Maha Shivaratri — The Night of Lord Shiva

Nepali saints smokingMaha Shivaratri (7th March 2016) is the day when thousands of Shiva devotees will be heading towards the holiest of Hindu temples in Nepal, the great Pashupatinath Temple. There they will be meeting with thousands of sadhus (holy men) already congregated in the temple precincts.

It is the day of one of the biggest festivals in Hinduism—Maha Shivaratri—the night of Lord Shiva, god of both creation and destruction.

Celebrated every year on the 14th night of the new moon during the dark half of Falgun (Feb / March), Maha Shivaratri is as unique a festival as one will find anywhere. For one thing, it is one festival where smoking pot (marijuana) is the done thing. At the temple, you will come across hordes of young guys huddled around sadhus selling pot. Apparently, getting high on marijuana on the day is supposed to be something that will please Lord Shiva. A parallel can be drawn between this and getting high on bhang (an intoxicating marijuana drink) that’s drunk on the day of Holi, the festival of colours. Holi, that’s one rowdy festival; not so rowdy as Maha Shivaratri. In fact, the latter is more of a spiritual experience.

Pashupatinath Temple is an epic center of the festivities. Now, this temple is something else, a complex sprawls over some about 281 hectares and is situated on the banks of the Bagmati River. Although, it is said to have been built in 1653, an inscription discovered here shows that another temple dating back to the 5th century initially stood there. According to the Gopalraj Vamsavali, Nepal’s oldest chronicle, the temple was built during the Licchhavi era. Inside the main pagoda-style temple, you’ll see a 14th century six-foot-tall lingam (the phallic symbol of Shiva) which has four faces (thus known as Chaturmukhi: four faces). In front of the richly embossed doors, you’ll see a large gold plated figure of Nandi (bull), Shiva’s vehicle, that’s said to be 300-year-old. From the outside, you’ll be treated to the sight of its ample backside as it faces the main doors. Inside the premises of the Pashupatinath complex, you’ll come across many smaller temples as well as the ghats (cremation grounds) on the banks of the holy Bagmati River. Till recently, one section (Arya Ghat) was reserved especially for royalty.

Nepali saints on pashupatinath templeComing back to the main temple, the doors of which are open for worship only at certain hours on regular days, remain open throughout the night during Maha Shivaratri. On the day, you’ll see swarms of devotees taking a ritual bath in the Bagmati River. You’ll see long lines of other devotees standing patiently for hours with offerings for worship in their hands, both in front and at the back of the temple. Milling about will be hundreds of volunteers whose job it is to see that the lines are orderly and to provide aid when necessary to devotees in need of the same. Some social service organizations will have pitched small camps and will be distributing drinking water while others will be having first aid kits at the ready. You’ll also see hundreds of monkeys in the precincts, busily moving among the crowds, picking up anything edible that can be found

DSC_0092But, most colourful will be the sight of numerous sadhus with ash smeared all over their faces and bodies. While most will have some sort of clothing covering their private parts, you will probably come across some who are stark naked, their privates smeared with ash as well. The sadhus come mostly from neighbouring India, Pashupatinath being one of their regular annual pilgrimage sites, and there will be many from around Nepal as well. They are, to say the least, as weirdly colourful a tribe as can be imagined, and you’ll no doubt observe that, more than anything else, it is their hairdo that is the most exotic part of their persona. Many will be dreadlocked, not cleanly as is the case with the urban stylish, but really rough and unkempt. You might also notice that most of these sadhus are pretty solid looking, and this, along with their dreadlocks and the trishuls (tridents) they carry, make them a frightening sight for children.  Indeed, Maha Shivaratri is what it is—an exotic festival—largely due to the presence of these particular denizens of the Hindu world.

Below is a video of the festival

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