Fate of the Lhapa



Fate of the Lhapa occurs in four chapters. Each man’s life as a lhapa has four stages.  This corresponds to the four main components of a healing ceremony. Visual images of each ceremony component will introduce the viewer to the corresponding stage of the men’s lives as lhapas. Fate of the Lhapa also looks at the lhapas lives through three contexts: Their daily life in exile in the Tibetan refugee camp, their roles as seasoned healers, and the possible disappearance of “sucking doctors” in the Tibetan culture. At their request, they are telling the story of being a Lhapa as if the next heir was sitting at their feet listening to their grandfathers. The refugee camp sits at the base of the Annapurna range of the Himalayan Mountains, in the shadow of Macchapuchre, a mountain considered sacred to both the Tibetan and Nepali people. The beauty of the Nepali countryside and the scope and pageantry of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions will appear throughout the film. Images will include the ornate icons and thanka paintings of the camp’s monastery, the costumes and paraphernalia of healing ceremonies wherein the lhapas become possessed by deities in order the suck the illness out of the patient, and footage of the Tibetan men and women of the camp struggling to maintain their culture in the midst of poverty, oppression, and exile.


The three lhapas tell their stories of childhood in Tibet, spontaneous initiations as thirteen year olds, apprenticeship and shamanic training with senior lhapas, escape through the Himalayan Mountains to Nepal, their perspectives as aged healers coming to the end of their lives and the possibility that they are the last of their kind. The ordinary daily existence of the lhapas lives will be contrasted with the mystique of the healing ceremonies. Viewers will witness Tibetan lives in exile, from the mundane to the spiritual. Subtitles will be used. The video was shot in Tibet and Nepal.




The three Lhapas were born in Tibet into a lineage of shamans. At the age of thirteen each experienced a psychotic break and was taken before a Buddhist Lama who determined that each boy’s visionary encounter was the needed marker indicating their fate as a lhapa. The boys embarked on a series of pilgrimages to holy sights under the guidance of a senior lhapa. As China invaded Tibet in the late 1950s the then young men escaped over the Himalayan Mountains and settled in a refugee camp in Nepal.


Lhapas are “sucking doctors” who heal by extracting poisons, polluted substances, and other objects from their patients’ bodies. They use ram’s horn, drums and red cloth to suck the illness out of the body. They then spit the objects out so that the patients can see their illness. These items have included pieces of putrid meat, globs of black tar, coins, blood, balls of hair, small stones, or clear liquid that contains visibly moving bacteria. Once observed, the Lhapa swallows the illness. Lhapas are a form of Tibetan oracle that has the ability to temporarily embody deities in order to perform shamanic healing and divination work. Unlike the renowned Nechung oracle or other oracle-priests that primarily serve monastic orders, these Lhapas hold healing sessions in their homes or in the homes of the patient to help ordinary people who are ill.


The refugee camp is located ten miles outside of Pokhara Nepal. It is a bleak encampment reminiscent of the squalor of the United State’s Native American reservations. A Buddhist Monastery lies at the center of the camp and is relatively opulent compared to the one-room hovels that house the Tibetan people. The refugees scratch out a living by processing wool for use in Tibetan carpets and by selling Tibetan paraphernalia in the stalls that line the camp to attract tourists. Due to a ten year violent conflict between the Maoists and the Nepali government, tourism has diminished to such a degree that it is no longer a viable source of income.


Need: There are several factors that make the timing of this project important. First, the Lhapas are now quite old and with the onset of old age; they are physically not as able to perform the strenuous healing ceremonies. Second, this Lhapa tradition is passed down genetically through the maternal bloodline to male heirs as they enter puberty. No sons, grandsons, nephews, nor great-nephews experienced the visions that would have marked their fate as a lhapa. This means that at the time of these three Lhapa’s death, there will cease to be a practicing Lhapa in Nepal. Third, the Tibetan refugees in Nepal are succumbing to modernization and Western acculturation. The younger generation is in the process of migrating out of the camps, and out of the old ways. In an attempt to be “modern” the younger generation is shedding their traditional dress and customs in exchange for Western ways.