Documentary Photographer Alina Desyatnichenko is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography. From the project ‘Baikal of Wonders’. To see Alina’s body of work, click on any image.
The land of Baikal region in Russia has always been sacred for the local indigenous peoples – Buryats. And shamans who could talk to local gods were revered as a hereditary caste of the chosen. After 70 years of stagnation, the religious faith of their ancestors began to revive. Even so, locals refer to shamans just as to healers now. Many of shamans themselves are not aware of their destiny until, as they say, they won’t get a clear sign from Father Sky. To preserve their culture they had to create professional unions, organize festivals, scientific conferences.
In the wake of the popularity of the new-age culture, the lake Baikal is mostly presented in guidebooks as the sacred center of the shaman’s world instead of the rare nature reserve. There are many tours offering visits to “the places of power”, advisory services from an “expert”, participation in ceremonies and sacred holidays. Amulets, totems and “real shaman drums” are in demand in local souvenir shops. I went there to check what’s in this image and how much it costs.
All my heroes are pictured at their workplaces: either at the offices of local religious organizations of shamans, either at home.
Irkutsk city, at home
“I’m a PhD. I knew nothing about this. When I’d moved back to my homeland, I understood very poorly [shamanism]. I can say, I didn’t understand it at all. All shamans had died in my village. And I had a dream where five of them sat. Two of them I know. One of them was very well versed. Second, too. And three were blackened. They didn’t tell their names to me. I don’t know them, it seemed they lived a long time ago. One of the two that was well versed said: “You need to start to deal with this case”.
If they said – that’s all. It’s impossible to disobey. It’s vital. Otherwise, you’ll be severely punished. I went to Shabaev, uncle of Makha, in Ust-Orda. I said to him: “There wasn’t anyone in my clan. Maybe uncle of my father might do something. And I had a dream. What should I do?” He worked with his magic: “Oh, you have no other choice. You had to”. I said: “I’ve started without the initiation. Look, comes [my prayers] or doesn’t come? Do they receive?” He said: “You’re doing everything right. Well, you should carry out the rite”. Two years, two summers it lasted. The first year, it seems that there were seven heads. On the second year there were two more. But it’s such an event… One of these shamans who’s good in this said: “Not everyone does like that. You’ve done everything right. Usually everybody sacrifice two sheep for initiation. And you… You’ve done everything right””.
A glass with Baikal map
Where to buy: Irkutsk city, 150 rubles
Shamanic traditions began to revive in the Irkutsk region in the 90s. Lots of structures appeared that were mainly dedicated to connect professional shamans. Thus, there is one organization of shamans “Heavenly lights” in Ust-Ordynsky Buryat district, one in Irkutsk city — “Baikal”, another in Angarsk city — “Forever blue sky”. There was also established consultative and coordinating organization — the Council of shamanic communities of Baikal region.
Bayanday settlement, in his “working” house
“My ancestors were shamans, maternal and paternal. So I like to say, when I’d become a man, I already started a little bit [to shaman]. In 55 I had begun to sprinkle, to conduct these ceremonies. I had to do it. Cause there are not always such [shamans] that can. It’s necessary to have “utha” — genealogy that can conduct such ceremonies”.
Where to buy: Irkutsk city, 800 rubles
Ongon is a deity, a guardian spirit of an ancestor or a whole clan. Buryat shamans believe that the soul of the human moves to the family tree after his death and then reaches the upper world in the image of the bald eagle. The appearance of birds in the sky in the key moments of human life is considered as an auspicious sign.
Elantsy settlement, in the “working” yurt at home
“I’m a traditional shaman. Grandfather was a shaman. I was brought up by grandparents since childhood. In general, I’d been brought up before the school. Even when studied, I continued to live with them. So I was brought up traditionally by grandfather, grandmother. Lived with them, was born in a yurt. I was born with the sign — six fingers. Mongolian shaman Tseren-Zayrana said: “Only once in a hundred years shamans born with an extra bone, confirming that he’s a true, real shaman”.
I’m the only one like this in our area — with six bones. It’s like the Sky gives you a diploma. The priest is given a piece of paper that he has finished seminary. But if he, for example, fails, makes financial fraud, stills church property, he’ll be immediately unfrocked. He becomes a taxi driver for instance. And I’m always a shaman. I can be a bad or a good shaman. I can make a scheme… But what’s the scheme? We have nothing public. Were given money — good. If no — so no. Neutral attitude”.
Tea with sagaan-dali
Where to buy: Irkutsk city, 300 rubles
Sagaan-dali (Rhododendron adamsii) is a low evergreen shrub that grows on the shores of the lake Baikal. Widely used as a tonic and stimulant. Locals believed that this herb can prolong life, cure almost any disease.
Bilchir settlement, at home
“One girl insulted me: “Albina Garmayevna, what do you want?” I said: “A bottle of vodka, milk, welding, match, if you want — sweets. “And how much?” I said: “As much money as you can”. She said: “And I was told, you’ve got a rate”. “What rate?!” “1000 rubles”. I was so freaked out: “Do you want to insult me? People with illnesses come to me. And I still had to take money from them?!” Let they give 2 rubles, 50 rubles — as much as they can.
I have children, I have grandchildren. I’ve been sick for all my life since childhood. And I will make a receipt?! It’s a sin! Okay, I’ll gone, I’ll be burnt. I know I’ll be burnt. Shamans are burnt. I underwent 6 rites. I’ll gone, and then my grandchildren, great-grandchildren will be told: your grandma was such-and-so. I don’t need this”.
The cape Khoboy
Where to buy: Irkutsk city, 141 rubles
The cape Khoboy (buryat — “fang, molar”) — the most Northern cape of Olkhon island on the lake Baikal. Buryat pagans revered this place as sacred.
Angarsk city, in the yurt of LROS “Forever blue sky”
“I’ve been doing this since 2007. 8 years I pray to the ancestors, 8 years I help my clan. I’m a hereditary shaman. I have uncles, aunts shamans. The cousin and grandfather were shamans. It’s family. Father is a shaman. I’ve watched all ceremonies since childhood. Matured. At the age of 37 years dedicated to ordain and began working.
Development, a concept of shamanic illness of each person shows itself in different ways. I’ve never smoked, drank in my life. At all. Never. Shamanic illness showed for me as that nothing was going well in my life. As soon as I had been starting some projects, so they ended, didn’t work properly. Although I studied in many universities, in different specialties. And I worked in different fields, ranging from the janitor, caretaker, nurse, ending with the Kobzon assistant. I’ve passed a lot. Served in the special forces, saw many things, passed through 90s, when my friends were killed — everything can happen in life.
Well, today when I came with some experience, luggage till my 37 years, I was told that I should be a shaman. I have ordained and I realized: yes, that’s mine, that’s what I always wanted. Although I knew for sure that I would be a doctor or shaman since childhood. I just didn’t know when, but I knew that I will”.
A shamanic drum
Where to buy: Irkutsk city, 1100 rubles
“A drum and a clapper (buryat: khese, toybor). A tambourine symbolized the horse which the shaman supposedly rode over the earth, soared to the heaven or descended to the underworld. He also served as an alarm tool, especially in the old days when clashes of clans and tribes were common, also as a shield. Another important function of a drum was that he produced a strong impression on shamans as a musical percussion instrument. A drum is an equipment dedicated only to initiated shamans. As soon the shaman had progressed in the hierarchy, so the number of drums increased up to 3-5 among his accessories, the great shamans that had held 5-7 initiations could have up to 27”.
Source: The Buryats. Peoples and culture. – M. Science, 2004
Angarsk city, in the “working” yurt of LROS “Forever blue sky”
“Everything that is on the Earth, how people live today — that was a complete contradiction for me. I wasn’t even interested in marriage, giving birth to children. Cause what for if I don’t know why I was born. That time I had already started bad life. I liked to fight. Then I looked through the Scripture, read it, it turned out that all of it was a shamanic illness. He could be inadequate, he could fight, something else. Later, after I’d become a shaman I understood, that I lived normally.
When I got sick, I started to lose the voice, once a day I started to swoon, my friends brought me to Arthur Vladimirovich, who is my teacher today. When I entered the house, I saw all these drums, roughly speaking — shamanism. I just felt inside: indeed, this is the real life. I actually almost started to flutter. All these joy and happiness were because I finally came to the right place. Now I know why my son was born, what for he will grow, what for his children will grow. That this divinity of the universe must continue, must bear spirituality on the Earth. My genetics, clan, power will be saved. Accordingly, I have to bear the same to people, to wake them up. It’s our purpose”.
Where to buy: Irkutsk city, 500 rubles
According to the legends, the spirits of ancestors descend grace and happiness from heaven through horsehair from the upper world. Black horsehair is also considered as an attribute of “doctoring”.
Khuzhir settlement, next to Shaman rock
“As I went into my mind, so I watched old people were doing rituals, praying. I was born here. Worked as projectionist at the weather station for more than 20 years. Got kids, daughter. I have 11 grandchildren, 4 great-grandchildren. Father was a chiropractor. One had dislocated his feet, hands or head — he would set all, praying to the gods at the same time. My brother was an MD. We studied here, came into being. He graduated from the institute, studied in Moscow, in Leningrad. Then he died early — had kidney failure”.
Where to buy: Angarsk city, 84 rubles
Shaman rock is the promontory in the middle of the Western coast of Olkhon island on the lake Baikal, one of the nine Holy places of Asia. According to the legend, 13 northern lords – sons of divine tengri descended from heaven to judge humans. They chose different residences. The eldest and the strongest of them Han Hute-Baabay became the king of all shamans and decided to stay in the cave in the Shaman Rock. It was a place of sacrificing to the spirits. The shamans were burned and buried nearby in the sacred grove.
Irkutsk city, in the office of Local religious organization of shamans (LROS) “Baikal”
“It’s not like you raise your hand: “I want to be a shaman!” It comes from above. Your ancestors, ongons give it to you. I have 8 ongons — from 8 to 11 ancestors. I worked in the police, now retired MIA. I was already ordained in shamans in absentia in the police. I was the 10th in my family, there are 10 consanguineous of us. Mother also raised three nephews and three grandchildren. Your ancestors, your ongons can choose anyone. If you have a large family, they usually choose either the oldest or the youngest, or middle — it happens.
You can’t become a shaman — shamans can be just chosen. Only physically strong, wise people are chosen. They pass through different hardships. I was stabbed, shot at work. Survived in two worst accidents. Not I was driving: first time it was brother, the second was son-in-law. Ordeals are very hard: if the spirit will fall or not. The shaman must be a spiritually strong person”.
T-shirt with print “I was on Lake Baikal” for girls
Where to buy: Irkutsk city, 550 rubles
According to Rosstat, 1173,3 thousand of tourists visited Irkutsk region last year: 1044,5 thousands were from Russia and 128.8 thousand were foreign. Thus, in 2015 the figure of the internal tourist flow compared to 2014 decreased by 10%, to 2013 by 14.9%, and foreign by 12.3% compared to 2014 and increased by 62.6% compared to 2013.
In total, by the data of the National population census 2010, 2428,75 thousand of people live in the region, 3.2% of which wished to identify themselves buryats.
Irkutsk city, at the kitchen in the residence
“I didn’t believe in shamanism in my youth. Although, my 12 ancestors were shamans. Grandparents, great-grandparents lived in the village Kachug where the lake Baikal is. Then in the 33rd year they moved to the lake Baikal, on the island [Olkhon]. I’m a native resident of the island, and my ancestors are from Kachug.
It probably happened when I was called in Ulan-Ude. My nephew was a driver. Something went wrong with him, and he called me in Ulan-Ude to the shaman. The shaman said: “You need to take a san of a shaman”. So I became a shaman. Before that, as shamans say, lots of animals miss. He said: “Did animals die?” I said: “Yes”. “It— he said — was intended to make you a shaman””.
Where to buy: Listvyanka town, 50 rubles
Shaman-stone is a cult rock ledge at the source of Angara river. According to legend, the Master of Angara river Ama Sagan Noyon lives here. People were praying there, carried out the rites, meted out justice. A criminal could be pardoned if he wasn’t washed away during the night that he had been left on that stone.
Ust-Ordynsky settlement, in the yurt of LROS “Heavenly lights”
“[Shamanism] inherits in our clans. Before I worked in the tax service Department as a head of the tax Inspectorate. 3 years of this shamanic sickness. At 35 people began to ask me to carry out rites. But I refused, and the salary was very good [in Department]. However, I screwed the doctors down: two years in therapy, then surgery. I wanted to live so I had to change the job and started to pray. Began at the age of 37. I’m an accountant by education. Started to help people — don’t visit hospital for 15 years at all”.
Where to buy: Ust-Ordynskiy settlement, 250 rubles
Vodka is one of the essential ingredients mostly of all modern buryat shaman ceremonies. They use it to achieve trance or as an oblation for the spirits. Some shamans suggest replacing vodka on lower alcohol content drink tarasun — traditional buryat so-called “milk vodka” because of the high risk of alcoholism occurrence. In summer they usually make tarasun by themselves, in winter often settle for factory products.
All images & text © Alina Desyatnichenko
By Alina Desyatnichenko