Maha Shivaratri in Kathmandu: An Atmosphere of Complete Abandon
By Amanda Shore
Maha Shivaratri, held on the 13th night and 14th day of the waning moon of Maagha or Phalguna (March or February), is the Hindu festival dedicated to Lord Shiva, a god with a reputation for drug use, nudity and quirky behavior.
It is believed honoring Lord Shiva on this night helps worshipers to end bad habits and turn their lives in a better direction. Ironically, Lord Shiva is a favorite with many youth due to his moody temperament, his association with dance and ganja smoking and his general disregard for the rules of polite society.
Across Nepal people have varying ideas on the exact behavior that pleases the God, though it seems to be agreed that it should be skewed towards the dangerous.
Children often cause havoc, surprising motorists by suddenly jumping into the road and refusing to move until a small toll is paid. Motorcyclists are frequently injured by ropes strung quickly across the roads. The actions are cheeky and ill thought out rather than designed to cause harm.
Burning Sugar Bombs
In Pokhara festivities are literally explosive. Huge fires are built in the street and people steal wood from each other to add to the flames. The fires are thought to attract Lord Shiva.
Long sugar cane poles are heated and when the sugar inside has become searing hot, the cane is whacked against the pavement creating a burning sugar bomb. Drunken or stoned young men are often hospitalized with serious facial burns.
The main Maha Shivaratri ceremony is in Kathmandu. Worshipers queue for hours in the sun and into the night, waiting to offer Bael Leaves in the Lord Shiva temple, at Pashupatinath.
Tension is Palpable
Tourists are not allowed inside the main temple and are therefore given immediate entry to the river site. The frustration and tension that oozes from those stuck in line while foreigners quickly pass to the front is almost palpable.
Inside the complex the atmosphere changes to one of complete abandon. The tension in the lines is replaced by carelessness and a disregard for others. It is a feeling not found at any of the other Nepali festivals I have attended.
The big attractions are the Sadhu, holy men, who renounce the worldly pleasures of sex, possessions, housing, and in some cases, even clothes. Shaivas, Sadhus who follow Lord Shiva, cover themselves in ashes as fire is seen as purifying and in one of Shiva’s forms he spent much time in cremation grounds.
Snapping a Naked Baba
Some Sadhus wear animal skins to represent Shiva’s dress and others go completely naked. This is a big draw card with international photographers who wait all year for the chance to snap a naked Baba.
Many locals and tourists head to Pashupatinath simply to get high. The Sadhus can be relied upon to supply marijuana. It sells for 10NR for a share in a Chillum and about the same for a joint. I’d like to point out smoking marijuana is illegal (though quietly tolerated during Maha Shivaratri).
As the day carries on shouts of “Jai Sambu” (Praise Shiva) fill the Sadhu den at the back of Pashupatinath. Far from the eyes of parents, young men smoke and things can turn rowdy. Women brave enough to enter the area will be met with groping, persistent propositioning and cat calls.
The festival makes people crazy. It is a side of Nepal I have never witnessed before. It isn’t that people are rude; they are just free of social constraints.
A Game of Cat and Mouse
Police sporadically attempt crowd control with the swinging of batons. The result is often a stampede of hundreds of young men, tourists and Sadhus. The narrow stone corridors, steep steps and sheer drops to the river, make for interesting game of cat and mouse between the crowds and police.
Some people use Maha Shivaratri as an excuse to act up, but the real story behind the festival instructs worshippers to give up meat and other bad habits.
The legend states that a hunter could not find any animals in the forest. He came to a stream where he knew deer often drank in the evening and decided to climb a Bael tree to wait. This tree is a particular favorite with Shiva and used in traditional medicine.
The hunter pulled leaves from the tree and threw them to the ground, hoping to attract some deer. One deer came, but it had a family and the hunter kindly let it live. The hunter continued to throw leaves from the tree all night.
A Blessing of Wisdom
Unknown to the hunter, there was a Shiva temple under the branch he was sitting on. The leaves fell near the temple and pleased Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva gave the hunter a blessing of wisdom. From that day the hunter gave up meat and spent his life doing good works.
Foreigners heading to Pashupatinath in Kathmandu should be aware only Hindus are allowed inside the main temple. Tourists can access the Bagmati River site and the Sadhu area. Entry to the complex is 500NR.
A taxi from Thamel (the main tourist area) will cost about 200NR, but be aware you will need to walk a few blocks as roads are blocked off during the festival.
Women should dress conservatively as the area is a place of worship and the main cremation site of Nepal.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Nepal
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