Gurung Dharma

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Gurung Dharma describes the traditional shamanistic religion of the Gurung people of Nepal. This religion shares aspects with the Tibetan religion Bön and is often referred to as "Bön"; however, there exist significant distinctions between Gurung Dharma and Bön. Contemporary shamanistic rituals of Gurung Dharma such as blood offering rituals, veneration of the dead and nature worship are not practiced by modern Bönpa. Priestly practitioners of Gurung Dharma include lamas, klehpri (or ghyabri), and pachyu (or paju). Although any of these may function "shamans" in the context of Gurung Dharma, the general term for "shaman" is drom.[1][citation needed] [2][3] Shamanistic elements among the Gurungs remain strong and most Gurungs often embrace Buddhist and Bön rituals in all communal activities.[4] Gurung Dharma in its purest form still exists; the religion is preserved to a large extent in Gurung traditions.

Gurung Dharma[edit]

Traditionally, Gurungs practice a form of Tibetan Buddhism heavily influenced by pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion (Bön). Characteristics of this influence include non-Buddhist belief in local deities and in an afterlife in the Land of Ancestors. Other traditional Gurung beliefs include spirit possession,[5] supernatural forest creatures, shapeless wraiths, and spirits of humans that died violently, which populate locales.[citation needed] Gurung villages have their own local deities.[1]

Gurung Dharma ascribes fundamental symbolic significance to death. The rites, called pae (also pai and pe), are often shamanistic analogs or compliments to Tibetan Buddhist rituals.[6] The funerary rite is the central ceremony, entailing three days and two nights of rituals to send souls to the Land of the Ancestors. These rituals may be officiated by either Klehpri, Pachyu, or Buddhist lamas. Among the Gurung, death involves the dissolution of bodily elements – earth, air, fire, and water. These elements are released in a series of rituals, nine for men and seven for women. One ritual in the freeing of souls involves a "Klehpri" injecting the spirit of the deceased through a string into a bird, which then appears to recognize family members and otherwise act unnaturally. The bird is symbolically sacrificed with the plucking of a few feathers, received by family members, after which the bird is released.[1] Once in the Land of the Ancestors, life continues much as in this world, however the spirit is able to take other incarnations.[2] From the Land of the Ancestors, spirits continue to take an interest in their surviving kinsmen, able to work good and evil in the realm of the living.[2]

According to Gurung Dharma, the dead are either cremated or buried. After the cremation or burial, the family of the deceased constructs a small shrine on a hill to offer food to the spirit, which continues to remain and may cause misfortune. Sons of the deceased observe mourning for six to twelve months, during which they fast from meat and alcohol. A final funerary ceremony takes places a year or more after death, for which an expensive funeral rite is performed. This rite includes an effigy (called a pla) of the deceased, draped in white cloth and decorated with ornaments. The death rituals close as klehpri addresses the spirit and sends it to its resting place, after which the hilltop shrine is dismantled.[2] Further rites ensue, during which the priest recites supplications to the "spirits of the four directions" for kind treatment as the deceased makes his way to the spirit realm, advises the departing soul on its choice between reincarnation and remaining in the Land of Ancestors, and admonishes it to stay away from its worldly cares and not to return prematurely.[1]


Practitioners of Gurung Dharma employ three categories of priesthood – Buddhist lamas, klehpri (ghyabri), and pachyu (paju) – each following different practices. Brahmins also officiate many Gurung rituals. Klehpri and Pachyu are indigenous Gurung priesthoods. Lamas are considered recent additions, being literate in Tibetan and ostensibly learned in Tibetan Buddhism. However, the actual extent of their access to liturgical literature and ritual training, as well as performance of major Buddhist rites, is often limited. Furthermore, there is no monastic tradition among Gurung lamas. Rather, they are generally not full-time priests, and often have a wife, children, and farm that occupy most of their time.[2][3][7][8][9]

The priestly klehpri are more respected and belong to a common clan with the same name "Klehpri/Ghyabri" like Ko Klehpri, Tu Klehpri, Pru Klehpri etc. Although their practices pre-date Buddhism in Nepal, their outward appearance resembles that of lamas worn at certain rites, and they play drums and large brass cymbals at rituals. The klehpri have no sacred literature, learning all prayers and rituals by heart over several years. These sacred oral scriptures are called Pye tan Lu tan. The sacred language, Gurung-kura, is no longer understood by laity nor practitioners, and may be derived from an ancient religion.[2][7][8]

Shamans called pachyu operate in Gurung communities and in tribal and Hindu communities of Nepal, being most numerous in the Modi Valley. Their practice is largely in the realm of interpreting the supernatural.[8] While their ritual language is also archaic, it is more readily understood by practitioners and laity. Practices of pachyu have been influenced by Buddhist teaching, and they are often associated in various rites with lamas. They are also believed to communicate with spirits and local deities and are often employed by persons suffering illnesses or misfortunes to draw up horoscopes.[2][7][8]

Both pachyu and klehpri/ghyabri are called upon to exorcise possessed people, perform mortuary rites, and officiate ancestor worship.[2]

Influence of Buddhism[edit]

Centuries of cultural influence from Tibet resulted in many Gurungs gradually embracing Tibetan Buddhism over the centuries, especially the Nyingma school, and particularly among Gurungs in the Manang region.[10] Gurungs generally believe in Buddha and bodhisattvas. Adherents also call upon Buddhist lamas to perform infant purification, seasonal agricultural, and funerary rites, as well as house blessing ceremonies.[citation needed] Mainstream Tibetan Buddhist lamas harbor ambivalent opinions about Gurung Dharma (Pye Ta Lu Ta) practices, and syncretic Gurung Dharma may be reluctant to disclose their practices to outsiders.[1]

According to the 2001 Nepal Census, 69.03% of the ethnic Gurung identified as Buddhists, 28.75% as Hindus, and 0.66% as Christians.[11]

Influence of Hinduism[edit]

The influence of Hinduism is also particularly strong among sections of Gurungs who live among ethnic groups and are more in contact with the mainstream Hindu Nepali culture. Respect of Hindu, Buddhist and Bön deities is heard among Gurung households.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Mumford, Stanley Royal (1989). Himalayan Dialogue: Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 8–10, 30–32, 182–194. ISBN 0-299-11984-X. Retrieved 2011-04-04. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf (1985). Tribal populations and cultures of the Indian subcontinent 2 (7). Brill Publishers. pp. 137–8. ISBN 90-04-07120-2. Retrieved 2011-04-02. 
  3. ^ a b The Journal of Asian studies. Online Journals, Far Eastern Association (U.S.), Association for Asian Studies, JSTOR 43 (1–4) (Cambridge University Press). 1983. pp. 70, 716. 
  4. ^ a b Robert Gordon Latham (1859). Descriptive Ethnology I. London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row. pp. 80–82. 
  5. ^ John Thayer Hitchcock & Rex L. Jones, ed. (1976). Spirit possession in the Nepal Himalayas. Vikas. ISBN 0-7069-0438-9. 
  6. ^ Fisher, James F. (1978). Himalayan anthropology: the Indo-Tibetan interface. World anthropology. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 171–172. ISBN 90-279-7700-3. 
  7. ^ a b c "Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies" 30. University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. 1967. p. 720. 
  8. ^ a b c d Archiv orientální 36. Orientální ústav (Československá akademie věd). 1968. 
  9. ^ University of Oxford. Institute of Social Anthropology, Institute of Economic Growth (India) (1967). Contributions to Indian sociology (1). Mouton. p. 88. 
  10. ^ McHugh, Ernestine (2001). Love and Honor in the Himalayas: coming to know another culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 32. ISBN 0-8122-1759-4. 
  11. ^ Dr. Dilli Ram Dahal (2002-12-30). "Chapter 3. Social composition of the Population: Caste/Ethnicity and Religion in Nepal". Government of Nepal, Central Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved 2011-04-02. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Suvedī, Rājārāma (2003). History of Kaski state. Vidyārthī Pustaka Bhaṇḍāra. ISBN 99933-55-34-8.