LITERARY REVIEW

Travels through trances

SPIRITUALITY

Travels through trances

THE title Between Worlds: Travels among Mediums, Shamans and Healers may intimidate many potential readers. Books on spirituality these days often turn out to be tedious New Age fluff (which admittedly fills a function for its own kind of readers). If not, they usually come straight from the rationalist camp and are entirely taken up with debunking perceived frauds. If neither of the above, they would probably be weighty academic tomes that take a month-sized bite out of the layman's reading time.

Uma Singh puts adventure back where it belongs, searching in her very own way for the meaning of life in the Himalayas. Chamba Valley is a rather little-known area in Himachal; tourists usually head for Shimla, Kulu-Manali or Dharamsala, and probably the closest one would come to Chamba is the nearby colonial style hill station of Dalhousie. However, in the valley, where Uma Singh goes to live in an ancestral property, she finds plenty of spine-chilling stories — although not as much travel as the title suggests; everything happens within reach from Chamba town, and the travel is more an extended series of picnics with numerous aunties who come along to chaperon Ms. Singh.

The author spends some two decades researching the spirits of the valley, through those who claim to be mediating between us humans, the gods, and the demons. In remote Chamba, ancient systems of belief are still alive. The roots of these traditions are traced to ancient animistic cults, which with time have been hooked onto mainstream religion.

The chelas and chelis of Chamba Valley are the private spokespersons of local deities, a position no human chooses for him or herself — and few welcome — since the role carries a social stigma. They come across as very intense people who are caught "between worlds". Their spirituality can almost be understood as a form of eco-spirituality — deeply connected to the environment of the Valley — and the author in fact seems to suggest that there is a link between heightened sensitivity towards nature and mysterious contact with the spirits behind it.

Singh not only interviews these intermediaries, but sees them in action. Communication with the spirits happens while the chelas are in a trance, and it is somewhat ironical that this closeness to the gods doesn't give the mediums much joy — they can themselves remember little of what was experienced in the state of trance. Their only mementoes are wounds from whipping themselves into an ecstatic frenzy.

To be a chela is to do community service. Singh views trance possession not as an individual exercise, but an interactive and participatory alteration of a collective consciousness. She notes, "In a society where gods are essentially a deification of natural phenomena, a close communion between them and the community that they serve is not only essential, but also integral." Rather than brushing these rituals off as superstition, she establishes that they are part of the psychological make-up of the hill people. How can shepherds dare to cross a high pass without first propitiating the appropriate goddess? Ultimately, even the sceptical graduate who serves as the author's interpreter has to accede that his chances of getting a job and a wife may be better if the gods are pleased with him.

Singh combines an unusual open-mindedness with healthy levels of inquiry and scepticism. Even on occasions when something possibly supernatural happens, she lets the account remain ambiguous, not forcing any particular interpretation on the reader — with the result that even the rationalist can try to find his or her own explanation to the phenomenon. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she adds good doses of a storyteller's humour, indicating that she herself doesn't take every paranormal claim seriously.

This book is a great trip — perhaps not physically, but definitely mentally.

Between worlds: Travels among Mediums, Shamans and Healers, Uma Singh, Penguin, p.200 + photographs, Rs. 225.

Zac O'Yeah is a Swedish travel writer.

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