Rolang is a magical rite performed by Tibetan Buddhist ngagspas (sorcerers), intended to animate corpses for the purpose of obtaining from them a magical charm. Rolang means “the corpse who stands up.”
There are several types of rolang. In one, described by French explorer Alexandra David-Neel during her journeys in Tibet in the early 20th century, the sorcerer shuts himself alone with the corpse in a dark room. He lies on top of it, mouth to mouth, and mentally chants a magical formula. It is crucial that he exclude all other thoughts from his mind. If he does the ritual successfully, the corpse eventually begins to move about, then stands up and tries to escape. No matter how hard the corpse struggles, the sorcerer must cling to it, still mouth to mouth, still mentally chanting the magical spell. Finally, the moment arrives that the sorcerer has waited for: the corpse’s tongue protrudes from its mouth. The sorcerer bites it off, and the corpse collapses. The sorcerer takes the tongue and dries it, thus turning it into a magical weapon of great potency.
Failure of the sorcerer to stay in control means certain death at the hands of the berserk corpse. Stories exist of corpses that kill the sorcerer and escape to roam the countryside like evil Frankenstein monsters.
Although the ritual is said to take place in actuality, David-Neel believed that the ritual was acted out in trance and took place only within the altered consciousness of the sorcerer. She was shown at least one alleged dessicated tongue.
Prior to the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet in the 8th century, rolang was performed during funeral ceremonies by the shamans of Bön, the early, shamanistic religion of the country.
In another Tibetan sorcery corpse rite, trong-jug, the spirit of a living being is made to pass into a corpse and animate it.
Even if not animated by ritual, corpses are believed to be able to come to life without warning and harm the living, according to traditional belief. Upon death, lamas stay continually with a corpse until it is taken to the cemetery. The corpse is bound in a sitting posture, and the lamas recite magical formulae to prevent it from breaking its bonds and murdering others in a rampage.
- David-Neel, Alexandra. Magic and Mystery in Tibet. New York: Dover Books, 1971. First published 1929.
- Foster, Barbara, and Michael Foster. Forbidden Journey: The Life of Alexandra David-Neel. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.