The cultural heritage of pre-Islamic philosophy and mythology is so interwoven into the mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan that strands of it survive to this day. Religions born of their environments, the influence of centuries of Shamanism, Buddhism, Baoism and Zartosht are seen most clearly in their interaction with nature, where the word worship can be interchanged with respect for and love of.
The historical imprints of some of these traditions can be seen in the Muslim mountain peoples of Gilgit, Hunza-Nagar and Yasin valleys of the northern Himalayas, the Hindukush and Karakoram and the Pamir mountains. The harmony with nature here is not merely common sense, nor gratitude for the abundance around them, but a way of life handed down over time immemorial.
Research into Shaman mythology has been patchily conducted but, according to oral and fragmentary written accounts, the story goes something like this; it is a religion based on the concept of ‘Barayething’. Barayething were at the top of the celestial ladder, thought to be innocent creatures of unparalleled beauty who lived in the purest glaciers and alpine forests that had never been polluted by human hand. Only shaman, who held an exalted position within their communities, were permitted contact with these spirits. And being a shaman was neither a popularity contest nor a rite of inheritance. These religious leaders were chosen for showing a particular sensitivity to the spirits. Legend has it that in his youth, a potential shaman feels some physical as well as psychological pain, followed by sightings of the metaphysical creatures around him and lastly, he proves the shamanic gift of prophesy. Even after this, there is an elaborate rite of passage to follow. The process begins with several stages of meditation. Village people gather in a meadow, using music as a meditation aid, lighting a juniper leaf, which releases a cloud of smoke, which the potential shaman is to inhale. The music grows louder and louder, resembling certain Native American rites that induce a trance-like state, and the shaman dances to it in mystical harmony. He takes flight, running towards the purest form of nature he can find — pastures, glaciers and rivers. He sings during his journey, his songs are made up of auguries, of omens, of answers to community problems. This is his communion with the divine, he is their vessel of expression.
The end of the song is marked by the sacrifice of a goat, whose head is presented to the shaman. He is told to drink its blood, his body a mere instrument to convey this blood to the celestial spirits. This frenzy ends with the candidate losing consciousness as his state changes. As he collapses to the ground in an exhausted stupor, he is awoken with drops of water and re-awakes. He has achieved the first state of transformation and has successfully take the first step towards mastering his art.
His further training involves further and more concentrated meditation and the sort of rigorous diet more familiar to Hinduism, the practise of vegetarianism and veganism to purify the spirit and soul. As the shaman finally achieves his full status as a practitioner, he is given a Zumus, a metal ring to protect him from the wrath of the spirits.
Once fully inducted, the shaman’s role in his community is to provide spiritual counsel to his congregation, to wrest them away from evil spirits in something resembling an exorcism, to provide reliable auguries of the future, and most importantly, to inhale juniper smoke, perform the shamanic ritual, and enter again the trance-like state which allows him and hence his fellow village dwellers access to the gods. A service he is commonly invited to perform, as is the case with practitioners of black magic who still operate through Pakistan, is the protection of families from their enemies and rivals.
The shamanic belief hinges on basic tenets, those of cleanliness and harmony, the ethics of water utilisation, the sustainable use of resources and a general purity of environment. Cleanliness is not to them second to godliness, it is godliness. These beliefs which are no longer associated to their religious origins but merely to the extreme necessity to preserve one’s living space, which is a primary global concern are receding at the time they are needed most.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 9th, 2010.