Shivaratri is upon us, and so are hundreds of bearded, naked, marijuana-smoking incredible feat-performing ascetics. Shiva: creator, destroyer, Lord of all Lords, and patron saint of all stoners.
Every year, on the 14th day of the Krishna Paksha in the month of Falgun, thousands of devotees flock to Pashupatinath. Most go to pay their respects but there are those who are lured more by the offer of Shiva's Prasad, ganja and bhang, than by devotion.
No one is entirely sure why we celebrate Shivaratri: it is Shiva's honeymoon, the night he performed the tandava, or dance of destruction, or the day he drank the churned out poison from the ocean of the gods, thus gaining his distinctive blue throat, or neela kantha.
But a better-and less often heard-story is about how Shiva came to be the main man of the trinity. It all started when Shiva was asked to arbitrate a dispute between Brahma and Vishnu about who was stronger. Our hero transformed himself into a gigantic linga and posed the fighting parties a challenge: to find its beginning and his end. They didn't figure it out, of course, and in the end the massive column slit open, revealing Shiva reclining inside. A little strange and certainly anatomically impossible, but he did strike awe-and modesty-into the hearts of the other two and they gave up their little discussion. And this, readers, is why the various babas who congregate around Pashupati do the things they do. And why Shiva is regarded as the perfect husband.
This fiery-eyed destroyer of worlds stuff has made Shiva a bit of an international cult figure. Not only did Robert Oppenheimer quote Shiva at the first test of the atom bomb and say that he felt like 'Death' come to earth, he felt such a kinship with Shiva, that from that day on, took to winding a blue scarf around his neck.
There's plenty of weirdness closer home too. The sadhus with the huge tika, tridents, and orange-red robes are to scare the children with. The heavy duty ones are the ash-covered, bearded, dreadlocked, naked nanga babas. The chillum is a standard accompaniment, but the other odours and the greasy, sinister black tika on the forehead make them even more forbidding.
If you come across a group of naga babas chanting, getting high, or wielding their weapons, stand back. Unsuspecting and overly curious onlookers have been known to be cursed heartily.