Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

A jhankri in a healing ritual © Haribangsa Kirant

The Jhankri Tradition: A Living Heritage of Nepal

A shaman, known as a jhankri or dhami in Nepal, is a part of a unique tradition that is based on spiritual belief. Nepalese society, with its deep-rooted religious faith in supernatural powers, still believes that miseries, illnesses, and bad luck are caused by evil powers and that these ill effects and consequences of evil can be removed or treated by evoking divine power. It is believed that a properly trained jhankri is gifted with the ability to gain intimate knowledge of supernatural beings—their whereabouts, desires, dislikes, and requirements—and drawing out their divine spirit to remove evil and thus cure the inflicted.

Jhankri customs are known for their traditional healing system that uses Tantra, Mantra, and special rituals. A jhankri acquires divine power through meditation, parental teaching, or guidance of the Ban Jhakri, a half-human, half-animal shaman spirit of the forest. Because jhankris are widely believed to possess special spiritual powers, they have traditionally held prominent roles Nepalese society. In most rural areas and even in some urban areas, they advise people on social and health affairs. They are also acknowledged as musicians, herbalists, diviners, and protectors, among other roles. Furthermore, jhankris are believed to be able to help guide the souls of the dead into their next lives.

Jhankris can evoke their power through different processes. They work with the traditional five elements of creation: earth, water, air, fire, and ether. Jhankris wear special costumes, play drums, sing chants, dance, and worship in special, predetermined patterns to offer different things to satiate the desires and wishes of the spirits in the hope of alleviating any present evil.

Throughout Nepal, the associated customs of the jhankris vary from place to place and even from jhankri to jhankri; however, there are common elements that bind jhankris traditions.

For example, rituals often involve an animal sacrifice. Jhankri traditions also tend to start with drumming, singing, chanting, or dancing to invite the spirits into the mind and body of the jhankri, who protects his or her body with different colors and protective spiritual energies while praying to the spirits in all directions, north, south, east, and west. The process allows the jhankri to connect with the universe and the spirit world. Through song, the jhankri helps the spirits remember and relive the moment the spirits first came into contact, and when this happens, a jhankri feels a physical sensation in his or her chest and a burning in the umbilical region, and then the jhankri’s body convulses and shakes.

For holding the ceremony, a jhankri must have intimate knowledge of the spirit keepers as well as their associative places of power, such as sacred mountains, lakes, and rivers. While jhankris work in partnership with the spirits, the whole healing process is also a partnership between the jhankris and the needy person.

The jhankri traditions in Nepal are natural, spiritual, and psychological practices of healing. Elderly jhankris pass on this special art of curing illness to their disciples usually through experiential learning processes. These traditions are a form of important intangible cultural heritage of Nepalese societies, and they represent prehistoric practices that have managed to remain prevalent even though there are no written documents. The traditions have been transmitted from the past through verbal descriptions and practices. Nepalese people consider jhankri customs traditional practices that have been guided by traditional wisdom.