The 2,000 year-old temple Pashupatinath, situated on the bank of the sacred Bagmati River, is one of the most significant Hindu temples of the god Shiva, the third deity in the Hindu trinity and considered the lord of creation, preservation and destruction. Ardent followers consider it extremely auspicious to worship Lord Shiva on Shivaratri as it is believed that sincere devotion to Shiva and the performance of prescribed penances on that day help the devotee achieve positive karma and spiritual liberation all the more swiftly. While there’s a four-day build-up to the main event, Maha Shivaratri, the peak experience is on the full moon of the month of Phalgun.
There’s a celebratory flavor to Maha Shivaratri, with musicians playing sitars and table drums, dancers in vibrant colors lyrically surrounding the temple, and street vendors hawking religious wares, The offerings to the stone sculptures are so numerous that their milky mixture seeps through the cracks of the temple and into the Bagmati River below. A thin white ribbon winds its way through the slow current where you may see devotees praying for days at a time with their bodies convulsing. People fast for days before the festival and smoke charas (hashish) and drink bhang (milk spiced with marijuana leaves) so it’s not surprising that you’ll see devotees in all kinds of states.
The Gathering of Sadhus at Maha Shivaratri
Among the mass of hundreds of thousands of Shiva revelers are a few thousand Sādhus, or wandering monks dressed in ochre and saffron colored robes carrying tridents. Among these colorful groups are some 500 Anaga Babas—holy men who have renounced all material and earthly attachments and accoutrements, including clothing—seemingly intent on warding off the early morning chill by sitting around smoldering fires. These holy men having vowed themselves to a life of ascetic yoga and arduous spiritual practice are sustained by generous Hindus, who bring offerings of coins, rice, fruit and sweets as it is believed that such acts generate good karma. In return, holy men bless their supporters by placing their palms on their heads and chalking a streak of ash on their foreheads.
Partying into the Night
While the day starts early and the city is abuzz in the light, at dusk there as an endless gun salute from the king’s celebration at the Tundikhel in central Kathmandu. Everything begins to light up with oil lamps and fires in the woods of Gorakhnath, the hill on the east side of the river, and the bizarre and devoted behavior of the Sadhus becomes even more pronounced as they try to one-up each other by lifting weights with their penises or dancing naked in trances with their trident spears by their side. Don’t plan on sleeping early as things peak around midnight with drums, flutes, chanting, smoky air, and a tribal vibration that may find you dancing with a Sadhu, clothed or not.
Kathmandu is Quite the Setting
With its hundreds of ancient oriental temples and mountains rising above, Kathmandu is a holy crucible, perfectly-suited for housing this annual reiigious gala. While the city is both grimy and teaming with frenetic energy, there’s also a hypnotic murmur and grounding presence that Kathmandu provides to its visitors. The huge crowds may scare you but everyone is on their best behavior as this is a particular auspicious time to gain positive karma.