Witch doctors revel in new spell of power

Daily Telegraph (England), June 21, 2003
By Julius Strauss in Kyrlyk

In an idyllic Siberian valley, seated on a low stool in a wooden yurt, the old witch doctor donned a fox-fur hat and a scarlet velvet robe and began to chant in her ancient language.

First she summoned the spirits of the surrounding mountains, lakes and gorges. Then she mixed milk, flour and butter and scooped it on to the small roaring fire built from faggots of juniper.

“I can cure trauma, paralysis, eczema, toothache and a host of other maladies,” she said. “People come to me from far around. Even the doctors from this area come here to be cured.”

In this remote region of southern Siberia, near the borders of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, Tamara Klesheva, 59, is a practitioner of the ancient art of shamanism.

After decades of suppression when these traditional healers were almost wiped out, they are enjoying a renaissance not seen since the Russian colonists arrived nearly 400 years ago. Fuelled by a new spirit in Russia since the fall of communism, dozens of would-be shamans are being trained in tiny Siberian communities.

Tamara said: “Young people with special powers come to me and I tell them how to study. Our numbers are growing again. The knowledge and experience are spreading. We’re not oppressed any more.”

As the word of their powers spreads, thousands flock to their fires for cures they say modern medicine cannot bring. Tamara receives up to 50 patients a day, some with aches and pains, others with life-threatening wounds.

Rooted in the mists of time, shamanism is an ancient belief that disease and illness can be cured through communing between the real and spiritual world by means of a series of rituals and meditation.

Under the Soviet Union, this and other beliefs deemed unorthodox or superstitious were banned. In the early years of communism, dozens of shamans were shot. Later they were imprisoned. Now the state has abandoned its opposition and the Siberian peoples are seeking out the ways of their forefathers.

Tamara practises in a yurt in the village of Kyrlyk. The tools of her trade are sprigs of herbs and urns of wheat mash, cheese, bread and butter. “I was a girl when I realised I had special powers,” she said. “I consulted an older shaman and we discovered I had inherited them from a relative on my mother’s side seven generations back.”

The setting could hardly be more conducive to Tamara’s pursuit. More than 2,500 miles east of Moscow and 700 miles from the nearest airport, it is a scarcely inhabited paradise of rolling hills, jagged mountains and fast-flowing rivers. In the forests, wolves, deer, bear and snow leopards roam.

“I work every month,” Tamara said, “from the new moon until the full moon. But then I rest and gather my materials. I know that sometimes an operation is the best cure for a person. But there is much that modern medicine doesn’t cover. There are things only I can cure.”

A neighbour, Pyotr, a horse-herder, said: “She’s an extraordinary woman. It’s impossible not to believe in her. When I was in hospital with broken ribs, she visited me three times. On the third day the pain just evaporated.”

Even the hard-bitten, vodka-swigging descendants of Russian colonists are drawn by the shamans’ reputation as faith healers.

“I believe absolutely in her powers,” said Alexander Zatayev, the Russian director of the Katun National Park.

“Not only the Altai people believe in the shamans, but we Russians too. They are close to nature and happy with what God has given them. That’s more than can be said for other religions.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday June 25, 2003.
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