Ulan Ude, Russia – The frigid steppes of Siberia are considered the historical heartland of one of the world’s oldest spiritual belief systems.
Despite being driven to the edges of society, shamanism – the belief in good and evil spirits and rituals to appease them – has experienced a resurgence in recent years. The word shamanism itself is believed to have originated from the language of the Evenks who inhabit Siberia’s eastern edge.
Further west near the Mongolian border, shamanism is often called Tengerism, a term that means “the honouring of spirits”.
In this region, as in most of the world, the practice was largely forced out by competing beliefs – in Siberia’s case through occasionally violent conflict with Tibetan Buddhism for centuries, followed by decades of state repression under the Soviet Union.
The collapse of the Soviet Union heralded a religious revival throughout Russia. Perhaps unexpectedly, Tengerism has achieved newfound popularity, not just in its traditional homeland, but also across Russia and beyond.
“When the USSR collapsed, a lot of different religions revived and Tengerism – our religion – was among them,” said Barir Djambalovich, head shaman of the Circle of Tengerism, an organisation comprising more than 100 shamans in Ulan Ude, a city 5,600km east of Moscow.
The Russian government classifies shamanism in the “other” category practised by one percent of Russians.
Shamans estimate a quarter of Siberia’s 40 million people practice shamanism to some degree, but researchers say that’s an inflated number.
The central tenet of Tengerism is the worship of three spheres of being.
“The upper sphere is space, the middle sphere land, and the lower sphere is the underground world,” said Djambalovich. “How we spent our life in this world affects the quality of our life in the next sphere.”
Emphasis is placed on a proper reverence for nature and for one’s ancestors in the next sphere.
Sporting a long goatee and wearing a sweater vest rather than ceremonial robes, Djambalovich has seen the Tenger following expand to more than 200 visitors a day at the small wooden temple. Spiritually significant days, such as the Tenger New Year or the summer solstice, see higher attendance.
Djambalovich said it’s been a gradual growth since the Soviet Union’s collapse.
To accommodate the increased following, the shamans are constructing a new temple in Ulan Ude that will comfortably house 300 people, with eight yurts around the outside.
Although the Tenger belief is originally a practice of the ethnic Buryats who have historically inhabited this area of Siberia, many of the visitors to the temple – and some of its shamans – are ethnic Russians.
And some of them are from further abroad.
The shamans said they receive an increasing number of visitors from Europe and the Americas, disenchanted with their societies and looking for a deeper spiritual meaning.
“People of different nationalities and religions come to us and we try to help them. We have lots of people from the US, Europe, and Asia,” said Djambalovich.
One avid practitioner of shamanism, Joamar Mestres, hails from distant Barcelona, Spain.
“Shamanism for me is the origin of the spiritual need that humans have. It’s the oldest spiritual practise – it’s not a religion,” said Mestres.
He heads a group of visitors from Chile and Venezuela undergoing a ritual in one of the lodges that dot the temple’s premises.
On one side of the room, two shamans in bright blue robes and eye-covering hats – spirits are afraid of human eyes – drum and chant, building to a frantic crescendo.
On the other side, a shaman and a translator guide the South Americans through the ritual, indicating what movements to make and what phrases to say.
“We are travelling, my wife and I, since 25 years ago around the world. In Mexico, in Brazil, in Peru, in Uzbekistan,” said Mestres, stepping out of the lodge.
“In Mexico we went to a place in Oaxaca where shamans use mushrooms and entered an alternate state of consciousness. Here is different. They use only drums and music, but achieve the same alternate state. It’s very strong.”
Although different in that respect, Mestres did see many similarities between the two practices – one being the symbiotic relationship with other religions.
“Here we can find shamanism mixed with Buddhism, that’s amazing. Because in Mexico we have the synchronism of shamanism and the Catholic religion in Guadalupe,” he said.
“And here you have the same thing with Buddhism.”
The non-exclusive nature of Tengerism may be key to its recent success. It enjoys an especially close relationship with Buddhism, and welcomes practitioners of any religion who are interested.
“In many religions there are strict rules to prevent people from practising other religions,” said Djambalovich.
“But in Tengerism and Buddhism it’s not so strict. My ancestors and I even go to Buddhist temples, but we still keep and preserve our Tenger traditions.”
Preserving true Tengerism is extremely important to the shamans.
Vitaly Baltaev is the head of the shaman centre in Irkustk. He said the increasing interest in shamanism has also brought false purveyors.
“In recent years the number of shamans increased greatly, but some of them are neo-shamans. These neo-shamans are fake shamans,” said Baltaev. “Only a few of them are real shamans.”
These practitioners don’t learn shamanism’s core beliefs or follow proper rituals.
“Neo-shamanism has many differences with our religion. We are trying to preserve our religion that we got from our ancestors and pass it to our kids,” said Djambalovich.
The Circle of Tengerism sees no barriers to more growth, and it has setup a website providing online resources for those who want to learn about shamanism.
“Because we live in a globalised world we can easily communicate with anyone. The internet has no borders,” Djambalovich said.
“We can easily meet different people, better understand them, see their souls. We always welcome people of any religion and try our best to help.”