Maha Shivratri or Maha Sivaratri or Shivaratri or Sivarathri (Great Night of Shiva or Night of Shiva) is a Hindu festival celebrated every year on the 13th night/14th day in the Krishna Paksha (waning moon) of the month of Maagha (as per Shalivahana or Gujarati Vikrama) or Phalguna (as per Vikrama) in the Hindu Calendar (that is, the night before and day of the new moon). The festival is principally celebrated by offerings of Bael (Bilva) leaves to the Lord Shiva, all day fasting and an all night long vigil. Per scriptural and discipleship traditions, the penances are performed in order to gain boons in the practice of Yoga and meditation, in order to reach life’s summum bonum steadily and swiftly.
I took Michelle to Pashupati(nath) temple on Shiva Ratri this past week. Ring Road was blocked between our neighborhood and Pashupati, so we had to take a really convoluted way around that basically took an hour. Good thing we didn’t have to take a flight that day!
Once we got there, parked in a dusty gulch beside the golf course behind the airport, and walked in, it was crowded with thousands of people. Pashupati is the place where everyone in town burns their dead, and on this auspicious day one could certainly tell. The walkway to get in was lined with vendors selling all manner of items a westerner would buy, so they knew their target audience I guess. Woven hangings, prayer wheels, and other knick knacks. There were also vendors selling things that locals would go for like fried snacks of all sorts, sitting in the sun and collecting flies and dust.
Once past the disneyworld-like walkway, we got into the thick of it. Pashupati seems more like a small country in Epcott Center, than a simple crematorium. Small living structures, enough to make a small village by the side of the Bagmati River, housed various people getting their washing done and observing the mayhem. We crossed an iron and concrete bridge to the side with the body-burning platforms. Groups of people wishing to cross the sacred river jumped across on small rocks, some doing the full-on wash oneself routine, but most seeking to avoid actual exposure to the river (it’s pretty nasty); some were successful, others not. We got cranked through the crowd at the burning platforms and covered our mouths and noses from the stench and ash of burning (or about to be burned) bodies. Families wailed and marigolds smoldered. We pushed our way into the crowds further up, past the police guards (who were there in force) where sadhus were smoking cannabis and undressing to the frenzied delight of the younger Nepalis. Upward and inward we went into the grounds of Pashupati, passing monkeys, stoned holy men, gawking westerners, and like-minded young hippies. The smells were incredible, from the pungent mass of humanity, breezes wafting from the river carrying ashes and odors of thousands, firewood and cannabis smoke, to the monkeys passing by grabbing a snack of fruit or other edible where they could. We took the requisite photographs and video, some getting up close and personal and dropping a couple rupees (I skipped this in favor of the less in your face approach) and after an hour or so, and made our return trip down and out of the grounds. The return trip across the bridge was a meat grinder, the choice being to be crushed or jump in the river, so we opted to be smooshed, calls of “linema” (in line) all the way along.
Our final exit from the complex was timely; there appeared to be thousands of people walking towards it, making no room for cars on the road at all. I imagine that there must have been a couple million people to go through the place by the end of the vigil the next day, as people from all over Nepal and perhaps other places making their way to the holy ground. If you’re visiting during Shiva Ratri, I highly recommend the experience. I’m going to take Lucas next year 🙂
Shiva Ratri at Pashupati 2011 (Jump to video on my MobileMe Gallery)