It was in the 1990s, while hosting the travel show Namaste India that filmmaker Anu Malhotra found herself exploring little villages and hamlets tucked away in the Himalayas. It was on such trips that she came across shamanic practices in the Kullu valley. "Shamans are prevalent in villages across India. They are considered conduits to the devtas or the presiding deities of the village. They are the voices of god," says Malhotra, who has won over 16 national and international awards for films such as The Apatani of Arunachal Pradesh and The Maharaja of Jodhpur.
After nearly a decade of research, Malhotra decided to document the shamanic practices of Kullu in the film Shamans of the Himalayas. It is for the first time that the practices of the gur, as the shamans are called in Kullu, has been documented. "This is partly because people are not aware of the local culture, which has been prevalent in the region for thousands of years. It is astonishing that bus loads of tourists visit Kullu every year and they don't bother to explore the traditions and practices that exist right under their noses," rues Malhotra. Another reason is access. The villages safeguard these traditions from prying eyes. "I made several friends during my years of travel to the valley. Moreover I spent a lot of time eating, conversing, staying with the shamans. That really made a difference," she says.
But the final nod came from the divine. The gurs invoked the devtas to get their assent for the film shoot. "It was a very unique procedure. They filled three matkas with water and made three cow dung balls. One ball was stuffed with flour, the other with rice and the last one was empty. Whichever surfaced first indicated the deities' decision," explains Malhotra. The devtas acquiesced and the shooting began. "Maybe they recognised the sincerity in my efforts," she says.
The film is an intimate personal experience of Malhotra with the gurs as she gets a peek into the divination sessions and hears their personal stories and struggles. She bore witness to the significant role that the gurs play in Himachali society. "Thousand of people across the hills communicate with the deity for pretty much everything - crops, personal issues, marriages et cetera. So gurs act not just as the medium to god but also as doctors, counselors and psychotherapists," she says.
Through Shamans of the HImalayas, Malhotra also wants to dispel the notion that the practices of the gurs is hocus pocus or mere superstition. According to her, shamanism is a global phenomenon and even predates Hinduism. In her bid to explore the scientific aspect of the practice she approached Sudhir Kakar, well known psychoanalyst and author of the book Shamans, Mystics and Doctors. He has written extensively about the healing practices of the shamans and the underlying philosophy. "At one point in the film, he also says that shamans have had a better success rate at treating people than psychotherapists," says Malhotra.
The highlight of the film is the personal encounter that Malhotra had with Tej Singh, the gur of the snake god. While visiting the home of a Scottish Indophile, Chris Oldmeadow, to participate in a family divination session, Tej Singh, a gur, suddenly turned to her and started talking about a major health problem that had been afflicting her for years. "I was really taken aback as I have never spoken about this problem to anyone. Through Singh, the devta communicated how long I had the problem and how to cure it," she says. Also interesting is Malhotra's rendezvous with Tuli Devi, the lone female shaman of the Kullu valley. "All I want to say at the moment is that she is a new-age shaman. For the rest, you will have to watch the film," she smiles.
(The Shamans of the Himalayas will be telecast in four episodes of one-hour each on Discovery Channel, 11 pm every Friday, beginning July 13, 2013)