Gurung villages have their own local deities. Gurung shamanism ascribes fundamental symbolic significance to death. The rites, called pae (also pai and pe), are often shamanistic analogs or compliments to Tibetan Buddhist rituals. 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. Once in the Land of the Ancestors, life continues much as in this world, however the spirit is able to take other incarnations. 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.
According to Gurung shamanism, 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. 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.
The klehpri are involved with funerary rituals and play drums and large brass cymbals. 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.
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. 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.
Influence of Buddhism
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. 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. 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.
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