The Oracle of Nechung

The adjacent photograph originally appeared in Lost Tibet and was taken by Ilya Tolstoy. The two below appeared in the book, Tibet in Turmoil - A Pictorial Account (1950-1959).

The oracle at Nechung is pictured, in a trance state, looking into the future to make predictions about the coming year.

I will transcribe the description of this scene as recorded by Tolstoy. "When he had gone into a trance, a huge bonnet weighing eighty to ninety pounds was lowered onto his head. It was actually a tall headdress built on an iron base. I twas decorated with peacock feathers, cock feathers, and vulture feathers (especially the fluffy feathers from the legs of the vultures-but when these were not available, cotton was substituted), gold, precious stones and in the center of the crown, an odd piece of red glass said to have an unearthly glow when the oracle was in a full trance.......


The oracle wore a thick, cloth bracelet on his left arm whose design was one of human eyes. This design indicated, symbolically, that the oracle could see into the future.

When the bonnet was in place and he was in full trance, one of the oracles attendatns pulled off a silk scarf that covered the oracle's polished mirror. In the center of the mirror the Sanskrit word khri was written, it meant "attention". As he began to enter the trance musicians played. Gradually his body was possessed by the Nechung spirit. ...........
Brooke Dolan described the height of the trance in his journal: "On his face is an expression of anguish and his breath issued regularly in tortured hissing sounds. With a rush he gains the throne of the regent and sinks down before it inclining his head... he delivers in a barely audible voice the augury for the coming twelve moons.... A monk clerk trained to record the oracle voices takes down the messages as they are delivered.... But berore the presentation of the scarves is completed.... the Nechung faints dead away."

The oracle was a simple monk in reality, who upon the death of the former oracle, was believed to assume the karma of the deceased holy man and perform his prophesying during the Monlam festival. This man was known to like gambling and going to parties, and many pitied him for his trying role as the oracle of Nechung as "he was thought to suffer a good deal in his trances."