KATHMANDU, Nov 9: Sitting across from her granddaughter in a pink shawl and pearls, 74-year-old Aama Bombo looks every inch the traditional Nepali hajurama.
Yet as a member of the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers (IC13G), Bombo is also recognized as something else: one of the world´s leading female shamans.
Born in Melong and relocated to Kathmandu; the Tibetan-Buddhist woman first began practicing as a faith healer when she started having convulsions at 25. “That was my [deceased shaman] father inside of me trying to get out. He taught me the way of shamanism,” she said.
But proving yourself as a female shaman isn´t easy. Only 3 percent of Nepal´s faith healers are women, said Mohan Rai, founder of the Shamanistic Studies & Research Centre.
“It is becoming a bit more popular among women in recent years. But it is very hard for them to be selected by the spirit,” he said.
For Bombo, proving herself involved fortune-telling, eating lit cotton candles, and testimony from a sick neighbor who said she cured his disease. Fifty years later, she´s a well-known character at Kathmandu´s famous Boudhanath temple, where she sees up to 60 clients daily.
“I think it [my popularity] is because I´ve cured a lot of people. There´s been word of mouth among people,” she said. That many of these people are Western tourists speaks volumes.
In 2012, Nepal´s shamans are operating at a crossroads in the nation´s history.
While faith healing and “new age” spiritualism has risen in popularity in the West over the last few decades, in Nepal the opposite has been happening. The medicine of rural areas - where shamans largely operate - is changing; increasingly modernized as traditional medicine takes hold.
“This type of practice goes directly against our whole medical system,” said Dr Rishi Ram Koirala, advisor to the Nepal Health Research Council. One prominent argument is that faith healers do ´more harm than good´; in some cases delaying proper medical care for people until it´s too late. “The nation´s health policy makers are skeptical. They say there is no role for faith healing in our system as we move forward,” said Koirala.
It´s not just Nepal´s medical and pharmaceutical industry that is skeptical. Just this year, PM Buburam Bhattarai told Nepalis to ignore the claims of shamans´ altogether. This statement was prompted by the act of villagers in the South, who beat and burned a neighbor alive because their local shaman told them she was a witch.
Bombo said the negative reputation of Nepal´s shaman is mostly due to “unauthentic” practitioners - such as those wandering in Kathmandu´s tourist areas. “There are a lot of shamans who don´t know the craft or are just practicing for the money,” she said, adding that she can sense whether a fellow shaman is “true” or not.
She also said she didn´t pretend to cure cancer. “People should visit a doctor if they find no cure from me. My aim is to get rid of bad spirits,” she said.
For others, the empirical legitimacy of shamans isn´t the main issue. Rather, the potential loss of this rich indigenous history due to modernization is more a cause for concern.
“Every community should have the right to protect their culture, heritage, and image,” said Ganesh Tamang, former ambassador of Nepal to Japan.
Speaking at an IC13G event in Kathmandu this week, Tamang said those like Bombo must be upheld as “a symbol of knowledge and cultural expertise” in Nepal.
Bombo said she wasn´t interested in politics and just wanted to keep practicing her craft: calling upon the spirits via the power of drums, singing, and dancing.
“I just want to keep quiet and keep practicing what I do. Whatever my father has given me, I just want to keep practicing that,” she said.