Maha Shivaratri in Nepal
Shivaratri is an annual Hindu festival popular in both India and Nepal. Of all the many festivals in Nepal this is probably my favorite for many reasons. The primary being that there not too many tourists around as it’s usually held in the second or third months of the year which is the end of winter.
With few tourists around you’ll be surrounded by Nepalese and Indian pilgrims alike making it that bit more special. That said it’s also an extremely crowded festival and one that might not be on the Nepalese map in its current form for much longer.
History of Shivaratri
Shiva is the god of the yogis who is self-controlled and celibate. However he is also a lover of his spouse (Shakti/Parvati). Lord Shiva is also known as the destroyer of the world. Shiva is often depicted as being blue due to a poison he drank that could have destroyed the universe. Parvathi tightened a noose around his neck so he could not fully swallow it. So it turned blue.
Shivaratri or Maha Shivaratri means the great night of Shiva or the night of Shiva: it is a festival to celebrate the Hindu deity Lord Shiva.
There are several versions of how and why this festival appeared.
Two common beliefs include:
- Parvati (Shiva’s wife) prayed and meditated on the 13th night of the new moon to ward off any evil that might befall her husband
- With the world facing destruction Parvati asked her husband Shiva to save it by dedicating a night where living souls would become active again and upon worshiping Shiva would have his blessings. Hence it became known as the night of Shiva
How is Shivaratri celebrated in Nepal today?
Unusually for Nepal rumors and chat about Shivaratri start a week beforehand. I say unusually as the normal thing is to wake up and find out that there’s a festival going on that day.
Advanced notices about festivals are not that commonplace in Nepal.
Shivaratri is different though as it’s one, if not the most important festival in the entire year. During the week before Shivaratri I noticed a few more Sadhu’s or holy men appear on the streets.
Most have made a walking pilgrimage from India and all around Nepal to visit Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu Nepal.
Pashupatinath contains one of the most important temples for Hindu’s in the world
The Pashupatinath temple itself is the oldest Hindu temple in Nepal. Set along the banks of the Bagmati river Non-Hindu visitors are not allowed to enter the temple. Pashupatinath itself is quite a large area that I’ve visited on many occasions.
Throughout Pashupatinath are various temples, statutes, stupas and resident Sadhus on either side of the river. The river Bagmati is used for bathing the dead and for spreading the ashes of the cremations which take place on the Ghats. Due to this, and massive dumping of refuse, the Bagmati river has become incredibly polluted over the years.
A victim of tourist prices
Sadly Pashupatinath has fallen victim to one of the many overpriced “tourist” prices appearing across Nepal in recent years. Prices range between 250-500rps. They say the cost is for renovating and up-keeping the area.
The average annual income earned by Pashupatinath is over 50 million rupees (source).
I visited in 2008 and can tell you it looks no different nowadays. If anything more polluted.
During Shivaratri the entrance prices go up again. This time for everyone. 1000rps is the charge levied on any Hindu wishing to visit the temple on that day. The administration say it’s to lessen the numbers of visitors.
When I went there were just as many locals queuing up. Only now they were queuing at closed gates unable to pay the outrageous sum demanded from them to enter their religious temple on their most religious of days.
My visit to Pashupatinath during Shivaratri in Nepal
It’s an early start to avoid the already strong crowd. Taking public transport to where the crowd starts is the only viable and sane option. Then it’s a case of follow the crowd for about an hour of walking. It’s very crowded at this point.
I really recommend going with Nepalese friends or a guide just to help you deal with the crush of the crowd later on.
Upon descending the hill towards Pashupatinath you’ll be squashed together in a somewhat gentle unyielding flow of humanity.
Getting closer to the temple area there are some blockades set up to help direct people leaving and entering the temple area. Being Nepal these are not that effective and often result in getting pushed away from your friends in the crowd. Forming a hand on waist or shoulder human train is a good way to deal with this. Though not always effective.
To pay or not to pay to enter Pashupatinath?
I’ll leave the choice up to you. Just remember if you are visiting Pashupatinath on Shivaratri the crowds will be immense on the entrance side to Pashupatinath and you are not allowed enter the temple itself. So the best you’ll get is to walk with the crowd along the ghats.
Unfortunately this area can also hold a little hostility as crowds jangle for positions.
I have experienced some “ultra important” people saying we as foreigners should not be in certain areas. Best I know this is just the temple. But these people like to think they have some authority and boss others around. The best way to deal with them is to ignore them. Or better yet allow your Nepalese guide / friend to give out to them.
Along with my tourist and Nepalese friends I made my way through an old passage I found from 2008 that led us to a quiet area where we and a host of Nepalese locals slipped into Pashupatinath unseen.
The atmosphere around Pashupatinath during Shivaratri
Aside from the crowds it’s a happy and welcoming festival. Looking down on the temple from the opposite side you’ll witness cremations, blessings and throngs of people. Meanwhile all around you will be ancient stupas, temple areas, some brazen monkey’s and a bevy of Sadhus.
The Sadhus of Pashupatinath
Its the Sadhus that make Pashupatinath that extra bit special during Shivaratri. Many have covered their bodies in ash to give it a pale complexion while then decorating many parts in bright colors. Most are relatively friendly and will pose for a photo. Though do keep in mind this is their holiest day and some may not be totally with it due to both fasting, making long journeys and a copious consumption of hashish.
Taking photo’s of Sadhus is allowed. Just make sure to bring plenty of small change.
Back in 2008 they were happy with 20rps. These days 50prs is the norm. But you can spend quite some time with them snapping away so don’t fret too much.
Try to look out for a temple complex to the left if you are looking down at Pashupatinath temple from the opposite side. It’s in here where you’ll find hundreds of Sadhus eating and resting.
The naked Sadhus
There are quite a few Sadhus who walk around completely naked during Shivaratri. This is normal. Many will often be lost in a trance and dance by the Ghats. They usually attract a crowd and have been taking hashish.
Hashish is legal on Shivaratri
Nepal is one of the few countries in the world that makes it legal to consume and carry Hashish. But only on Shivaratri. You’ll notice Sadhus openly smoking hashish in and around Pashupatinath.
Likewise back in Kathmandu hashish becomes freely available in many forms. Do be careful when ordering Ladu or any form of cake or Special Lassi (milkshake) that day as it will likely have an additional ingredient some might want to avoid.
The night of Shivaratri in Kathmandu
After a full day at trying to visit and then leave through the masses of crowds at Pashupatinath it’s good to join in for a night of celebration in Kathmandu. Bonfires are lit and feasts of food are put out for all to enjoy well into the night.
For the Nepalese Shivaratri is one of the most enjoyable and celebrated festivals of the year. For the tourist it can be a little overwhelming in many aspects. But all in all it’s a memorable one that many tourists enjoy.
Dates for Shivaratri in Nepal 2013, 2014 & 2015:
- Shivaratri in 2013 is on Sunday 10th of March
- Shivaratri in 2014 is on Friday 28th of February
- Shivaratri in 2015 is on Tuesday 17th of February
Will Shivaratri change in the years to come?
I think it already has changed in terms of visiting Pashupatinath. Entrance prices have gone up for year round visitors and on the day itself prices have sky rocketed. There also seems to be a more strict approach taken to non-Hindu visiting tourists than before.
As for the rest of Nepal during Shivaratri I think the change will be slower. The Government is still in a shambles and all manner of things could change how this festival is celebrated. A banning of hashish is likely on the cards should any formal government want to exert their new-found power.
This all means much like the Holi festival in Nepal that it’s probably better to experience this festival sooner rather than later!
Shivaratri is one of the best cultural festivals to experience with locals
Nepalese people are very open to having people enjoy and experience their way of life including their festivals. If you are planning to visit to Nepal, going a little early if possible to catch Shivaratri is highly recommended.
It’s simply a great festival to join in and experience a different culture at it’s most celebrant.
A once in a lifetime experience that allows you to witness and participate in a culture celebrating one of its most important events. An all day festival that will have you conversing and celebrating alongside locals well into the night.
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