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The Oracles of Ladakh - An article by M. Ashraf, former Director General of Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir

The Oracles of Ladakh

An article by M. Ashraf, former Director General of Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir

Ladakh has many interesting and mysterious aspects and one of the most well known institutions among the local population is the Oracle, “Lha-mo” (female) or “Lha-pa” (male). It is a type of a spiritual healer. The oracles also divine one’s future.

There are oracles which are associated with different monasteries. There are also oracles in villages that are mostly concerned with healing of ailments.

The rituals of Ladakh oracles are little known to the outside world, even though as many as 200 may be practicing in the region. The rites and rituals are most likely derived from the cultures of animistic tribes and shamans of Central Asia, China, Tibet, and Mongolia. Most of the oracles are Tibetan Buddhists, the primary religion practiced in Ladakh.

Oracles usually meet patients in their houses, bringing them to an altar in the kitchen. Generally, the oracle works with several patients simultaneously and talks with each about their ailments before going into a trance. It takes the oracle about 15 minutes of chanting, ringing bells, praying, and beating drums to go into the trance. It is said that when the oracle gets into a trance, a spirit enters oracle's body. Spirits that possess oracles during trance states are usually said to be from the pantheon of Buddhist deities.

Sometimes spirits from other religions are also supposed to possess the oracle. These oracles are said to suck out a disease from a person. Local people also get some objects like needles etc. sucked from their animals like cows which these may have swallowed unknowingly.

The oracles also play the role of exorcist - expelling or controlling malign spirits believed to be in patients. Newcomers witnessing the rituals are often startled by oracles in violent trances wielding weapons. In some cases oracles cough, shout, and beat their own bodies until bruises appear - to gain control over a spirit. In extreme situations, male oracles cut themselves with swords, bloodying themselves.

The oracles associated with the monasteries are said to forecast the coming events. Traditionally, oracles are to be approved by a high-ranking Tibetan Lama. Once approval is secured, a three- to six-year training process begins. In secluded monasteries and villages, often under the guidance of a senior oracle, the trainees must learn Buddhist scripture, meditation, and methods for becoming a vessel for spirits and deities.

Among the Monasteries, the most well known oracle is of the Matho Gompa. This oracle comes into a trance in February during the annual festival of the monastery. He runs barefoot in snow on the parapets of the monastery roof. He has swords in his hands and keeps on swinging these violently. One has to run with him to get answers to any questions posed to him.

Among the disease healing oracles, the “Ayu Lha-Mo” of Sabu is the most famous. I had the personal experience of visiting her a few times during my visits to Ladakh. First time I was taken to her by Urgain Londup who used to be the head of the Tourist Office in Leh. He was keen that I should visit her for my well being. He knew some of the relations of the Lha-mo.

One morning we went to her house. She was getting ready and we were asked to wait in a room and given some tea. After half an hour we were told she is ready and we could go in. She had dressed herself in a typical costume of a multi-coloured robe and a golden hat with sharp edges. She was chanting some mantras before an altar in her kitchen. There were many people waiting there. Quite a few Muslims had come all the way from Kargil.

In Ladakh, where traditional Islam is still practiced, Muslims sometimes go back and forth [across] religious boundaries—this includes some Muslims visiting Buddhist oracles. Even Christians and Hindus also visit the oracles for healing purposes.

Her way of healing was very strange. She had a long sword as well as a small dagger shaped knife. She would heat the knife in a fire pot or over a stove and then touch her tongue with it. Then she would place the knife through an old cloth over the bowed head of the person and keep on chanting various mantras. She would answer in Tibetan questions posed to her.

Reactions to the oracles' healing rituals vary. Some patients claim to be healed immediately. Others say there is little improvement in their condition. Some visitors come only to be near a lha-pa or lha-mo—which translate to "divine male person" and "divine female person," respectively.

The patients sometimes give some money to the oracle of their own if they can afford it. Some others bring gifts of grain etc. However, the income of the oracle is very meager.

Urgain asked her about me and my future prospects. She said everything was alright but there were some enemies who were plotting harm to me. To protect me from harm, she asked Urgain to put 100 prayer flags signed by me on top of the monastery next to the Leh Palace. She said that in spite of my enemies I will rise.

I wanted to ask her a question about political conditions and future of Kashmir. She told Urgain that her master has not allowed her to entertain such questions. We did not ask any more questions during this visit.

Next day Urgain bought hundred cloth prayer flags on a string and made me sign all these. He then went on top of the monastery and tied the string to two distant poles thus putting the flags in the air to flutter in the strong wind there. He seemed to have full faith in the oracle.

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