To Bhutan and back

By KRYSTLE CHOW
Published in the March 2004 edition of Carleton NOW.
March 2, 2004

Click here to view this article on the Carleton NOW website.

Angela Sumegi in Bhutan
Angela Sumegi in Bhutan

Last year, Angela Sumegi received a research grant from Carleton University and an opportunity of a lifetime, to study the relationship between Buddhism and Shamanism in Bhutan, a small country about half the size of Newfoundland located between China and India.

Angela Sumegi in Bhutan “I thought that the title of my proposal, ‘Religion in Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley,’ was pretty esoteric!” says Sumegi, who is extremely grateful that Carleton found her proposal worthwhile.

“I think it reflects Carleton’s wish to support scholastic endeavour in a wide range of fields,” she says. “I think that’s very fortunate for those of us working in areas where the practical benefits of the research may not be immediately obvious.”

Sumegi, an assistant professor in Carleton’s College of the Humanities, had planned to do a preliminary study on the existence of Shamanic activity in the Phobjikha Valley as a continuation of her doctoral work on the relationship between Buddhism and Shamanism in Tibetan culture.

In primal religious systems, shamans are special individuals considered capable of communicating with the spirit world in states of trance or possession. They mediate between the world of humans and the world of spirits in order to benefit their community in such practical ways as curing the sick, bringing rain, exorcizing demons, and divining the future.

Spinning prayer wheels
Spinning prayer wheels

The Phobjika Valley is dominated spiritually and geographically by the Gangteng Buddhist Monastery at its centre, so the opportunity to meet and speak with a Bhutanese pow (a male shaman; female shamans are called nenjorm) and to watch a Shamanic performance would be a challenge, says Sumegi.

“The ritual specialists are active and used by the community, but they are not particularly easy to find because they are not looked upon favourably by the Buddhist authorities,” Sumegi explains.

Fortunately though, not only did Sumegi have the opportunity to experience a Shamanic ritual and visit several Buddhist monasteries, she also got to have tea with Princess Ashi Kesang, the youngest sister of the Bhutanese king.

“She told me she was very fond of reggae music when I told her that I was born in Jamaica,” she laughs.

Photos taken from the Carleton NOW website and provided by Angela Sumegi.

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