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Embodying spirits: village oracles and possession ritual in Ladakh, North India

Day, Sophie (1989) Embodying spirits: village oracles and possession ritual in Ladakh, North India. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.ay3j4qa22pgo


This thesis focuses upon village oracles in Buddhist Ladakh who provide ritual services to clients when they are in trance and possessed by gods. Village oracles are discussed in the context of a customary division made by Ladakhis between the lay and clerical components of their society. They are among the few layy ritual specialists and are consequently accorded less esteem than their monastic counterparts for they are associated with the lower reaches of the pantheon and with inferior ritual techniques. Moreover, Ladakhi village oracles attract suspicion because of the manner in which they are created. They are elected through affliction which is gradually, but only precariously, contained as the spirits responsible are domesticated in their human vessels. The process of initiation is seen in terms of the transformation of a probable demonic affliction into a capricious divine power. This process is analysed further through rituals associated with witchcraft possession and monastery oracles. Village oracles were once overwhelmed by affliction, like witchcraft victims, and it is never clear that these erstwhile patients have become healers, nor that they have turned their demons into gods. Village oracles are also related to practitioners in the monastery. The gods evoked by monastery oracles were converted to Buddhism in "historical" times and, today, they join the side of religion in the continuing conquest of enemies. The gods embodied by village oracles may also be seen as converts but, by comparison, their conversion is a much more uncertain affair. It is argued that village oracles are best understood in terms of their position in-between affliction in the village and a respected ritual power in the monastery. The analysis suggests similarities with spirit mediums elsewhere who are likewise associated with movements away from affliction towards ritual powers.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 1989 Sophie Day © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Library of Congress subject classification: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
Sets: Departments > Anthropology
Supervisor: Parry, Jonathan and Bloch, Maurice

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