamans differently. Nepali speaking communities call their shaman priests “Jhakri”, while the Lepchas call theirs “Boomthing” (for male shamans) and “Moon” (females). The Tibetan Bhutias call their priests “Lama” and “Lmini.”


What Happens After We Die?

In order to reach the meditative state of trance in which the phedangba can connect with the spirits, Limbu hits a metal plate bell with a wooden stick and plays a leather drum. He says his attire helps him connect with the spirit world, too – be it the bells attached to his belt, the beads he wears around his neck, the white-and-red flowing skirt, or the turban embellished with feathers. “I jump and circle more than 100 times around the altar in different states of consciousness,” he added. “I get special strength from the divine to do this.”

shaman attire

Limbu says his attire helps him connect with the spirit world – be it the bells attached to his belt, the beads he wears around his neck, the white-and-red flowing skirt, or the turban embellished with feathers.

Sanjog Rasaily, a 25-year-old civil service aspirant from Darjeeling, has witnessed the practice of shamanism in his society. He says shamans are revered in this region because they’re believed to have the power to interact with the spirit world through altered states of consciousness. 

“Their goal is usually to direct the spiritual energies from the world of [the] living to the ‘other’ world,” he said. “Though scientifically questionable, they often work as emotional healers by bringing closure to the families mourning their dead loved ones.” 

People from the eastern Himalayan regions have a strong belief in the shamanic customs that have been in practice for several generations, said anthropologist Samar Kumar Biswas, a professor at the University of North Bengal. 

“But the act of communicating with spirits is a magico-religious belief, which is difficult to prove scientifically,” he said.

Limbu getting ready for a shamanic ceremony.

Limbu getting ready for a shamanic ceremony

A few months ago, a family in Darjeeling that had lost its octogenarian elder called on Limbu for a “chinta” – the ceremony that helps a shaman connect with the soul of the deceased. 

During the ceremony, the shaman slipped into a state of trance as he played his drum. “After connecting with my father-in-law’s spirit, he spoke in our Limboo dialect to tell us that the spirit wanted us to take good care of my mother-in-law,“ said Manju Limbu, who witnessed the ceremony.

Limbu in a shamanic ceremony.

Limbu in a shamanic ceremony

Subba, who wanted to connect with the spirit of his deceased sister, also found closure after the shamanic ritual that Limbu presided over. “We were told that she decided to end her life on her own accord, and she is happy in her afterlife,” he said. “My sister’s spirit communicated via the shaman to tell us about two new dresses she had bought recently, unknown to the family. To our sheer disbelief, we found them in a suitcase as told to us by the shaman.”

Limbu is a busy shaman. His appointment schedule for July was fast filling when we chatted at the start of this month. He attends calls from different parts of the Darjeeling hills, Siliguri, Sikkim, and Nepal.

“The job of a shaman can be very tiring, both physically and emotionally,” his wife Lakshamaya told VICE. “He has to travel a lot. I am worried about his health as he often returns home from the ceremonies in the wee hours of morning.” 


"I get special strength from the divine to do this.” – Man Bahadur Limbu

Shamanstic powers are often said to be passed down generations. Limbu believes his third son, who is 26, has shown signs of shamanic gifts. “He sometimes shivers on full moon [nights] and gets into a trance-like state,” said Limbu. “In the past, I lost my father a few years after I was initiated to this practice. I now might have to give way for my son in the future.”

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