In early 2011, Stephanie Guyer-Stevens and Françoise Pommaret set out across Bhutan in search of women believed to have come back from the dead. Known in the Bhutanese language of Dzongkha as deloms (“returned from the dead”; Tib., delogs), these women act as mediums for local spirits, heal the sick, and travel to the hell realms to bring back messages from Yama, the Lord of the Dead. Though they are not well known outside of Bhutan, deloms serve as Buddhist teachers in their communities who offer instructions on how to lead a more compassionate life (and escape the torments of hell).
In their new book, Divine Messengers: The Untold Story of Bhutan’s Female Shamans, Guyer-Stevens and Pommaret share the stories of seven women they encountered in their travels, along with a translation of the biography of an 18th-century delom. Fusing ethnography and Bhutanese religious history, the book offers an intimate portrait of the interplay between Buddhism and shamanism in contemporary Bhutan. Guyer-Stevens and Pommaret spoke with Tricycle about what these messengers from the dead can teach the living.
What are deloms, and how did you first encounter them?
Françoise Pommaret (FP): A delom is a woman who is said to have died, traveled to the hell realms, and returned to this world to save the living from the suffering she witnessed. When I was a PhD student in the 1980s, my professor introduced me to delom biographies as a potential dissertation topic, and I traveled to Bhutan to begin translating them. At that point I assumed that deloms were figures from the past. But as I was doing my fieldwork, someone told me there was a delom in his village. I was stunned—I didn’t know they still existed.
Stephanie Guyer-Stevens (SG): Decades later, when I met Françoise and she told me about these deloms, I suggested we travel through Bhutan together and document their stories. She feared they might be diminishing in number, but in fact, they had proliferated. Once we started to ask around, it seemed like everyone knew a delom. They’re not just characters from biographies—they play an active role in the day-to-day lives of their communities.
What did you discover about the everyday lives of deloms through your conversations?
SG: Deloms are very ordinary women, and they speak in very ordinary language. Unlike monks and other Buddhist leaders, they live in the village, and they’re often uneducated. They don’t choose this path—instead, they are said to have been chosen by their tutelary deity, and many don’t want the role because of the physical stress and sickness it brings. Before they are recognized as deloms, these women often fall ill with a seemingly incurable disease. Even after they are recognized, deloms are still vulnerable to illness: they say that they are hypersensitive to pollution in their environments and have to continually protect themselves from exposure to others’ negative thoughts, emotions, and impurities. And unlike in the traditional biographies, where deloms make a single trip to hell, the deloms we met reported having died many times, each time bringing back new instructions from the Lord of the Dead.
FP: Living in the village gives them a particular style of authority. While people might go to the monastery with more philosophical questions, they go to deloms with their personal problems and day-to-day dilemmas: family disputes, social conflicts—all the things that villagers do not confide in monks.
In responding to these problems, deloms teach the basics of Buddhism, but they don’t use traditional texts. The Buddha doesn’t necessarily even figure as a character. They use divination, often with rice or dice, and make offerings to local protective deities. Their guidance is what we might call the lived rollout of the teachings.
“Many don’t want the role because of the physical stress and sickness it brings.”
How do deloms navigate the space between the Buddhist world and the religions that predated Buddhism in Bhutan?
FP: Deloms definitely see themselves as Buddhist. They are guided by compassion in fulfilling their role, and they often must undergo terrible suffering. This is where Buddhism plays a big part: deloms are concerned with the betterment of the whole community. But the deities that access them are from pre-Buddhist religions, so they do have a lot of shamanic traits.
SG: In the Buddhist world, and especially the Western Buddhist world, it is often assumed that shamanism and Buddhism can’t coexist. But they do. Deloms are proof of this coexistence, and they demonstrate how pre- Buddhist deities continue to influence contemporary religion in Bhutan.
What has surprised you most in meeting contemporary deloms?
SG: One of the women we met told us it was a shame that people aren’t as interested in the hells anymore— they’re so wrapped up in their earthly lives that they’re no longer looking at the larger Buddhist picture. Originally people would seek out deloms primarily to communicate with their ancestors and dead relatives. Now deloms function more like community healers, offering people guidance.
FP: And they’re busy. I was startled by the number of people who come to deloms with their problems. Sometimes we had to wait in line for hours—getting an appointment with these women was like hell!
Related: Bhutan on the Brink
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