"Possessed" Himalayan Oracles Said to Suck Disease From Patients

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Traditionally, Ladakh oracles must be approved by a high-ranking Tibetan lama. Once approval is secured, a three- to six-year training process begins. In secluded monasteries and villages, often under the guidance of a senior oracle, the trainees must learn Buddhist scripture, meditation, and methods for becoming a vessel for spirits and deities.

"When I was 18 the Dalai Lama blessed my path to become a lha-mo. I spent many years in the mountains training and learning these powers," said Ayu Lha-mo, now in her early 60s. Beyond healing, oracles also prophesize and perform divination, depending on a patient's need. Styles, performances, and specialties vary widely between oracles. Some, like Hundar Lha-pa, a male oracle from Hundar village in the Nubra Valley, Ladakh, collaborate with Western doctors to combine traditional and modern medicinal treatments.

Patients Come For Healing, Regardless of Background

A typical day for Ayu Lha-mo brings a mixed clientele. Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims—who make up half of the region's population of 200,00—visit her often.

"In Ladakh, where traditional Islam is still practiced, Muslims sometimes go back and forth [across] religious boundaries—this includes some Muslims visiting Buddhist oracles," said David Pinault, a professor of religion at California's Santa Clara University. Pinault has studied Muslim-Buddhist relations in Ladakh.

Reactions to the oracles' healing rituals vary. Some patients claim to be healed immediately. Others say there is little improvement in their condition. Some visitors come only to be near a lha-mo or lha-pa—which translate to "divine male person" and "divine female person," respectively.

"I think the healing works for most people," said Tsewang Dorjey, a monastery guide for tourists whose base is in the city of Leh. "I've gone twice for stomach problems and it made me feel better."

Patients, if they can afford it, pay oracles for their work. The amount is meager. With just a couple of patients each day, Ayu Lha-mo is no wealthier than the average Ladakh farmer—earning the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars a day for battling spirits and healing the sick.

"I'm often [feeling] beat up after a days worth of work," said Ayu Lha-mo, who appeared physically shaken even one hour after she said the possessing spirit left her body. "But it's my path to do this work and it's satisfying to heal people."

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