Each year as spring arrives, Kathmandu’s Pashupatinath temple draws huge crowds of holy men and worshippers to the Shivaratri Festival.
Holy men dressed in rags have been arriving for weeks by bus and on foot, each with a begging bowl and little else except three white stripes painted on their foreheads. The stripes are the mark of a devotee of Shiva, the central deity of the Hindu trinity. Some are young, but most are older; they are all sadhus, men who have renounced the world to wander in poverty and prayer from one holy site to another across the Indian Subcontinent.
Society considers their path noble. Most of the older sadhus had careers, raised families, educated their children, and provided for their wives before turning to a contemplative life. The younger ones are understood to have had a special calling; all are treated with great respect. Ordinary people gain religious merit by feeding the wandering mendicants, and the holy men are thereby left free to pray.
There are thousands of them here at Pashupatinath Temple for the annual festival of Shiva in one of his main forms, the Lord of the Beasts. Early-arriving sadhus quickly filled up the open-front dharamsala rest houses inside the temple, then the other rest-houses nearby. The main group of them are camped in and around the shrines that spread across the hill on the other side of the sacred Bagmati River.
Joining them today are hundreds of busloads of Indian pilgrims and several hundred thousand Nepalis. They will form long lines from before dawn until late at night to enter the main shrine for a moment of worship. The temple management authority had promised new, streamlined logistics this year to keep devotees’ wait in line to less than three hours.
For many the wait Thursday was much longer than that but still well worth it, for sincere prayers here today can bring god’s grace. Shiva’s title of Lord of the Beasts comes literally from the origin story of the temple, in which Shiva, having tired of the adoration of the other gods, came to this riverside site to rest in the form of a gazelle. But the root word pashu, animal, also means fetters and reveals a deeper interpretation of Shiva as releaser of the bonds of ignorance and breaker of the chains of karma that trap humans in the cycle of birth, suffering, death, and reincarnation.
To die here at Pashupatinath temple with one’s feet in the water brings release from the cycle, and to be cremated here washes away sins just as the ashes are washed away by the river. And so, even as the pilgrims and holy men queue up, small processions bearing the dying and dead move through the waiting worshippers to deliver their burdens to the riverside. As night closes in, the cremation pyres on the river’s right bank mirror the sahdus’ bonfires on the left.
The festival continues until dawn for the holy men. They emulate scriptural stories of Shiva by smearing their bodies with ashes and leaving their uncut hair matted or in dreadlocks, by wearing minimal clothing and sometimes none at all, and by carrying an iron trident. Their fervor intensifies after dark, when butter lamps are lit in offering and fires for warmth. Drums and horns play, and there is chanting and the ever-present smell of marijuana, sacred to Shiva and therefor to his followers. The police guarding the area ignore the drugs or, just possibly, take a covert puff themselves: It is the festival after all, and today ganja is a sacrament.
The same thought draws bunches of teenage boys and a few tourists. They sit with the sadhus and smoke, or huddle in circles passing bottles of beer or local rum. The scene after dark transforms from religious festival to gathering of the tribes. But much later when the holy men put down their pipes and drums and silently process to the river to wash away their sins, the remaining teenagers and tourists watch respectfully and then stumble home.
The sadhus will puff and pray all night, and bathe twice more before being joined at dawn by large numbers of worshippers, many of whom have also kept all-night vigils. They will all bathe a final time and then break their 24-hour fast. The holy men will sleep, and over the next few days they will drift away to the next festival, each following his own path to liberation.