Shamanic wooden figure "Chyaruru"


Gurung people, Nepal, late 19th to early 20th century, private collection from Netherlands.

Nepal is situated just to the south of the Himalayan mountain peaks. Himalaya, stretching from Pakistan to Myanmar, forms the highest land boundary on our planet and is one of the linguitically most complex regions. The Nepal is a multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural country made up of more than 125 ethnic groups and more than 123 languages. Nepal's diverse linguistic heritage evolved from three major language groups: Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman languages, and various indigenous language isolates. Kathmandu is the nation's capital and the largest city. In the foothills and valleys in the southern slopes of the Himalayas, to the west and to the north of the Kathmandu valley live tribes, among which a very old form of Shamanism mixed with elements of Buddhism and Hinduism is still predominant today. These tribes, such as Gurung, Magar, Tamang, Limbus etc. (as well the Rai in southern Nepal), have an old mask tradition.

The Gurungs are a hill people living on the southern slopes of the Himalayan Mountains in central Nepal. In their own language, they call themselves "Tamu" (Ta means thunder, mu symbolizes sky). The highland, or lekhāli, Gurungs retain a lifestyle closely tied to older traditions. They are dependent on high-altitude pastoralism and are strongly Buddhist in culture. It includes elements of Shamanism, Bön and the Nyingma Ngagba tradition of Buddhism, Hinduism, and local animistic practises. In addition, their world is inhabited by numerous local godlings, village deities, supernatural creatures of the forest etc. This inclusion of each of these belief systems is reflected by the existence of three types of Gurung priests: pachyu, kyabri and lam (Buddhist lama priest or Bonpo lam, the name depends on the belief within the Gurung community and is a source of controversy). Local animist shamans have the responsibility of dealing with this aspect of Gurung religion. They perform exorcisms, animal sacrifice, and other animistic rites. They help trap and expel witches. They also participate with Buddhist lāmāsin many Gurung life-cycle rituals.

Nothing is more important than the funerary rituals for the Gurung. All of their beliefs and institutions are manifest in the ceremonies attendant to death. The lama, pachyu and kyabri priests officiate side by side these events, which they do not do in any other ceremony. The Gurung funeral ceremony is divided into two parts, an initial rite which includes disposing of the body (mhi sibari) and a concluding memorial ceremony (pai) which focuses on the deceased soul. There are four kinds of funerals: in the earth (burial), in the water (the body is left to the river and carried away by the current), in the sky (called Tibetan celestial burial or Sky burial) and by fire. The Gurung usually choose fire and earth. Before the funerary rites are performed, the deceased's nail and hair are cut and inserted into a piece of bamboo which is the hidden in the ground. This receptacle is called the rhi, and it will be needed for the successful accomplishment of the second set of funerary rites. The second set of funerary rites are called the Pae ceremony. The rhiteba ritual (rhi: remains of the body; tebari: bringing the the rhi while dancing) is a central event in the pae ceremony. It consists of a confrontation between priests and sons-in-law, in the form of a dance that recreates the soul imprisonment in hell and its ensuing struggle against the demons. In Tamu myth, the deceased person goes directly to the netherworld and must be saved to find the path towards the ancestors. It is said that the first pae was performed by a bird called chyaruru.

The philosophical consept of chyaruru has roots in the Bön religion and is associated with its founder Tonpar Shenrab Miwoche, with the divinity Khyung Ngonpo, and with the protector Sipai Gyalmo. Khyung Ngonpo is the mythical bird of the Bön religion which is called Garuda in Buddhism and Hinduism. Sipai Gyalmo is a female protective and meditational divinity who rides a bird and embodies power, wisdom and compassion.

Mesmerizingly beautiful, rare shamanic figure in a form of mythical bird. Carved from a single piece of wood. Good condition. Age-related wear and signs of ritual use. Dark, smoothed patina. Soot, dust and dirt. Size approx. 23,5cm x 20,0cm x 9,0cm. Weight c. 439g.

References, citations and sources:

The Rhiteba Funeral Rite of the Gurung and the Chyaruru Psychopomp Bird, Andrien Viel & L.S. Akshunna, Lettre du toit du monde, issue 23, December 2017.

Parallel landscapes: ritual and political values of a shamanic soul journey, Völkerkundemuseum Press, note 8, 1999.

Les Gurungs: Une population himalayanne, Bernard Pignède, Mouton, Paris, La Haye, Organisation clanique et hiérachique, 1966.