Tuva, Land of EaglesThe Foundation's 1993 Expedition to Tuva
By Bill Brunton
© Shamanism, Spring 1994, Vol. 7, No. 1
Sacred Spring: One of Nine
According to Tuvan reckoning, there are nine of everything that is important. It is a "ritual" or "sacred" number; all cultures have them. Our party spent several hours at one of Tuva's nine sacred springs, majestically situated on a slope overlooking an expansive valley framed by snow-covered mountains. Norm's description of this magnificent place follows.
The spring seeped out of the hillside, but it didn't appear to come out at any one place. At the top of the spring the local lama had placed a large sculpture of a white goat. To its side, a large arrow, eight or ten feet long, was raised off the ground pointing to the east. It had hundreds of prayer ribbons tied on it, completely covering the arrow. Nearby was a stupa with a deity in it. We were told that the waters had very strong healing qualities, and I went to an open-air enclosure into which the water was directed by three different-sized pipes. A small pipe was for the eyes, a medium-sized pipe was for the heart, and a large-sized pipe with rushing water coming through it was for the body/spirit. One entered the inner enclosure naked and the ritual is to put the right arm into the water flow first, then the right leg, left arm, and left leg. One then turns and backs into the water flow, directing the rushing stream of water to flow down the spine. I bathed in the flow of numbing, ice-cold water pouring from the spring, purifying myself, humbly asking the spirits for an inner cleansing and washing off of the veils, which surround me. I asked to have my third eye cleansed and purified. I felt totally "clean" after the experience.
We next walked up a hill in front of the spring where the view was stunning. The foreground was one of incredible beauty. An enormous and beautiful valley set off by an entire horizon of snow-covered mountain peaks took up our entire range of vision. The clear, sunny blue sky was non-ending. To add to that "energetic" of the planet, were the sacred spring behind us, the large prayer arrow with its hundreds of prayer ties, and the cleansing. We formed a circle and began drumming; people around us came up to be healed. The drumming stopped after a half-hour. We paused, with people sitting around us facing the panorama. The drumming started again, and healing sessions began with everyone encompassed in the one solid circle.
Drumming on this hilltop, as on the "White Mountain," was what we learned to call a "blessing ceremony," or a "healing of the land." The Tuvans told us that these were immensely valuable. This type of ceremony used to be done yearly at places such as these. We were told that our blessings were spreading across Tuva, to eventually touch all parts. There was in us the satisfaction borne of simply doing the right thing.
A footnote to this story of the beauty of nature and purpose is that not 100 meters from the pipes carrying the icy, clear water of the spring to those using it for purification, including drinking its pure substance, were ugly reminders of the 20th Century's contributions to nature. Discarded plastic bags, old shoes, and other modern refuse defiled this special stream as it made its way into that magnificent valley. Obviously, blessings to the land of other sorts are in order here in Tuva, as in so many other places.
The Bear Mountain, Khaiyrakan, is Tuva's most sacred of its nine sacred mountains. Seeing it jut out of a flat valley floor from miles away is breathtaking! It is a saw-toothed, raw piece of nature with only a broadcast tower on its flank to mar its pristine statement of nature's power and dominance. Up closer there is a dirt road joining the main one that goes past a Buddhist stupa. This leads to a ceremonial area including nine stone-pile ova, a shaman's pole tipi (tschum) festooned with prayer ties, and a row of Buddhist symbols on staffs thrust into the ground facing the mountain. We visited this place twice: once at the beginning of our second excursion when there was a blessing ritual for the place conducted by a lama and a shaman together; and on the last day of this excursion as we returned to Kyzyl. What happened there, and the place itself, inspired most of us to write about it. Here, in Heimo's words, is what we observed on the first visit.
This festival, which was attended by about 200 persons, was led by Sendarsky, a lama from a temple in the neighboring village, Khaiyrakan. During the ceremony the lama was seated by the side of the tschum singing Buddhist prayers while being assisted by Rosa, one of the young shamans accompanying us. Their roles were reversed in a healing ceremony for an individual in the lama's temple where the lama assisted Rosa. The co-operative nature of Tuvan shamanism and Buddhism could be seen inside the tschum, where there was a small table with common Buddhist offerings next to the normal inhabitant of the tschum: the bear skull. Most participants walked nine times around the circle of nine ova, adding a stone to the piles while circling. During the lama's singing there were also other people making (shamanic) offerings of water and vodka to the sky deities using nine-holed spoons (wooden spoons with nine concavities for holding liquids for just such offerings).
The syncretism in this ceremony was astounding and bore witness to the easy compatibility between shamanism and Buddhism in Tuva.
On our return to Bear Mountain, we conducted a blessing ceremony in a huge circle that included all those traveling in our party, including the bus drivers, security men, and the Norwegian educators. Up to twenty-five eagles at a time wheeled, soared and dove over our heads. The ceremony was beautiful in its setting, intent, and result. On one level, it was a farewell ceremony, for we would leave Tuva the next day. Although there would be a farewell party and an interview at the monument to the center of Asia, this was the final gathering of spirit. We held hands and invoked the power of the circle. We drummed and sang. And finally we sat holding hands; a single community united in sacred work for this beautiful land. We were bridging the immense cultural chasm that could have separated us. We said the things to each other that friends say who have shared lives in a profound way. We were truly reluctant to end this final symbol of unity and spiritual work of inestimable value.
Departure and Endings
The Foundation expedition to Tuva ended on July 9, 1993, when all but our cinematographers, Tom and Tamia, departed for Krasnoyarsk. Tom and Tamia would remain in Tuva for another three weeks, considerably expanding our knowledge of the land and its people. Paul and Roswitha would travel from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal before returning to Austria. The rest would fly on to Moscow. From there we would scatter and eventually return to our homelands and our former lives. Heimo and I presented papers in Budapest at the 2nd International Conference on Shamanism, sponsored by the International Society for Shamanistic Research.
It would be accurate to describe our experience in Tuva as transformative. All members of the expedition feel that their lives have been changed by the experiences shared in this small central Asian country. The Tuvans assured us that they too had been changed. The shamans who participated in our circles learned a new way of working; cooperating with each other and drawing on the power of the circle to amplify and focus healing power. We were thanked profusely for introducing them to this way of working with the spirits.
Our healing work had a major impact on our credibility as shamanic practitioners, and it helped to restore confidence to those who received or witnessed the healings at the concerts or at private flats. Paul Uccusic, who is maintaining weekly contact with Tuva, reports that in addition to the actor all but one of our clients continues to prosper.
A major reason the Foundation undertook such a difficult expedition was to support the Tuvan effort to rehabilitate their shamanism. In meetings with the President and other officials, as well as our day-to-day activities, including the conference and healings, we were able to effectively assist in this effort. In addition to the healings, our scientific credentials and our being from the West had a positive impact on these modern, post-Soviet Tuvans. The President was particularly interested in our impression of the compatibility of Buddhism and shamanism. We were able to report that we saw no inherent conflict, and that both should be encouraged to blossom.
We seem to have won the debate over whether or not workshops can be effectively used to train people in shamanic methodology. There are so few old-style shamans in Tuva with a broad knowledge of those traditions that this generation may not be able to train enough young ones to replace themselves when they die. Of the young shamans we met, none was fully working in the traditional way, though some are in training. Our methods may help in this critical area. Kenin Lopsan, himself a leading shaman, was supportive of our approach.
We were also able to lend our voice to the chorus that is advising Tuvan authorities to go slowly and with consideration for the environment when developing Tuva's abundant natural resources. We were chagrined to learn that there is a tentative plan to mine the sacred Bear Mountain, Khaiyrakan, for its deposits for cement!
After our return from the second excursion we met with shamans and other interested Tuvans at the museum for a final opportunity to discuss where we go from here. This meeting was very positive, an outcome of which is the hope, expressed by both sides, that we seek opportunities to continue our co-operative work, both in documenting Tuvan shamanism and participating in the healing work there. As Michael Harner states in his introduction to this issue, a brief Foundation expedition to Tuva headed by Paul Uccusic is planned for this summer (1994).
Paul Uccusic writes in a recent letter that since our departure, Tuvans have adopted a new, democratic constitution that guarantees religious freedom and that professor Kenin Lopsan has been appointed chairman of a newly-created, government-funded organization devoted to the scientific study of shamanism. Rollanda Kongar, one of our very capable interpreters, also has been given a position in this organization. Their first task is to translate and publish the results of the conference in English, Russian, and Tuvinian.
Tom and Tamia Marg-Anderson, who documented the expedition on film and videotape for the Foundation, explored the far western part of Tuva and the Todja district in the east, where there are few roads. The Todja district of Tuva has mountains, taiga forest, lakes, and sacred springs. They visited some of these and searched for more shamans and information about them. They also searched for knowledge of the sacred landscape of this area. Currently, they are editing video footage for a documentary of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies 1993 expedition to Tuva. This video will be given to 1994 Sponsoring Members of the Circle of the Foundation.
The "Land of Eagles" is, or soon will be, back on maps used by Westerners. More people will visit this exotic place and will, as they always do, leave their mark on it. There is already activity in Tuva by Turkish business interests. We can only hope that the effort by the Tuvans to rehabilitate their shamanism and other traditions keeps pace with the winds of change from the outside. They desperately need to maintain their reverence for the Earth and its natural inhabitants in order to preserve the balance they had achieved before cities, roads and vodka. They, like other Siberians, are rushing into the 21st Century as they grasp for the golden ring of their identity as a people. Their shamans hold this ring in their hearts and minds.
After returning to the United States, Mo Maxfield was searching through her notes and memories. looking for how she might write about her experiences for her report. She opened her heart and out poured a lyrical poem about Khaiyrakan, about Tuva, and about the ten who shared this adventure.
Khaiyrakan - A Poem by Melinda Maxfield
To the continent of Asia, through the country of Russia,
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