Nepal boasts 330 million gods and counting but none garners a more unusual collection of birthday well-wishers than Lord Shiva, the creator and the destroyer. In non- Hindu terms, Shiva is like the patron saint of Nepal. His spiky trident and his bull are ubiquitous from big city temples to impromptu shrines sprouting up in the middle of fields and roads. In fact, one of Hinduism’s holiest places, Pashupatinath, in the heart of Kathmandu, is one of the most renowned Shiva shrines as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This year Shiva’s birthday fell on February 27.
Maha ShivaRatri (Big Shiva Night) is a national holiday in Nepal. On the big day, thousands of devotees inched down the main road towards the main gate, tightly packed in a several kilometer-long snaking line waited to enter the holy room where they can worship the Shiva Lingam, a phallus symbolic of the regenerative power of nature.
But some birthday guests had come many days before. This year, more than 5,000 Sadhus or ascetic holy men who give up worldly possessions to achieve enlightenment, walked, biked and bused from far reaches of the Indian subcontinent and set up camp in every nook and cranny in the vast complex of Pashupatinath, making for a rather kooky birthday party.
Most of eastern Kathmandu roads were closed to traffic to accommodate the crowds. The massive temple complex on the banks of the putrid but very holy Bagmati River was crammed with people. Tiny shack shops were doing brisk business, loudspeakers were blaring and thumping a Bollywood religious song.
Pashupatinath is famous for its open-air cremations and the very distinctive both sweet and acrid smell of burning flesh and scented wood hit me even before I reached the three pyres that were brightly crackling, the smoke curling upwards into the grey sky. Amid the relatives of the dead squatting near holy men and asking for blessings, a young boy on very high stilts was entertaining a crowd of devotees. But this was not the scene that distinguishes Pashupatinath.
On an upper terrace, in between several small temples laid out around a square were hundreds of saffron robed Sadhus, scores of devotees, some tourists and about a dozen police. Some Sadhus, called Naga Sadhus, were naked or almost so. Many were smeared in ash with massive dreadlocks piled on their heads, colorfully painted faces and long beards.
One, with only a loincloth and a blanket, his eye rims bright red sat shivering and mumbling. In the chilly, drizzling morning, they shared home-made fires smoking more than burning on the stone pavement. The cremation scent quickly mixed with wafts of ganja (marijuana) that grew more and more intense as I walked deeper into the complex, stinging my eyes and coating my lungs.
This year the police were not allowing the open sale of drugs but some of the Sadhus were doing a brisk business with young Nepali men as police looked on.
While many devotees want to pay their respects to the Lingam, some do gather for blessings from these yogis who are thought to be very wise and gifted with special powers. Some Hindus consider them saints and the government of Nepal feeds and lodges them for their entire stay. The Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) estimates that about $14,000 will be spent on their room and board. The government also provides each one with a financial ‘gift’ when they leave.
The yogis may have been saintly and one claimed he was 110 years old but a lot of their holiness and their weird charm was lost for me as I watched their aggressive demands for money from anyone who wanted to take their pictures. In fact picture-taking was a brisk business. They may claim to forgo all worldly possessions, but many had easily available change for big bills. I photographed one foreign tourist busy posing one Sadhu in a variety of different poses against a wall. No doubt for a hefty fee.
Sadhus belong to different sects. There was one much smaller group of Sadhus that were given a wide berth by their fellow ascetics and by the crowds. These men, dressed entirely in black, are Tantric or followers of the occult and worship Bhairav or Shiva’s fiercest manifestation. Some Hindus believe that they live near cremation grounds and feed off of human remains. When I saw them they were eating rice.
Then of course, like at every huge party anywhere in the world, there are also the Birthday gate-crashers. Beware, not all Sadhus are real Sadhus.