Mongolia’s Growth Industry: Shamans
By Aubrey BelfordFebruary 7, 2012
An accident-prone childhood led to a surprising discovery: Buubuu was not clumsy, he was home to 109 ancestor spirits and marked to be a shaman … one of the thousands in Mongolia
The home of Buubuu — business card: "Shaman, International academic of doktor" — is a menagerie of dead beasts.
By his door, a massive vulture is pinned up with its wings outstretched. Inside the place, more stuffed carrion birds are arranged in a mother-and-chicks tableau, and stuffed snow leopards lie strewn about. I lose count of the number of wolf skins on the walls.
The baby-faced shaman sits enthroned in front of a portrait of the Great Khan and lists his powers. He can summon spirits, lift curses, ease your emotional problems and fix your health complaints.
"People with good lives do not come through these doors. People come in here crying, and leave smiling," he says. "I can make it rain. I can change the weather. I can control the climate to my liking. I introduce myself to the ancient spirits of the mountains and the water, and make changes for the good of my people."
The Shaman in a Trance
I've come to Buubuu for some insight into Mongolia's strange boom in all things shamanic. Harshly suppressed during Mongolia's long Communist rule, shamanism is suddenly widely sought to fill the spiritual void of a newly democratic society.
It's a dramatic comeback for an ancestor-worshipping religion, Tengriism, that predominated in the time of Genghis Khan, before Tibetan Buddhism came in and took to the fore in Mongolia. Both faiths were brutally silenced by the Communists, but these days it seems the shamans are proving more resilient than the lamas.
Ask virtually any Mongolian, and they'll know of a shaman who can fix your problems, in return for a donation. Failing that, open a newspaper and look through the ads.
Buubuu, who won't give his real name or age, to prevent curses by rivals, describes himself as a reluctant medium for the ancestors' sprits.
As a boy, he went through a series of accidents and illnesses. A car hit him, sending him flying seven metres through the air. When he got home from the hospital, a friend gave him a bicycle as a congratulatory gift, by throwing it at him from a fifth-storey balcony.
Buubuu's disasters kept coming — seizures, blindness in one eye, a fall down a manhole. His mother, Damdinyam Tsogzolmaa, finally consulted a shaman she had met once clandestinely during Communist times, a strongly jawed man with a guttural laugh, called Baasanjav.
The old man eventually divined that Buubuu's misfortune was because, since before birth, he bore a mark called the Seal of the Sky. The spirits had been calling on him his whole life to become a shaman.
These days Buubuu is one of perhaps thousands of shamans in Ulaanbaatar, a vessel, he says, for 109 ancestor spirits. Buubuu has disciples of his own and makes what appears to be a good living. His walls are covered in elaborate robes and in his family lounge room a flat screen TV plays popular Western film clips. But this being Ulaanbaatar's water-starved outskirts, the only toilet is outside, beside a teepee, in a ditch. Buubuu insists that any payment he receives, in cash or in kind, is voluntary.
"I'd be living a much better life today if I was sitting here demanding money, seeing as I've been a shaman for six years," he says.
Other shamans are not so scrupulous. "To be honest, there are too many shamans in Mongolia," Buubuu says. "More of them are fake than are real, and the old shamans with lineage are dying out."
Being a shaman is an expensive business. The rituals require elaborate robes, drums, miniature metal tools, amulets and animal pelts. Kitting out can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. To do that, many head to Ulaanbaatar's dusty Black Market, where shamanic supplies sit alongside carpets, bathroom fittings, curd, guns, stirrups and running shoes.
"They say this is the century of shamans," says Batbayar Batjargal, who, along with his mother, has been selling shaman supplies for the past two years. His trade used to be only in antiques, but the market for spirit mediums is where the real growth has been. Talk around the market — and from a few high-profile shamans on television — has Mongolia at the centre of spiritual revival.
But Batjargal doesn't totally buy it. Wealth is rising across the board, and he thinks most shamans are in it for the money and are roping in ever more disciples in a kind of pyramid scheme. "It's mostly just business, in my opinion," he explains. "Say one person becomes a shaman, he has to have five apprentices, and then those five apprentices have to give their teacher money.
"Shamanism is an ancient tradition. There's no denying that some are genuine. It's just a lot of the shamans being discovered today seem fake."
But is that why the shamans are growing, because of one big scam? I pose the question to a friend of a friend, Chuluunbat, a doctoral candidate in social anthropology at the National University of Mongolia and Cambridge.
Over a lunch of ramen in downtown Ulaanbaatar, Chuluunbat explains his theory of why shamanism is growing.
As post-Cold War Mongolia has urbanised so rapidly, Mongolians have looked for meaning in nature-worshipping traditions that gel with their past nomadic lifestyles. This yearning has intensified apace with the proliferation of mines scoring traditionally spiritually charged parts of the countryside.
"Mines destroy the environment and nature, polluting the water sources, and shamanism is totally against it," Chuluunbat argues. "It is a belief in Mongolia that all the streams, rivers, mountains, valleys, they all have spirit masters. So actually going in there and mining is invading these spirit masters' domain," he says, adding: "It's like you see with ants. Ants are not happy when their anthill is destroyed, so it's a similar reaction to mining."
Riding this spiritual surge are many fake shamans, Chuluunbat says, who are possessed by "hungry ghosts" out to fleece people of their money. Still, there are plenty of genuine shamans, Chuluunbat insists. The spirits they channel help him with his PhD research — into the social impact of mining.
"They tell you this sort of information that is not available in written form," he says. Ask a spirit what they think about mining, and they will come out against it. Often, Chuluunbat says, they tell him that "taking this gold out of the earth is like taking thread out of clothes. Meaning as clothes without a thread would fall apart, so would the earth without any of its welding."
Sitting with Buubuu, I decide to test Chuluunbat's thesis and talk to one of the spirits.
After a lunch of mutton dumplings and salted milk tea, we settle onto the floor of his main consulting room.
With his mother's help, Buubuu kits up. First go on the robes, then the talismans, the magic weapons, rings, the furs and, finally, a sinister wide-eyed black mask.
From now on, he says he will no longer be present and will remember nothing. He'll suck down cigarettes and alcohol, but it will bypass his body and go straight to the summoned spirit.
Buubuu picks up a leather drum and raps against it, swaying rhythmically until, suddenly, he breaks into spasms. Leaning forward, he cups his hand over an eagle's head atop a short cane. He takes a drag on a cigarette and throws it to the ground in fury.
A low, rasping voice comes out from under the mask, and his mother, Damdinyam, translates the ancient words. Dead for 3,500 years, this is Damdin, the flying shaman, the white old man of the mountain.
Damdin takes a sip of beer from a bowl, and shuffles in his seat uncertainly. He asks who has summoned him and seems bewildered by the sound of a camera shutter. Buubuu's mother interjects, saying no matter how hard she tries, she can never explain the concept of mobile phones to him.
Damdin settles in, and seems, finally, eager to dispense his wisdom. In the session, he's part spirit medium and part therapist.
Uugii, my translator, jumps in, seeking advice on family problems. Damdin responds by telling Uugii to stop bottling up his feelings. The session goes on, and he advises one woman on leg and back pain, predicts a pregnancy and tells me I work too hard and suffer from migraines (he's wrong on both counts).
Finally, I get my questions in.
What is all this mining going to do to Mongolia, I ask. Where is the country headed?
Damdin pauses for a second, and takes a drag on his cigarette. He seems to be weighing his response.
He shuffles again, and wheezes. Mongolia's politicians and the mining companies are only looking out for their own interests, he says. No one is thinking about the good of the people.
"They will anger the spirits of the water, the mountains and the Blue Sky," Damdin rattles, referring to the ancient supreme divinity of the Mongols.
This is all going to have consequences.
"If they don't stop themselves," he warns, "we" — the spirits — "will stop them."
Damdin continues diagnosing health complaints and dispenses some herbal medicine. The conversation finally reaches a lull.
The old man takes his leave. He's disappointed the meeting is so short, he says. He only just got here.