Nepali Times
Shiva’s night


Thought you'd seen it all at the Kumbh Mela? Wait till you see Shivaratri at Pashupatinath. Next Wednesday avoid being crushed or looted, take a dip in sewage, and be careful what you smoke.

Over 250,000 visitors are expected to visit Pashupatinath this year to celebrate the god of destruction during Maha Shivaratri, the great night of Shiva. The shrine, located 5 km east of Kathmandu, is preparing for the big night of 21 February. Already, naga babas (naked ascetics), sadhus, devotees, cult followers ("sons of Shiva"), tourists, the irreverent and curious, all manner of passing thugs and pickpockets, and plain strange people, have started gathering in the vicinity.
Considered one of the subcontinent's holiest Shiva sites-the others, Kedarnath, Badrinath and Haridwar, are in India-Pashupatinath is considered the second most powerful place for Shiva worship. Many Hindu pilgrims believe their devotion to Shiva won't bear fruit unless they pay homage to this metre-high four-faced black jyotirlinga, as the phallic manifestation of Shiva at Pashupatinath is called. And for Shiva devotees anywhere, Shivaratri is the most auspicious day to pay homage to the ascetic god with a name for each of his 1008 manifestations.
Indian and Nepali visitors are expected in equal numbers. "But Nepalis, especially the younger people, come only to rejoice in the atmosphere, not really to pray at the temple," says Kamal KC, secretary of the local Bankali Youth Club. Ramesh Uprety, secretary of the Shivaratri PR committee of the Pashupati Area Development Fund (PADF), offers an explanation of uncertain sociological value. "Nepalis have more time on their hands, and the population has increased. So they come here like they would go to a fair," he says. "This year, due to the Kumbh Mela, there will be many more pilgrims here."

Last year there were officially 175,000 visitors. But, Uprety says, that is just the number that entered the temple premises. "We can't count those who don't enter," he says, referring to the large crowd that remains in the surrounding forests across the Bagmati on the eastern side of the temple. They're either more interested in observing the proceedings from a distance, or fascinated by the sadhus in trance and want to have a go at it themselves or, more controversially, because they are "non-Hindu", a designation bestowed on anyone who doesn't fit a stereotypical South Asian description. (NT #16)

"We're making preparations on a grander scale this time, so things run smoothly," says Uprety. He says the PADF will mobilise over 2,500 volunteers to ensure the smooth flow of devotees through the temple premises, and help organise shelter, first aid and security, and distribute free food to pilgrims and ascetics. Every year about 100 organisations and individuals contribute in cash or kind to support such facilities.

This year there are six first-aid camps and three camping grounds for the pilgrims at Kailashpuri and Bankali. "The most important thing is the security of pilgrims. We know of instances of theft from inside parked vehicles and from devotees who remove their jewellery and clothes to take a holy dip in the Bagmati," says Sudeep Shrestha of the Bankali Club. Like we said, if there's anyone who awaits fairs and outdoor jamborees more than devotees and little children, it's petty thieves.

Water is another major concern. The Bagmati is basically sewage, and will remain so until several clean-up campaigns start producing results. Last year, pilgrims took their requisite "holy dip" from 15 taps attached to tankers. In an age where most rituals operate more on the symbolic than the literal level, it isn't difficult to forsake ambience to avoid nasty skin diseases and certain digestive collapse.
Logistical concerns like food and shelter aside, the municipality will face a litter nightmare. "It's hard to convince pilgrims to try and be neat," says KC, who, along with 51 club members, is busy preparing plans for a clean-up action. But it's hard to tell people to pick up after themselves when they've got more important traditions than cleanliness to uphold, some of which threaten to turn into stampedes. "Some pilgrims vow only to enter from the west gate and some only from the east. It's very tough to convince them to take the route set by the PADF," says KC. This year the entry points are through the north gate from Kailashpuri and the east gate near the bridge, and pilgrims will exit through the west gate. The PADF and the Gaushala police post will be assigned extra policemen from other areas to help in crowd control.

Whatever happens on 21 February, the area around Pashupatinath is already festive. The smoke from burning logs and countless chillums signals the presence of sadhus who've already taken up residence here. First-timers will likely be foaming at the mouth with excitement, seeing sadhus camping in the forest, looking terrifying and smoking dope all day. But for veterans and residents of the areas surrounding Pashupati, the charm of the babas is fading. "Earlier, sadhus walked here naked from all over. It was good to see so many of them. They still come, but the number of genuine sadhus has declined," say a Shivaratri veteran from Gaushala.

Shivaratri is celebrated with bonfires, trance chants and dances. The temple and the forest around it are swept up in the rhythmic movement of red-eyed Shiva bhaktas, and the singing and chanting around the bonfires lit by sadhus. For "non-Hindus", a good vantage point is the Gorakhnath Shikara temple between Guheswori and Pashupatinath. But perhaps the best-and most crowded-observation spot is the platform on the hill across the bridge-beautiful danda in local slang. This is the starting and focal point for many of the devotees' activities. People sprawl across every available inch. Classical musicians will give recitals at the Kirateswor temple located on the northern flanks of the Kailashpuri near the Guheswori temple. Meanwhile across the river, east of Pashupatinath, the Pashupati Sangit Kala Pratishthan will offer another musical programme. Inside Pashupatinath, the Bhajan Kothari and Mukti Mandal will work themselves up to frenzy, singing songs in praise of Shiva.

The festival ends the day after Shivaratri, but the festive spirit lingers for a while longer. Most visiting sadhus betake themselves to other climes within a week, but some, feeling the effects of too many chillums, perhaps, hang around Pashupatinath for as long as a month. One sadhu from Varanasi who's already been here for a month, says: "I might stay longer. This time better arrangements have been made for honorary guests like us." In addition to food and shelter, the Guthi Sansthan, as a token of appreciation, has traditionally given sadhus a gift. Even until a few years ago, they were given marijuana-strictly for personal use. However, distribution ceased during the last UML government in 1995.
Many men, young or old, partake of the Shiva buti, Shiva's herb, as marijuana is called. "At least for a day you become like a sadhu, free from inhibitions and social obligations," says a youth from Chabahil. Adds another, "But you've got to smoke in a religious way." And what about the cops? Yes, there is a law that bans the use of marijuana and plainclothes cops are on the lookout for smokers. "They catch you, they give you hard time. But if you're smoking with sadhus, it's a part of the ritual," the boys smile.

Whether you will indulge in narcotic substances or not, and perhaps this is a good time to announce that this publication does not condone the use of such substances, it's worth going and seeing the spectacle-just stay away from nanga babas who like to chase people. And forget about dipping as little as a toe in the Bagmati, or you could be looking at a gangrenous foot.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)