“You want to buy some haaaash?” our tuk tuk driver asked with a big smile. “Not particularly” I mouthed as the beaten up cart bounced down one of Kathmandu’s crowded, unpaved roads.
It wasn’t entirely strange for him to be asking, we were headed to celebrate Shivaratri festival, after all. Since we returned to Kathmandu after a month in Melamchi, it seemed like everyone in the city was asking us if we would be celebrating the holiday. Locals smirked and winked at us; their thoughts were obvious, there was no way that two Westerners could possibly know what was in store for them.
They were (mostly) right. We found out that Shivaratri pays homage to Shiva, the Hindu god of chaos and destruction, who is oftentimes celebrated by locals smoking copious amounts of marijuana. It’s the one day of the year where the government lifts its ban on the illegal drug, because it’s considered part of a religious ritual.
And not only do locals smoke marijuana in his honor, sadhus do as well. Sadhus are holy men within the Hindu religion (many of them are thoroughly trained in the arts of yoga). There are some sadhus in Nepal but many more in India, and heaps of them make the journey to Kathmandu for Shivaratri every year. We saw tons of sadhus nearly nude (and some completely in the buff) while celebrating Shivaratri, but before we get to that, let’s talk about our day leading up to finding the sadhus.
After we paid our tuk tuk driver and watched him begin his journey back to the city center, we turned around and immediately were overwhelmed by the massive amount of people. We didn’t know what was happening but knew the main celebration took place at Pashupatinath Temple.
It seemed like it would be easy to spot a massive temple, complete with dreadlock-donning holy men and plumes of marijuana smoke — but think again! There were so many locals and vendors in the street that it took us nearly two hours to navigate our way to the holy site. Here’s one of our favorite ladies selling spices:
We learned that Nepalis had been standing in line since yesterday morning to get inside the temple to give their offerings. However, foreigners were allowed to cut to the front of the line. This is because non-Nepalis aren’t allowed inside the temple walls, but they are allowed on the temple grounds. The clarification didn’t make me feel any better about passing thousands of tired-looking people who were waiting in line to pay respect to something they truly cherished. Meanwhile, Tay and I walked directly to the entrance and after some haggling with a police officer, were quickly let inside.
Immediately, an acrid aroma assaulted me. Something was burning and the smoke emptied into my mouth like a thick custard. Clouds of dark ash spiraled into the air from multiple platforms that were built alongside a river.My eyes stung and as I looked around I noticed there were people sitting much closer to the bonfires. How could they possibly stand all the smoke?
Tay got to work taking photos of the picturesque plumes. Despite it making our eyes water like crazy, the bonfires were quite beautiful against the temple backdrop. It was too hazy to see closely, but soon we’d realize they weren’t exactly “bonfires.”
A girl around our age came up to us with a horrified expression on her face, “Please, no pictures.” We both looked around confused, other people were taking photos. Was it because we were at a place of worship? Her brother then approached us before we could react, “Put your camera away. No photos.” He looked more angry than understanding. We agreed and shrugged it off, obviously we’d missed some sort of social or spiritual cue.
It was only once we reviewed the pictures in Taylor’s camera that we understood why they were so upset — we had been taking pictures of people being burned, cremated. Presumably their loved ones. Bodies are regularly cremated at Pashupatinath and then their ashes are released into the Bagmati River. This occurs every day, not just for Shivaratri. I was a little shaken once we put two and two together, but it was an interesting experience nonetheless.
Afterward, we dived deeper into the temple complex. Before entering the main event we were blessed by a spiritual woman sitting on the ground outside.
She issued a prayer in Nepalese to each of us, which felt grounding and calming even though I’m not a religious person.
And then we were elbow-to-elbow with hundreds of people from all over the world. All of us crowding to get a glimpse of the sadhus in action. An estimated one million Hindus come to Pasupatinath every year to not only cast off their sins, but to earn themselves a place in heaven.
While inside the temple grounds, we saw multitudes of sadhus.
Some were peaceful (and OK, super stoned).
Others were charging visitors for pictures and seemed to be there more for showmanship. I love this shot because you can see the strange juxtaposition of old world and new that makes Nepal so unique.
Some sadhus were in the zone, covered in ash, just like Shiva himself was.
There are even female sadhus, who are called sadhvis.
This man took a liking to Taylor and locked eyes with him for a moment before beginning a long speech in Nepalese. Luckily, a local was kind enough to translate for us when he saw how confused we looked. To sum up his speech, he told Tay that God is everywhere and everything and everyone is connected.
The colorfully painted sadhus were my favorite because they had a little more pizazz. They were also more likely to ask you for money for taking their picture…
After several hours of wandering around Pasupatinath, our mouths gaping and constantly muttering to each other “Woah! What’s going on over there?!” We decided to begin our trek back to Thamel.
The temple and Bagmati River were truly a sight to behold as we left that night. “Bonfires” were still raging and an air of electricity lingered in the air. There were still thousands of people everywhere, all vying to get a look at the sadhus or to give their offerings. I was a little nervous when we arrived because there were so many people and so much commotion, but like everything in Nepal, once we spent a bit of time walking around, things seemed comfortable and natural. If you happen to be in Kathmandu in March, definitely check out Shivaratri!