"May Lord Pashupatinath bestow good fortune on all of us."
This was how every royal speech ended during the times when Nepal was a Hindu kingdom. This actually makes Pashupatinath (Lord of the Animals) the country’s major deity. Even though the nation has become secular and is no more a kingdom, more than 80% of the population is Hindu. Thus, Maha Shivaratri (the Grand Night of Shiva) is celebrated with gusto and vigor, as befits a god known for his wild ways and terrible fits of wrath. This boisterous festival is held on the 14th night of the new moon every year during the dark half of Falgun (Feb/March). It falls on February 18 this year.
Shiva’s story, like that of most of the other deities in the Hindu pantheon, is full of drama, tragedy, revenge, and bloodshed. One particular episode of his life is particularly revealing of his character. It is a story with a tragic ending, it is the story of his love affair with Dakshyani. She was the daughter of Dakshya Prajapati, a descendant of Lord Brahma, and he despises Shiva with some intensity because of his unkempt look and rough shod ways. Despite everything, the couple gets married, but the father-in-law is not done as yet. To humiliate Shiva, he performs a Asvamedha Yagya (a Vedic royal fire ritual of great significance) where all gods are invited except Shiva and his wife. Nevertheless, Dakshyani decides to go, but at the yagya, her father doesn’t spare his words in insulting her husband in front of everybody.
She cannot bear the abuse heaped on Shiva, and jumps into the flames of the yagya (for this sacrifice, she was thenceforth worshipped as Sati, the chaste one). Shiva comes to know of this dreadful incident and dispatches two of his most terrible henchmen, Virbhadra and Mahakali, with orders to cause mayhem to the yagya. He follows them shortly after and breaks down on seeing his beloved wife’s half burnt body. He carries her on his shoulders and starts his legendary tandava nritya (dance of destruction). Wherever he goes, he leaves in his wake destruction and death. Lord Vishnu is entrusted with the task of pacifying him. He believes that as long as Shiva carries his late wife’s corpse, he will be in a state of insanity. So he follows him, cutting off the corpse piece by piece using his chakra (discus). The sites where the various parts fall come to be known as Shakti Piths, one of which is Guheswari Temple, just a stone’s throw away from Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu.
This story should give you a good idea of the kind of god in whose honor Maha Shivaratri is celebrated. Naturally, it’s the biggest festival for Hindu sadhus (those half naked, ash-smeared ascetics with wild unkempt hair in thick braids) from all over the world, particularly from India and Nepal. Their whole outlook and lifestyle is fashioned after their major god, Shiva, and this adds a really exotic allure to the festival. Added to this is the sweet smell of marijuana all around the temple on this day. Yes, it’s a day when smoking pot is supposed to please Shiva, who was high most of the time himself. Pot is legal, even if it’s for a day, as long as you smoke it at the temple.
The sadhus begin to arrive days ahead and camp out on the grounds of the temple complex, their wellbeing being the primary concern of the temple officials, who see to it that they do not want for anything. A particular sect known as the Naga sadhus make for the most arresting sight, their stout bodies completely smeared in ash, their hair in dreadlocks, and without so much as a loin cloth on them. Meaning, they are stark naked. Reading all this, you might be thinking that Maha Shivaratri is one rowdy festival; well, let me tell you, it’s not. It’s, in fact, a very spiritual experience. An experience that hundreds of thousands of devotees are eager to be part of, standing for long hours in serpentine queues to pay homage to the 14th century six-foot-tall four-headed Shiva Lingum (phallic symbol of Shiva) within the Pashupatinath Temple.