Living history: Oracle festival at the Matho Monastery, Ladakh

Human beings have always been fascinated with what the future holds. Oracles have been a prominent part of our past and continue to hold a firm grip on our collective imagination even in the present. At the Matho Monastery in Ladakh, there is an annual two-day festival where two ‘chosen’ Oracles foretell Ladakh’s fortunes for the coming year and also make predictions for those who seek a prophecy.

The Matho Naghrang Festival is held on the 15th day of the first month of the Tibetan calendar. It takes place at the Matho Monastery which is the only monastery in Ladakh belonging to the Sakya (Sa-skya-pa according to the Ladakhi scriptures) sect of Buddhism that has esoterism or tantra as its foundational teaching.

Matho monastery was built in 1410 by the scholar-hermit, Drungpa Dorje Palzang: The Matho monastery was built in 1410 by the scholar-hermit, Drungpa Dorje Palzang, under the patronage of Ladakh’s King at the time, Drakpa Bumlde. Legend has it that before coming to Matho, Drungpa Dorje Palzang had roamed the length and breadth of Tibet and during his travels had met two brothers, Rong-btsan Dkar and Dmar who had been blessed by Buddhist Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava.

Matho locals believe that the spirits of the two brothers have protected Matho: The two brothers followed Drungpa Dorje to Matho and became its protecting deities. Matho locals believe that the spirits of the two brothers have protected Matho through six centuries by manifesting as Oracles by possessing the bodies of two chosen monks during the Naghrang.
 
The procedure to select the monk for being the carrier of oracles is simple enough, all eligible monks put their names in a bowl, from which two names are drawn.

Selected monks embark on a cleansing journey spanning months: The selected monks then embark on a cleansing journey spanning months where they fast and meditate. On the day of the festival, other monks, dressed in colourful silks and gold, perform a dance routine depicting the victory of good over evil, before the Oracles make an appearance.

The Oracles are brought out into the courtyard in a trance-like state and go on to perform jaw-dropping acrobatic feats including jumping from roof to roof blindfolded. After two hours of spouting predictions about Ladakh
and answering personal questions, the Oracles fall into a deep sleep and are carried away by other monks.

Theatrical as it may sound, the local population has a deep belief in the festival. It has been an annual ritual in the region for centuries and is an integral part of Matho’s rich traditions.

Sources: https://spiritualquestadventures.com/blog/matho-nagrang-oracle-
festival/

(Story by Diva Agrawal)