Shiva (Śiva in Sanskrit) means "The Auspicious One". According to the Linga Purana, he has one thousand names, among which some of the more popular ones are: Ashutosh (one who is easily pleased), Bholenath (the innocent one), Bhairav (deity of annihilation), Nataraja (the king of dance), Neelkantha (the blue-necked one), Lingaraja (the phallic king), Pashupatinath (lord of animals), Gangadhar (one who controls the flow of the Ganges River), Trilochana (the three-eyed lord), Omkara (creator of the Hindu chant, “Om”), Trilokpati (supreme ruler of Earth, heaven, and hell), etc.
Shiva is one of the three most influential deities in Hinduism, the other two being Brahma and Vishnu. At the highest level, he is regarded as formless, limitless, transcendent, and unchanging. He has both benevolent and wrathful forms. As a benevolent deity, he is depicted as an all-knowing yogi living an ascetic life on the sacred Mount Kailash, and as a family man, with wife Parvati and their two children, Ganesha and Kartikeya. As a wrathful god, he is often depicted as killing many different kinds of demons. In addition, Shiva is considered to be the patron divinity of yoga, meditation, and the arts.
The third eye on his forehead and the snake (Vasuki) coiled around his neck, are unique iconographical features of Shiva, as is the crescent moon on his head, and the Ganga River flowing from his matted hair. In one hand he holds a trishul, his weapon of choice, while the other has a damaru, his favorite musical instrument. Devotees worship him in his aniconic form of the Lingam (a phallic object representing divine generative energy). The Lingam ("shaft of light” in Sanskrit) is usually found in conjunction with the Yoni (vulva), symbolizing Goddess Shakti, who is regarded as the ultimate source of creative energy. Together, the Lingam and the Yoni constitute Brahma, that is, the Universe. So, there you have it—the Trilogy—Creator, Destroyer, and the One.
Lord Shiva’s temple, Pashupatinath, is the most sacred of Shiva’s shrines, as also the finest example of the famous pagoda-style temples of Nepal. It has a two-tiered gold plated roof with a golden gajur (pinnacle) on top, its four main doors are silver-embossed, and the wood carvings on the tundals (roof struts) have intricate carvings. A massive 300-year-old gold-plated figure of Shiva’s vehicle, Nandi the bull, sits on a platform facing the doors. Inside the temple stands a 14th century six-foot-tall Lingam with four faces (thus known as Chaturmukhi: four-faced).
Situated on the banks of the Bagmati River, the entire complex covers about 281 hectares. An inscription discovered here shows that another temple dating to the 5th century initially stood where the main temple now stands. The temple as it is now is believed to have been built in 1653. There are numerous smaller temples on the complex’s premises, as well as the ghats (cremation sites) on the banks of the Bagmati River. Till about a decade ago, one section (Arya Ghat) was reserved for royalty. The doors of the main temple are open for worship only at specific hours on regular days, but are kept open through the night during Maha Shivaratri, the biggest celebration of Pashupatinath. This, ‘The Night of Lord Shiva’, is held on the 14th night of the new moon during the dark half of Falgun (Feb/March) every year. On the day, you’ll see swarms of devotees taking a ritual bath in the Bagmati River. You’ll see long lines of other devotees standing patiently for hours with offerings for worship in their hands, both in front and at the back of the temple. You’ll also see hundreds of monkeys in the precincts, busily moving among the crowds, picking up anything edible that can be found.
But, most colorful will be the sight of numerous sadhus (ascetics) with ash smeared all over their faces and bodies. While most will have some sort of clothing covering their private parts, you will probably come across some who are stark naked, their privates smeared with ash, as well. The sadhus come mostly from neighboring India, Pashupatinath being one of their regular annual pilgrimage sites, and there will obviously be many from around Nepal. They are, to say the least, as weirdly colorful a tribe as can be imagined, and you’ll no doubt observe that, more than anything else, it is their hairdo that is the most exotic part of their persona.
Many will be dreadlocked, not cleanly as is the case with the urban stylish, but really rough and unkempt. You might also notice that most of these sadhus are pretty solid looking, and this, along with their dreadlocks and the trishuls (tridents) they carry, make them a frightening sight for children. Indeed, Maha Shivaratri is what it is—an exotic festival—largely due to the presence of these particular denizens of the Hindu world, and also, a most fitting tribute to one of Hinduism’s most intriguing gods, Lord Shiva, who goes by more than a thousand names, Pashupatinath being one.