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Publication Date : 10-03-2013
Kathmandu's Shivaratri is an annual gathering of genuine holy men and others seeking only the perks of being in the spotlight
They sit around in circles inside Ram Mandir in Kathmandu's landmark Pashupatinath temple, groups of four to six men entirely bare-bodied, apart from the flimsy loincloths wrapped around their waists. Small fires burn within these circles, which the sadhus (holy men) use to touch off their chillums - little conical apparatuses filled with marijuana or buti as it is called - which will be passed between them, each dragging on it in turn. It’s a surreal mood that permeates the temple at this hour, some of the holy men are in silent, meditative mode, while others, more exuberant, prance around, waving their hands and filling the air with cries of “Jai Kailash Pati!”and “Jai Sambho!” The temple’s interiors are soon hazy with the smoke from the chillums, which floats outside, to be mixed with another kind of smoke that is coming from a smoldering pyre in the Arya Ghat nearby where bodies are burning.
The sadhus enjoy something of a celebrity status today, as they do every year; crowds of people, including a few foreigners, trail after them, trying to get a good shot with their digital cameras and camera phones. And although they must certainly be tempted, these visitors don’t dare ask these sadhus for a puff from the chillum, given the number of policemen patrolling the area in civilian clothes.
This is a scene common to Pashupatinath leading up to Maha Shivaratri, the annual festival dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is a day when the stigma surrounding marijuana- or ganja-smoking finds itself temporarily suspended, with people taking it up and sharing with family members and friends, a rite of passage almost. According to the Hindu texts, the Puranas, the occurrence of the famous Samundra Manthan had brought forth a pot full of poison from the depths of the ocean, putting all life in the universe at risk. Lord Shiva had stepped in and gulped it down to save the world, an act that had turned his throat blue, leading to the moniker Nilkantha (blue-throat). And it is in the memory of this selfless deed that Maha Shivaratri is celebrated.
Sita Ram Bishwokarma Baba, in his early 40s, came to Pashupatinath from his native Banke, in the country's mid-west, about a week before Shivaratri this year, walking barefoot all the way. “It’s a pilgrimage I make every year, for 12 years now,” he says. “If you have faith in God, nothing can stop you,” Sita Ram adds as he passes his long, wooden chillum, which has an image of Shiva carved onto its surface, to another ascetic next to him. “I might be a holy man, but I still have a family,” he says, talking about the two daughters and two sons he has back home, and the wife with whose consent he makes his annual trip to the Capital. “I’ve been devoted to Shiva for 25 years, and it’s changed me completely; there is nothing I want or need anymore.” \
That apparent disinterest in the material is something other sadhus seem to share - most have very few belongings with them, save a small bag, a blanket, the requisite chillum and steel tongs for working the fire. Tyagi Baba, 65, explains that it is not in their nature to surround themselves with too many ‘possessions’, because that would limit their freedom. “We eat what we get, and we get enough here. When you’re in a holy place like Pashupatinath, your needs get taken care of, no problem. There’s no other place like it,” he says.
Unlike these passing ascetics, Laha Nangadi Naga Baga is a permanent fixture around here, and has been living at the Ram Mandir for almost 25 years. The 66-year-old, smeared all over in ash, and with colourful red and yellow vermillion streaks decorating his forehead, is responsible for welcoming visiting sadhus and managing room for them inside the temple during the festival-time surge in numbers. “It’s not an easy life, of course,” he says. “Young boys often come here to ask us for ganja, but we know the law prohibits us from complying, and when we tell them we can’t, they usually get angry.” Naga Baba describes how his people have been cursed at, even beaten up, in such situations. “I personally don’t see why the authorities make such a fuss about ganja,” he says. “It’s entirely natural, it doesn’t harm your body the way alcohol does, or make you as violent, and it is mind-expanding. I don’t understand how alcohol is made freely available, but ganja has such a bad reputation.” Naga Baba chalks it up to the West’s influence. “They’ve distorted the facts, and taken away something that is part of our cultural history.”
This sentiment is reiterated by another holy man from Himachal Pradesh in India, in his 60s, who says Shivaratri isn’t the same anymore given the excessive restrictions and monitoring that goes on today. “Sages used to actually be respected in the past, and we’d be provided bus far to come here and even gifts of ganja,” he recalls. “Now we have so many people going around pretending to be sages and doing ridiculous things that the public looks at us like we’re all crooks, no respect at all.”
Once you’ve had your fill of interactions, exit the heady surrounds of Ram Mandir from the north-east gate, and climb up the cement steps towards Beautiful Danda (hill), where you’ll come to a surprising vantage point. From here you get a view of the thousands of sadhus - Naga Babas, Aghoris, and various other groups dressed in their characteristic garb - milling around the temple complex, talking, smoking, meditating, quarrelling, getting photographed (and some asking for monetary compensation in return), a sight unique to that yearly carnival of holy men and perk-seeking poseurs that is Shivaratri.