In order to heal effectively, the amchi, the traditional Ladakhi healer, must understand Buddhist religious practices as well as proper healing methods. The amchi rituals, such as the one described in a recent article, represent a convergence of religious and healing methods.
Laurent Pordié, an anthropologist with the Department of Social Sciences at the French Institute of Pondicherry, describes the proceedings at a ten-day amchi ritual event he observed in November 2000. The rituals were held in the Changtang section of southeast Ladakh, at an amchi temple dedicated to the Buddhist Master of Remedies, Sangye Smanla. The only such temple in Ladakh, it was built as a memorial to the father of the builder, Gelong Rigzin, who himself is a highly revered amchi.
The basic point of the proceedings is to ritually consecrate medicinal preparations prepared by amchis who travel to the temple to participate. The participants believe that the consecrated medicines have greater efficacy after the rituals, called the smandrup, are completed. Gelong Rigzin, who is responsible for conducting the rituals in the name of the Changtang Amchi Association, is, himself, an amchi as well as a monk.
The author witnessed the lengthy rituals from the periphery of the temple along with three other members of a French NGO. In addition, a five-member American film crew, preparing a documentary on traditional medicinal practices, sat along the edges watching and filming. The monks and amchis that participated in the day and night rituals were of course aware of the observers, but they proceeded with their activities anyway.
The author describes in considerable detail the sequences of the ritual activities day by day in order to give a feeling for their complexity and substance. He provides a diagram of the seating of the participants around the perimeter of the temple to accompany his description.
Activities of the first two days were preliminary. The amchis made ceremonial effigies, called storma, out of barley flour and butter, which they used with the appropriate texts during the ceremonies. They prepared medicines with ingredients that they had brought with them and they put the preparations in bags that they placed on the lower part of the altar, which had an effigy of Sangye Smanla on it.
The lead amchi put a large container with medicines on the altar, and he put the rest in glass cabinets that had paintings and statues of the deities. The participants also put other effigies—statues and photographs of masters and deities—on the altar, along with offerings such as butter lamps, butter, incense, and rice. Accompanied by cymbals and drums, the amchis and the monks conducted their rituals, recited texts, and summoned deities with bells. They used symbolic gestures called mudrā with many of the rituals. While one of the participants made mudrās to purify medicines, the others began to chant as a chorus.
As the rituals proceeded, the amchis ingested portions of the consecrated medicines to augment their powers. Thus, argues Pordié, the smandrup transforms a man-made object into a form of fetish, much as the Christian Eucharist creates, through the consecrating actions of the priest, the body of Christ in the host.
On the final day of the rituals, the officiating amchi, Padma Tsetar, gave the participants some pills taken from the altar plus a few drops of brandy which he poured into the palms of their hands. He drank a small sip. A nun, helping with the rituals, went throughout the temple with her incense, carefully keeping her face toward the altar at all times, while Padma Tsetar swayed back and forth at the altar. Each participant took small handfuls of rice and threw them at the altar when the bells stopped ringing.
Padma Tsetar then moved in front of each participant with a plate of rice which also had a few sticks of incense on it. He took the bags of medicines from the lower part of the altar and gave them back to their owners. They, in turn, put bits of the preparations on the small tables in front of them. An assistant took a bowl made from a human skull and passed it around. Each amchi put small amounts of medicines into the bowl and returned his bag or bags of preparations to the altar shelf.
After lunch, Gelong Rigzin poured some chang, Ladakhi barley beer, into the skull bowl, and the assistant put it onto the altar. After a series of recitations and ritual activities, the contents of the skull possessed unsurpassed therapeutic powers. Each of the participants, including the foreign observers, took a spoonful of the mixture in order to ingest the medicinal powers. The monks, amchis, and nun began concluding the proceedings. They replaced objects to their normal locations, finished up their recitations, and put away their texts. The ten-day ritual concluded.
The author maintains that amchis throughout Ladakh recognize the importance of the smandrup held annually in Changtang, though relatively few have attended in person. They often invoke the powers of the smandrup in order to help make their healing more effective. They consecrate their preparations and medicinal materials, recite mantras while reducing plants to powders, and think of Sangye Smanla as they transform their medicines into power potions. And they ingest a little to gain some of the powers themselves.
The author points out, in his conclusion, that this traditional ritual is still subject to the development process, as is all life in Ladakh. He argues that by including the foreigners—as observers—into the ritual, the lead amchi was fostering the development process in Ladakh and bringing it into the lives of the participants. The Westerners helped reformulate the smandrup in the eyes of the amchis, thus adapting it so it would acquire some of the contemporary ideology of development. The ritual produced efficacy and meaning in traditional Ladakhi terms, but it also formed part of a dialog with the outside world.
Pordié, Laurent. 2008. “Reformulating Ingredients: Outlines of a Contemporary Ritual for the Consecration of Medicines in Ladakh.” In Modern Ladakh: Anthropological Perspectives on Continuity and Change, edited by Martijn van Beek and Fernanda Pirie, p.153-174. Leiden and Boston: Brill. This is part two of a three-part series of reviews of important articles in this new book on Ladakh.