Ladakh or for that matter, most Himalayan regions are full of mysticism. At every step, you would hear stories of magic and the faith of people that keeps this magic alive. At Chandratal I heard the story of a shepherd who fell in love with a mermaid. The story at Gulmarg is of Baba Reshi and at Ladakh, I got to meet a Buddhist Oracle.
After a road trip to Thiksey and Chemedy Monastery in Ladakh, we stopped at Choglamsar village, little short of Leh. We stepped into a very usual Ladakhi home. It being a winter morning – everyone at home was sitting out soaking in the much-needed sun. We were ushered into a room and made to sit in a room with all women in front and men at back.
Buddhist Oracle Padma Lamo at Ladakh
Padma Lamo – the village Buddhist Oracle entered the hall and smiled at us. She was wearing a usual Salwar Kameez. And held her grandson like any grandma would. She then took leave to dress up for the Oracle session. Came back wearing something like a long gown over her clothes. Remember this is Ladakh in January, so any number of layers is welcome. It was a pleasant surprise to see a lady Oracle. Most of us driven by our own conditionings expected a male Oracle. We were told not to take pictures during the whole session. And were asked to be ready with our questions – they could be anything related to our lives.
Padma Lamo started her rituals by putting water in a series of brass bowls. And filling some with grains like Sattu and wheat. She then lighted a lamp and all of us wanted to know if this is Yak butter and she smiled and said ‘Its Amul Butter’. I suddenly realized the power of brand Amul as my eyes kept observing the practiced movements of Padma Lamo’s hands.
After all, things were in place, Padma Lamo kept a wrapped potli or bag next to her on her seat and bowed to the deities on the altar. She got up with a loud shriek that pierced the otherwise quiet surroundings. The shriek announced her state of being an Oracle. She shook her head vigorously, the water from her hair spread across the room. The loud noises she made were scary. I found them a bit disturbing. While making all these noises she opened her scared bag and took out the crown and wore it on her head. It had the various Bodhisattvas painted on it. We would later learn that the wearing of this crown on the head is the mark of being in the state of an Oracle.
She then wore a brocaded garment that we had earlier seen on the Cham dancers at Gustor festival of Spituk Monastery. After a lot of shaking, moving and shrieking, she was ready to answer our questions. In this state, the spirits were in possession of Oracle’s body. She was just a medium through which the conversation with the spirits happens.
We offered her a white scarf before asking our question, that she returned back before she answered. Our guide Tashi acted as an interpreter and translated our questions into what we assumed was the Ladakhi language. And translated back the answers to English / Hindi for us.
Question & Answers
For every question, she would throw a few grains of wheat on a Damru. A musical instrument and based on where the grains fall, she would interpret the answer. Some of us did not have a question and we asked for her blessings. I think she got a bit offended that we were not asking questions. She probably took it as a lack of trust in her Oracle skills or powers. But I guess for any such conversation you need a kind of intimacy that was obviously missing in that room full of people. Some of us asked general questions like if my health would improve and the answers were very generic. Like – you are fat so you have problems or go see a doctor.
When one of our drivers asked a question, with a lot of faith in his voice and body language, she answered in an engaging way. The driver was very satisfied with the answer. I assume a lot of our questions and answers got lost in translation.
After we were all done, she slowly came out of her trance and came back to her normal self, but a lot more exhausted. I am sure all those actions took a lot of energy. During the whole activity, if there was anything that distracted her, it was her toddler grandson.
Back to normal
Once she was normal, she spoke to us in Hindi. We wondered why we needed an interpreter all this while. I was told that as Oracle she can only converse in the Tibetan language. It was then that I figured out that she was speaking Tibetan and not Ladakhi. During this conversation, we learned that she become an Oracle as part of the family lineage. Before Padma Lamo, her grandfather was also a Buddhist Oracle and he passed on his legacy to her. As an Oracle, she had to undergo training under Buddhist Lamas. She was a bit reluctant to talk about the process of becoming an Oracle. So I had to dig put this post and video on How Oracles are identified in Tibetan Buddhism.
What was heartening was that we met a female Oracle and saw the reverence with which she is treated in her village. She believes it is her fate to play catalyst to people’s problems and solutions. People come to her with all kinds of problems. And they go back with at least some hope and comfort, if not a solution.
Faith, as they say, lies within the one who believes. I saw a lot of faith in all the Ladakhis in that room. Who genuinely believed that Padma Lamo has an answer for all their problems. I also realized that faith takes the time to build, it cannot be invoked in a minute – it takes a lot of validation before we start believing in a concept.
For me, it was a unique experience to meet Padma Lamo – the Buddhist Oracle as a person. To see her going through the ritual of getting into the Oracle mode. Her dealing with the questions and returning to the life of a doting Ladakhi grandmother. With an ease that comes with familiarity, she slips from one role to another.
An incredible woman I must say!
Recommend you to read following on Ladakh, Kashmir on the Travel Blog.