Every year around February/March time (depending on the date of the Nepali calendar), Maha Shivaratri occurs. It is an annual festival in India and Nepal. Many flock to the streets celebrating Maha Shivaratri in Kathmandu. Devotees worship Lord Shiva, and the name translates into ‘the night of Lord Shiva’. Devotees fast on the night and often during the day have ‘prasad’. Prasad is cannabis a donation often used to Lord Shiva.
Stories surround that Lord Shiva found cannabis as a remedy, hence why so many devotees smoke it to honour the Lord.
Now you know a bit of background let me tell you about my experience celebrating Maha Shivaratri in Kathmandu. This festival becomes a well known public holiday in Nepal; however, the past couple of years, I had failed epically to get into Pashupatinath Temple. This temple is a sacred and incredible holy site situated on the banks of the Bagmati River, dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Shiva. Hindus come here to become cremated on the burning ghats and travel their final journey on the water of the Bagmati. Which later comes into contact with the Ganges.
Likewise, those who come to worship on this special day travel from India, Bangladesh and other parts of Nepal—often arriving up to a week in advance to get their place. Most of the worshippers you’ll see are called Saddhu’s which are holy men from different sects who have renounced their life dedicating it to the Gods.
Alex Celebrating Maha Shivaratri in Kathmandu
Around 4:30 PM, I reached the area surrounding Pashupatinath, and the roads were full of cars. People were spilling all over on the path and road. It was clear thousands were there to celebrate the festival. At the time seeing the sheer volume of attendees, I thought to myself
“Oh God, Grit your teeth and bare the crowds”.
There are two main entry points to Pashupatinath, and as I passed one, there was a queue of hundreds long. So, I decided to walk up further to the other entrance witnessing even bigger ques, where I later discovered people had been queuing for 8 hours to enter! Policemen and women saw me trying to get in. To my surprise, they thought I was a tourist, and I pretended that for the whole day while celebrating Maha Shivaratri in Kathmandu.
The police allowed me to enter and bypass the queue. I was in absolute shock, they guided me to the front of ques, dropping ropes for me and opening gates where many qued for hours. I couldn’t believe it, I was actually into the site. What first I found mesmerising that on the way in was the colourful decorations, flowers and colourful ribbons. Everyone was posing for selfies and no doubt I certainly did too.
Exploring Further into Pashupatinath
Walking around with a facemask was a wise idea; smoke was flowing everywhere in all different directions. People were pushing and shoving, also trying to take photos of me. But I just ignored it, and no way was I letting this interfere with my majestical experience.
While walking in the grounds, my attention became diverted to so many areas, so much was going on. I tried to walk up the stairs to get a good view of Pashupatinath from above; however, crowds swarmed around on every single step. At one point, about 50 people were jumping around in a circle, cheering and all I could see in the middle was smoke rising from the loop. I only assumed it was a Saddhu doing something appealing.
I walked up further to see, but then lots of people came charging down the stairs. If I didn’t stand to the side, I would have got stood on. Trying to avoid the crowds and the danger, I walked further down away from the main site.
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Walking through I came across many volunteers handing out water, food, and offering a locker service. If people wanted to go to the temple, they could give them their shoes/belongings and get them to be safely looked after. I witnessed hundreds of volunteers in high vis jackets helping out; the sheer camaraderie was terrific to see.
I’ve witnessed volunteers at events back home in the U.K. but had not seen anything on this sheer scale. It was impressive and warming, to see faith in humankind. One even stopped to show me photos of the areas he’s visited that I need to on his phone.
Encounter with a Saddhu
Once I walked further, I then started to see Saddhus, Saddhus and more Saddhus. All dressed different colours from orange, black, white and many more. Some with funky headgear and others in enchanting facepaint.
Through gritted teeth, nerves and anxiousness, I got to interact with three Saddhus. They invited me to come to join them, sit and chat. Even though I’ve travelled a lot, I was still nervous meeting them. Back home in the U.K., we don’t get educated much on Hindu culture, and when we see Medicine men type people, it’s intimidating. Well, that’s maybe just me.
Crowds were hovering around me and the Saddhus with mobiles and DSLR’s taking photos. Trying to calm down, I engaged with the universal language we all know hand gestures. To my surprise, they were incredibly friendly, welcoming and harmless. They wanted me to sit all the time and come back on the evening. The one on the right light up a chillum with lots of cannabis passing it to the other Saddhu. He offered me a chillum; however, I politely declined and took a joint instead.
We all smoked together our joints and chillums shouting “Jay Shambo”. The Nepalese boys sat opposite was sat in stitches, laughing at a foreigner taking part in this experience. I was still keeping my tourist appearance up.
Next, I moved onto the Saddhu sat next to them, but on his own. After translation help, I learnt a lot about him. He was from Uttarakhand India and chose this life at a young age after his parents left the earth. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask his name. However, he thinks he is around 42 years old and relies on donations to live. Sometimes it’s hard he says as he’s exposed to all elements and can go times in complete isolation. However, it’s the path he chose and must stand by to worship. In particular, this Saddhu said he belonged to a sect which devotes themselves to Bhagwan ram a Hindu deity.
He said there a Saddhu’s who dress differently for different sects worshipping different deities. He sat next to the Bhagwan Ram temple.
I walked into an area full of even more Saddhus. I was shocked! Then I saw volunteers handing out kheer a form of rice pudding. Of course, I decided to get involved and have kheer. I got served too much; I felt ill eating it all. Even though there were lots of volunteers serving food, it made me sad about the sheer volumes of litter discovered at the site. If only there were a collection team to pick it up.
By this point, smoke was coming everywhere I was choking from all the Saddhu’s buying hash. There was so many! Likewise, performers were singing and playing musical instruments.
I decided not to stay for the aarti and slowly vacated the premises. What made me sad was seeing many locals picking flowers off decorations. I later learnt that such flowers had been imported from abroad. All the time, money and effort spent to erect the impressive structures. Vandalised and ruined in less than 24 hours. Likewise, people were doing parkour to enter without waiting in the ques jumping off the bridge. Other than that, I’m still trying to process the magical day. I’m already looking forward to next year celebrating Maha Shivaratri in Kathmandu.