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Traditional Healing Returns to Tuva

In the Soviets' Wake, a Shamans' Clinic Is Thriving in Northeast Asia
By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer

In the shamans' clinic at 41 Lenin Street, fees start at 5,000 rubles, or about a dollar, and go up.

Curing gallstones costs 20,000 to 30,000 rubles, but that's cheaper than the 1.5 million for an operation at the hospital a dozen blocks away. It may even be cheaper than the homeopathy and therapeutic massage available at the alternative medicine center five blocks away.

"Most of our clients have medical or psychological problems," say Orzhak Dugar-Syuryun, the 47-year-old director of the shamans' clinic, as he sits in his office. He points to a large one-sided drum, shaped like a huge tambourine (minus the rattles) on the wall. "We use the drum and can either beat out bad spirits, or call the spirits of water, the river, the lake, the mountain. This is not really an alternative to the hospital. But sometimes people can come here and sort things out before they go to the hospital."

The shamans' clinic, a no-nonsense, no-guarantees place, is one example of the flowering of post-Soviet native culture in far-flung regions of the Russian Republic.

Tuva was he last morsel of the Soviet feast, swallowed in 1944, but never fully digested. Now, after a half-century of cultural leveling by the Soviet regime, it is trying to figure out how much of itself is left. Like dozens of autonomous republics and ethnic groups in the former Soviet empire, it is slowly trying to unweave itself from the legacy of communism, assimilation and authoritarian rule.

Nowhere is this effort more evident than in medicine. Folk healing is returning, and nontraditional therapeutics, such as reflexology, homeopathy and diagnostic clairvoyance, are increasingly popular and available. The first post-Soviet generation of monks is being educated and plans to return traditional Buddhist, or lamaistic, healing within five years.

One of the most popular methods of folk healing is shamanism. A shaman is a person who incorporates wisdom, magic and medicine in many traditional societies in the Northern Hemisphere. Shamans are particularly important and active in Innuit and other polar cultures, as well as throughout much of Siberia. Their powers are often thought to be gained through both inheritance and study.

Incense and Drumming

The shamans' clinic opened three years ago. It's in an unpainted one-story wooden building with ornate blue window frames, a style ubiquitous in Russia. There's a yurt, a circular felt-covered tent, out back for special ceremonies.

The clinic works a little bit like a group practice. The patients enter a rear door, walk down a short hall that has a wooden bench against one wall until they get to a counter with a receptionist. They can either request a shaman by name or be assigned one in rotation. The three or four practitioners (depending on the day) have their own treatment rooms.

Before each consultation, the receptionist hands in a receipt from the registration book that lists, among other things, the patient's presenting complaint. Occasionally, between clients, one of the shamans appears at the desk, in full headdress, red-eyed and redolent of burned balsam, to see what the schedule looks like.

Across from the waiting-room bench are the treatment rooms. On the door of each is a hand-lettered cardboard sign hanging on a braided cord, announcing the name of the practitioner inside. One of them says Sarayglar Borbakhol, "7th generation shaman."

Inside are two chairs and two tables, covered with shelf paper. On one are spread the tools of Borbakhol's work: a shiny brass disk he uses as a mirror, the clawed feet of animals, seeds, feathers, rattles and what appears to be the shoulder blade of a deer. A shaman's drum leans against the wall.

The shaman himself wears a burgundy cassock with dozens of bells and strips of cloth sewn in ranks across the breast and shoulders. These fly outward as he whirls. His headdress is made of velvet and has eight feathers and two horns. Borbakhol's face is nearly toothless, dark and deeply lined. He is 66 years old and says he found out he was destined to be a shaman when he was 3 years old and "began having visions and tremblings in the head."

On this particular afternoon, a young couple has come to see him. The treatment lasts about 15 minutes and costs $1.50. It begins with the shaman taking the pulse of each client, a maneuver that (as in much folk medicine) is thought to be crucial to diagnosis. One of the clients lights a small bowl of balsam needles, which smoke steadily.

The shaman then instructs the couple to rise from their chairs. He wets his fingers in another bowl and wipes them on the palms of the man and woman . He has them each, in turn, lift a foot and hold it over the incense burner. Then he tells them to spin around.

As the ritual continues, Borbakhol moves through discrete tasks, employing virtually all of his tools. He drums for a prolonged periods, walking and swaying around the couple, who stand with their heads bowed and eyes closed. He throws seeds, which scatter across the floor. Near the end. he asks the woman to catch the drumstick in her skirts as she sits in the chair. She misses twice, but gets it the third time.

Outside the clinic after the session is over, her husband, Ayaz Mongush says they "never go to the Russian doctors."

"We have been here once before. He is very good," the 30-year-old construction worker says of the shaman. "He told us everything that would be necessary to bring us happiness."

Borbakhol is equally indirect.

"They are in pain. You must banish the evil spirits. They have bad sleep, nightmares, and they want to be happy," he says. Then, after a moment, he adds: "And they have only one child. We have powers to assist them." It's not all medicine at the clinic, however.

The next couple have had their radio cassette player stolen. They have an idea who took it and have come to check it out with the shaman. The woman after them, who wears a green silk scarf and has a large, stylish handbag, has come asking about her daughter, who went to work the day before and hasn't come back.

"He said, `Don't worry, she's still alive. The stones show nothing bad,'" she said.

A few minutes after 4:30 p.m., Borbakhol appears outside in an old gray raincoat, smoking a cigarette, office hours over.

The Shamans' Society

In a small building next to the state museum a few blocks away is the office of Kenin-Lopsan Mongush Borahovich. He is 70 years old, the president of the Society of Tuvan Shamans, "honoured culture's worker of Russia and Tuva" (according to a note in one of his books for sale in the museum) and the apotheosis of communist shamanism.

Kenin-Lopsan (as he is referred to) was born in a yurt, a child of hunters whose shaman grandmother certified his powers when he was 9. He tells a story of hardship and rejection during the Soviet period, of his lifelong efforts to record shamans' stories and songs while enduring interrogations by the secret police. It took decades for the faculty of Leningrad State University, where he studied, to recognize his ethnographic work. But he bears no grudges.

"I was in the Communist Party up to August 26, 1991," he tells a group of visitors, citing a date soon after the toppling of communism and long after all but the most cowed or true-believing had left the party. "When in this great event the Communist Party was destroyed, in this pocket I was carrying the party card and with my right hand I was writing scientific researches about Tuvan shamans." He says this with pride, and no irony.

Today, Kenin-Lopsan oversees the certification of shamans in Tuva, though he doesn't practice himself beyond an occasional palm reading. An international symposium of shamans met in Tuva in 1993 and designated him "a gift to the earth." Delegates came from among other places, the United States, Canada, Finland and Austria.

"We are living in democracy, and our spiritual religion and culture are reviving," he says with satisfaction, before giving each visitor a sacred pebble and, in the Soviet old style, a souvenir lapel pin.

There are 34 registered shamans, and more than a hundred studying. He holds up the card all board-certified shamans get once they are approved. It's in a folding red leatherette case just like the ones that used to hold Communist Party membership cards.

Real and Unreal

The Center for Non-Traditional Medicine also opened three years ago, in a building that once was a public bath. "There was a demand from the public for a revival of people's consciousness," says Ala Sergeevna Chunan, the 49-year-old gynecologist who has turned to homeopathy and now runs the center. "Many people's traditions were lost during the time of Soviet power."

Eclecticism is the rule at the center, which she says combines scientific medicine with folk healing, and stresses holistic therapies. It has four psychologist, two manual (or massage) therapists, one pediatrician specializing in reflexology and homeopathy, one homeopath for adults, a herbalist and a clairvoyant.

Kyzyl, with a population of 100,000, has a 715-bed general hospital, as well as a tuberculosis hospital that can house several hundred patients. Most of the 189 physicians on the staff are Tuvans trained elsewhere in Russia, as Tuva has no medical school. Many of them are receptive to alternative therapies, Chunan says. About 20 percent of the center's patients are sent by traditionally trained, or "allopathic," physicians.

The center is supported half by the government's Ministry of Health and half by fees from patients. The practitioners are salaried, and charges for treatment are assessed on a sliding scale. In a policy reminiscent of the old days, children and pensioners pay nothing.

Given its setting, the center features a lot of hydrotherapy. There are also sessions in the sauna and in a room whose walls are coated with rock salt, which is thought to have curative powers. There is a chapel-like room decorated with Buddhist motifs. There, the psychologists conduct music therapy, which includes the use of a shaman's drum. But there are no shamans on the staff.

"It is hard to distinguish the real from the unreal shamans" the director says diplomatically. She adds that she knows of one true shaman, an 82-year-old man who lives in a city west of Kyzyl. He was exiled to northern Siberia in 1953 and didn't return until 1971.

She doesn't doubt, however, that some people get curative skills as an inheritance, as many shamans claim.

The center's best know practitioner, she says , is a clairvoyant currently out of town seeing patients. He is the grandson of a shaman and has "very old instruments he got from his ancestors." He diagnoses illness by studying skin color and pulse, and by detecting "bioenergy." In the rebirth of old traditions in Tuva, this is a new synthesis.

"He combines shamanism, lamaism and modern medicine," Chunan says. "The doctors even help him with their computers."

[Photo caption: Sarayglar Borbakhol is a "7th generation shaman" who is part of a folk healing practice that reflects a rediscovery of native culture in parts of the former Soviet Union.]

Where is Tuva?

Tuva is an "autonomous republic" of about 320,000 people that lies just north of Mongolia. Its natives were traditionally herdsmen on the steppes. The country contains an astonishing range of topography, from high desert in the south to Siberian taiga in the north. The language is in the Turkic family.

Though Tuva was an independent nation from 1921 until 1944, in practice it was a Soviet colony. Stalinism nearly obliterated traditional religious practice, which included much medical practice. Shamans--traditional medicine men--and monks were killed, imprisoned, exiled or driven underground. All 49 Buddhist temples were destroyed.

Back to the Friends of Tuva Shamanism Page.