Attending the festival that honours one of Hinduism’s most important figures, Shiva, was an eye-opening experience of life, death and rebirth.
Tonight there will be no moon in the Kathmandian sky. At this stage of lunation, it has waned to the point of disappearance.
Many myths swirl around this dark and moonless eve, for it heralds the arrival of Maha Shivaratri – “The Great Night of Lord Shiva” – honouring one of the most powerful deities in the Hindu faith.
Shiva is a complex and volatile god who possesses incredible powers of destruction. It is through his cosmic dance that the universe is eternally recreated and destroyed.
On this night, devotees celebrate Shiva’s marriage to the goddess of regeneration, Parvati – a coupling of great importance. Before the union, Shiva was lost in a deep state of mourning after the death of his first wife, Sati. In grief he retreated to the Himalayas to perform a brutal penance, and in doing so, withdrew from human affairs.
In his absence, a powerful demon began to terrorise mankind. No god was strong enough to stop it. Parvati, deeply in love with Shiva, sought to lure him down from the mountains and return him to the world. Though the courtship was long and arduous, Parvati managed to return Shiva from darkness. The marriage provided a new stability to the cosmos and their first born child, Lord Karthikeyan, soon dispatched the demon.
To pay tribute, thousands have travelled from across India and Nepal to gather beside the cremation ghats of Pashupatinath on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. In the daylight, they will perform rituals and make offerings to Lord Shiva, seeking to curry favour and cultivate karma. When the sun falls the evening prayers will begin, filling the cool night air with prayer and song.
Many will stay beside the river until dawn. It is believed that tonight’s planetary alignment allows for a great increase in the effectiveness of mantras and meditation. Legend has it that seers and sages of ages past have used this upsurge of power to free themselves once and for all from the cycle of death and rebirth and so pass into a state of perfect, blissful Oneness.
The local papers have warned that more than one million bodies are expected in the crush at the riverbank, and I have decided to join them. To compensate for my ignorance, I have asked my friend and guide Raju to accompany me, in the hopes that I might draw from his vast knowledge of Hindu ritual and belief.
We set off for the temple shortly after lunch to find the roads heavily congested. Traffic rules in Nepal are fluid at the best of times. In such an anarchic setting, communication and courtesy are key to keeping cars moving, but with so many extra vehicles on the road, any semblance of order has disintegrated. Hundreds of police have been deployed to keep order. We pass a riot squad lingering lazily by the roadside; shields, sticks and rifles in hand.
Our driver does what he can to keep us moving. Before long we disappear down a dirt lane only to emerge alongside the Bagmati River. Citizens and sadhus – the Hindu holy men – bathe themselves in the blessed waters. A troop of monkeys pass us by, disturbing a cow shading itself by the river.
When we rejoin the highway, traffic is at a standstill so we decide to walk the rest of the way. We jump out and join the long procession moving slowly towards the temple.
It’s traditional for people to wear new clothes to the festival and it certainly seems most have turned out in their best. The women are stunning: the yellows, pinks, purples, reds and blues of their saris revolt violently against the washed out haze of the city street. Around them, children dance and play while the men laugh and converse with friends. There is a lightness in the air.
Coming to the temple grounds, we enter a dense stream of people pushing, shuffling, walking, stopping and talking. It takes a moment, but I soon discover a knack for gently forcing myself through the horde. We make our way to a series of shrines and terraces that overlook the main temple. This is where the ascetics who have dedicated their lives to Shiva gather for the festival. Some have travelled many days on foot to be here.
Slowly, we make our way to the top of a huge stone staircase to find three sadhus seated on an elevated platform. Before them are hundreds of young men yelling, cheering, jostling for position. The sadhus are old and weathered. The closest is uniquely beardless among the ascetics; he sports a closely cropped moustache and red robe, his brass bracelet glinting in the sunlight.
The crowd calls upon the old man to demonstrate his power. When he consents, the crowd erupts with excitement, surging forward violently to gain a better position. He disrobes to reveal a skeletal frame and white underwear. Another cheer goes up. A heavy stone idol – a phallic representation of Shiva’s power known as a lingam – is placed at his feet. His “special power” is to lift up the object using only his precariously stretched member. The crowd eat it up, cheering, laughing, taking photos. It’s a bizarre scene.
We soon leave the spectacle to move deeper into the shrine. Here the path opens up and the crowds thin. Dozens of sadhus are spread out for public viewing, their painted forms in various states of prostration. Some resemble rock stars; posing for photos, sunglasses donned, chain-smoking chillums jammed tight with weed, surrounded by youth eager to share in their mystical supplement. Others cut more serious figures, choosing to ignore the festival atmosphere and focus on spiritual exercises.
In the West, Maha Shivaratri is often sensationalised for gratuitous pot smoking. The practice has legitimate religious roots: myth holds that Shiva smoked the substance himself in his days as an ascetic wanderer. Marijuana helped the blue-throated god prepare his mind for meditation and allowed him to further detach from worldly existence.
The sadhus imitate both the act and the asceticism, but for Nepal’s youth, the festival is primarily an opportunity to get high in a semi-legal setting. More than a few sport t-shirts tackily proclaiming their love for the demon weed. They posture and pose for countless selfies, joints in hand. For their part the sadhus are more than happy to meet demand, passing out refilled cigarettes to all comers for twenty cents a piece.
Under increased public scrutiny, the festival organisers have made a token gesture towards cracking down. An announcement in The Himalayan Times warns of “legal action” for those who violate the sanctity of the temple grounds, but on the ground this seems like a sad joke. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of young men and women walk around freely with reddened eyes. Many retreat to the small stone shrines across from the temple to smoke chillum upon chillum. The ban has proven completely ineffectual.
I did witness one hint at prosecution when a lone policeman surprised a young man smoking inside a shrine with his friends. He blasted the kids with a piercing cry from his whistle, then, grabbing the clay chillum, smashed it violently upon the ground before walking off, head erect. The young man jumped out startled, but when it soon became clear there were to be no further consequences for his actions he simply slunk off to the edge of the crowd to light a joint anew.
After engaging with a few sadhus, we moved down to the festival’s main viewing platform along the river. Here I could glimpse of the splendor of Pashupatinath, with its doors of silver and roof of gold. First erected in 400 AD, this beautiful building is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in all of Hinduism. As a non-Hindu, I am not permitted to enter temple proper, so I content myself with watching scores of people line up to receive a blessing from the temple priests.
Directly in front of the entrance to the temple lay the cremation ghats. It was here that ten members of the Nepalese royal family – including the King, Queen and Crown Prince – were transformed into smoke in the wake of the horrific royal massacre of 2001.
With the sun beating down, Raju and I sat and watched as a body was carried out beside the river. The men lay the corpse down with its toes dangling in the water – a ritual to wash away any sins from the man’s life. The body was then stripped, blessed, and washed. The sight of that raw, inert flesh drove home the gravity of what I was witnessing: that of the uncomely body, that empty vessel, preparing to be reduced to cinder and ash.
While the final preparations were being made, I was drawn to a sadhu lost in deep meditation a few metres from the corpse, his frail form hidden by an orange shroud. For eight hours this man sat as dozens of dead were prepared alongside him. Perhaps he is of the Aghori sect – extremist devotees of Shiva who dwell in cremation grounds. They seek out death and decay, smearing themselves with cremated remains, drinking from human skulls and meditating on top of cadavers. It is said that some will even consume human flesh.
The body was now ready. As the four men heaved the deceased onto a bamboo stretcher the sadhu began to gently rock back and forth. They carried the corpse beside the river to a pyre piled high with thick logs. There, they circled the body three times before the eldest son placed a bundle of sticks in the dead man’s mouth and set them alight. The funeral pyre was then lit, and the man’s body covered with an orange shroud. The son was the last to see the dead man’s face.
Plumes of thick smoke began fill the air. At first the clouds were white with a tinge of blue-gray, but the centremost plume soon took on a putrid green-brown as the flesh began to catch aflame. I sat transfixed, staring into the blaze.
There is an earthy simplicity to this ritual, one that completely negates the egoistic posturing that dominates so much of our life in the West. By returning the body to the rivers and the earth, we are reminded that we are fundamentally of, and not separate from, the universe. The fact that all beings meet this common end also reveals the divisions of class and race for what they truly are: a human fiction; a construct.
The pyre will burn for up to six hours. Then, if the family can afford it, the ashes will be taken to the Ganges for dispersal. If not, the Bagmati will have to do. Afterwards, the man’s son will go into mourning, living on the banks of the river for the next fortnight. He’ll shave his head and have to avoid salt, oil and meat.
The departed’s wife will have the symbols of their marriage broken: her wedding bracelet and necklace. For the next year she will wear a white shawl, and will never again be permitted to wear the colour red. Mercifully the practise of Sati – in which a newly widowed woman is either voluntarily or forcefully immolated on her husband’s funeral pyre – has been outlawed in Nepal for almost a century, though rare cases are still known to occur in rural India.
Over the course of the afternoon, many bodies came and went, their vapour forms clouding the sky. For such a place to be a site of worship is an oddly beautiful thing. In the Christian world, we strive to embrace light while denying darkness. We bury our dead in caskets so that they are not contaminated by worms or the earth – a denial of both our origins and final destination. Buddhists and Hindus take a different approach, recognising that both light and dark – life and death – are two halves of the same whole. Both are necessary and co-dependent.
Raju and I stepped down from the platform to cross a small bridge near the entrance of the temple. We walked along the Bagmati River until we came to a large rock face scarred with entrances to dozens of caves. This is where many of the sadhus will sleep.
Outside the first cave sat a sadhu on a small mat; his black hair tied back in a tight bun, legs crossed, and brow furrowed with concentration. The next few caves seemed markedly less serious. Westerners and Nepalis sat in smoky, spartan rooms alongside sadhus, partaking heavily of the sacred herb, music pouring forth from electronic devices.
With little left to do, we returned to the viewing platform and awaited the setting sun. As it grew near, hundreds of monkeys streamed from all directions into the temple grounds; mothers clutching babies, juveniles occasionally breaking away to fight or play. When the sun finally died, I sat and watched the flames of the funeral pyres burn upside down in the now black waters of the Bagmati River. A sense of anticipation rippled through the crowd while we waited for the evening prayer to begin. Around me people broke into spontaneous prayer or song.
An MC addressed the crowd through a crackling speaker system. He seemed to be hyping people up, for whenever he cried the word “FESTIVAL!” thousands would cheer in response. A small ensemble took to the stage and began to play a soft, devotional tune. A beautiful voice, backed by a small drum, a few cymbals and a flute-like instrument, filled the air with the unique cadence of traditional Hindu music. The sound was calm and serene. People around me began to add their voices, the chorus bouncing off the walls of the temple. Eventually the percussion section picked up the pace, the crowd clapping along as the song built. Five young men took to centre stage and begun ringing small bells while the crowd sung, calling upon Shiva to join them and issuing directions so that he might find his way to the temple.
The five men began a sort of slow, choreographed dance. They lit candles and incense, waving them about in slow, graceful arcs before presenting Shiva with a series of ceremonial gifts. They then blew into conch shells to issue a low, flat cry. In this centuries-old tradition it is believed that the god being called upon really does become present, filling the representation of their form – in this case the shivalinga – with cosmic energy. The crowd continued chanting, enraptured.
While I had been told that Shiva was expected to manifest at midnight as the “inner light of purified consciousness,” I unfortunately lacked the staying power required. Raju and I began to make our way back through the slowly thinning crowds to meet our driver. They were both in mirthful moods. During the trip home our driver broke into a beautiful song, singing along with a Nepali-Bollywood tune on the stereo.
Such a lovely, uninhibited act seemed to perfectly bookend my experience of Maha Shivaratri. I feel a deep gratitude for being allowed to take a peek into the warm heart of both the Nepali people and the Hindu faith. The energy in the air that night is a little hard to explain: being in that crowd, I could not help but feel a certain lightness or mild bliss. Perhaps we were collectively intoxicated by the notion that Shiva really had joined us by the riverside.
The image of those flames reflected in the black water of the Bagmati stays with me still. It acts not only as a powerful reminder of the fragility and impermanence of human life, but also as an urging that I should not flee from death and decay, but rather to embrace them as fundamental and necessary aspects of the universe. It is a message of peace and acceptance, and one that I will try my hardest to hold on to.