National Geographic : 2012 Dec
Dorzhiyev, one of the shamans, hunched for- ward in concentration as his chanting and pounding accelerated to fever pitch. All at once he stopped and stood up. e crowd fell silent. A spirit had entered him. Dorzhiyev approached one side of the group. His headdress was like a warrior's helmet, and his face was a murky shadow through a veil of thin black tassels. He walked slowly, mechani- cally, and his breathing sounded labored. People averted their gaze. "It is forbidden to look a sha- man in the eyes when a spirit is in him," said a man next to me, staring resolutely at the ground. "Bad things can happen to you." A helper brought the shaman-spirit a stool to sit on, and a crowd of about 20 people massed around him, some kneeling, others prostrating themselves on the ground. ey asked him ques- tions. Why am I unsuccessful in business? Why can't I get pregnant? e shaman responded in a low, gravelly voice. Around us other shamans were also entering trances, stumbling around and holding court. e scene brought to mind a Siberian version of Night of the Living Dead. Near me, a shaman with horns on the top of his headdress chan- neled a spirit that chain-smoked and demanded copious amounts of vodka. Another spoke in a high-pitched voice, as if possessed by a woman. A er about 20 minutes it was time for Dorzhi- yev's spirit to leave. Helpers led him a few feet away and made him jump up and down. He re- moved his headdress and blinked in the summer sun. Trance over. I met with Dorzhiyev later at his spartan, dimly lit o ce in the Tengeri headquarters on the outskirts of Ulan-Ude, the sedate capital of Buryatiya. Outside the low wooden building stood a huge sculpture shaped like a Christmas tree and bedecked with blue banners, moose horns, and a bear skull. "As you start to fall into the trance, you feel some force of energy coming closer to you," he said, his voice rising. "You can't see it---it's like a human form in the fog. And when it comes even closer, you see who it is, that it is a spirit. Someone who lived long ago. "He enters you, and your consciousness de- parts," Dorzhiyev continued. "Your conscious- ness goes to somewhere beautiful. And the spirit takes over your body. And then when you're nished, it departs, and your conscious- ness returns. And you feel such a tiredness---it takes a long time for you to recover." Before he became a shaman, Dorzhiyev was a lawyer working for the Justice Ministry---and from his reasonable, unru ed manner, this was easy to imagine. "I wore a white shirt and neck- tie," he said. "My salary was good." Twelve years ago, when he was 34, he was struck by what's called a "shamanic illness"---an extended peri- od of intense psychological, professional, per- sonal, or physical di culties, when the spirits are thought to be sending a sign. e problems persist until the person nally relents and picks up the shamanic mantle. "My head hurt, my back hurt. Since I'm a fair- ly rational person, I went to a doctor," Dorzhi- yev said. But the doctor couldn't nd anything wrong. "I felt guilty, as if I were faking it." e discomfort lasted four years, until a shaman friend entered a trance to cleanse him. During the ritual the spirits revealed that Dorzhiyev was one of the select. He has been a practic- ing shaman for eight years now, and the pains have ceased. Dorzhiyev helped found Tengeri in 2003 because he wanted to feel part of a commu- nity. e organization has recently come un- der heavy criticism. e unspoken code is that shamans never demand money, but a number of prominent Buryat shamans have accused Tengeri's members of charging exorbitant sums for their services and of being publicity seekers, Dorzhiyev hunched forward as his chanting and pounding accelerated to fever pitch.