Shivaratri in Nepal: festival of Shiva with sadhus, crowds & hashish

Pashupatinath Temple complex
A sadhu holy man in Nepal
Sadhu holy man in Nepal
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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 Nepali 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 Nepali map in its current form for much longer.

History of Shivaratri

Shivaratri is a celebration for the Hindu Deity Shiva
Shivaratri is a celebration for the Hindu Deity Shiva

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 the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu Nepal.

Pashupatinath in Nepal
Pashupatinath in 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 250-1000rps. They say the cost is for renovating and up-keeping the area. Today a tourist ticket to Pashupatinath costs 1000 rupees.

Local Nepalese escaping the over pricing at Pashupathinath
Local Nepalese escaping the over pricing at Pashupathinath

The average annual income earned by Pashupatinath is over 50 million rupees (source).

I visited between 2008-2017 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. 1000 rps 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.

If you’d like your ticket to feel like it has more value for money then I do strongly advise you to buy my guidebook to Nepal which gives you more detail on the entire Pashupatinath complex rather than just the main area.

My visits 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.

Crowd control at Pashupatinath
Crushing crowds at Pashupatinath during Shivaratri

Locals watching a cremation at Pashupatinath
Locals watching a cremation at Pashupatinath

A vast crowd on the way to Pashupatinath
A vast crowd on the way to Pashupatinath

Lady being turned away at Shivaratri
Lady being turned away at Shivaratri

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.

Sadhus in an inner courtyard having lunch
Shivaratri is a time when Sadhus gather together from around the country and from around the world

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.

Sadhu's being fed at Shivaratri
Sadhus being fed at Shivaratri

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.

Cremations at Pashupatinath Nepal
Cremations, crowds, Sadhu’s and the largest celebration in Nepal makes Shivaratri an overwhelming experience for some

Dates for Shivaratri in Nepal 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019:

  • Shivaratri in 2013 was on Sunday 10th of March
  • Shivaratri in 2014 was on Friday 28th of February
  • Shivaratri in 2015 was on Tuesday 17th of February
  • Shivaratri in 2016 was on Monday 7th of March
  • Shivaratri in 2017 was on Friday 24th of February
  • Shivaratri in 2018 is on Tuesday 17th of February
  • Shivaratri in 2019 is on Monday 4th of March
Keep in mind that the dates are largely lunar and can change.

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!

Nepalese man giving tikka blessings at Shivaratri
Nepalese man giving tikka blessings at Shivaratri

Shivaratri is one of the best cultural festivals to experience with locals

Nepali 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. Do take a look at my Kathmandu heritage walks which show you how have a great walk from Pashupatinath to Boudhanath.

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.

To learn more about this sacred place do read my full guide to Pashupatinath.

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18 Replies to “Shivaratri in Nepal: festival of Shiva with sadhus, crowds & hashish”

  1. Sounds like a really interesting slice of the Nepalese culture and that headlining photo is a stunner. With the changes possible to come, do you see yourself going back to this festival in years to come?

    1. Hey Ryan,

      It’s my second time to be in Nepal at Shivaratri. To be honest for this festival it’s enough. Unless I go back for photos, friends etc. The crowds/costs are simply too much to make it that enjoyable for repeat visits.

      The Holi festival on the other hand I would go back to due it’s ever changing nature.

  2. That photo at the top of the sadhu is fantastic. Stunning.
    So you paid for the privilege of taking it? I struggle with how I feel about that and in general I won’t pay for photos. But I have a feeling that the sadhus are a different story. I do wonder why they accept money if they are supposed to give up all their worldly goods. Hope you address this stuff in your next post.

    1. Thanks Kristina. Yes I paid the Sadhu. Or as they like to call it, gave him a donation. A long time ago I hesitated with the idea, but in these times I don’t. Not sure if you’ve read this about Photography ethics. An interesting side line to this is that Lonely Planet a few years ago put a Sadhu on the cover of one of their Guidebooks to Nepal. Now whenever your take a photo many Sadhu’s thing it’s for selling or putting on the cover of a magazine or book. A Nepalese translator went so far as to tell me the whole story behind that and other Sadhu photo stories.

      I’ve written a little about why the Sadhus take money in the Sadhu post coming up. I might touch again on it in another separate in-depth photo post. As you know I don’t shy away from thing like that. The Sadhus are changing just like everything else!

  3. Your suggestions are very interesting, together with some hisstory, and mostly your descrption of the atmosphere, that I like the most!

  4. Great article. I’m not a fan of crowds and those scenes look intense. Is it dangerous at all? And what about pickpockets?

    1. I’d only say it’s as dangerous as any other place where there are huge crowds gathering. I’ve never heard of pickpockets there, but have heard lot’s of warnings. That said I would advise taking extra precautions like many locals and not carry anything too valuable.

  5. Fantastic photo of the Saddhu, Dave!

    Saddhus scare me. Maybe it’s because the hash, ash and dreds make them look so wayward and transient or quite probably, its the fact they always walk with their smiling palm open to me if they so much see a glimpse of my dangling camera. As “holy men” they’re supposedly not to handle money and things of the material world (which they’ve disowned). To me, that’s sketchy, so I avoid them, even though they’d make an interesting photo.

    Not sure if you mentioned it, but the ash they wear is symbolic of Shiva also… death and destruction. I imagine it helps them with that state of transcendence.

    Great informative post as usual! I can understand Nepal raising rates on tourists (though not happy about it). But I find it so disturbing how they’ve not given a break to locals, when it’s their religion and celebration! That’s awful.

    1. Thank you, more to come.

      I’m not so overly fond of Sadhus myself. Mainly for the points you mention. I met a lot of local Nepalese who feel the same way too. Sadhus are turning more into walking carnival men than revered holy men. That’s not to say many still don’t respect, fear, and seek them for various reasons. But yes, the money thing is there. Some say it’s a sign of the times. Others say it’s a for profit gimmick. I say there’s a blending going on for many.

      The rates for Pashupatinath are higher for tourists and lower for locals during the year. But during Shivaratri it’s raised to 1000-1500 plus for all. Personally, I’m seeing a lot of profit making going within certain circles. But yes, over the years Nepal seems to be putting “tourist” prices on just about everything. It’s getting to the point where you can’t even walk outside without having to pay for it as a tourist.

  6. Awesome photo of the Sadhu mate. Looking forward to the post on them. I’ve got a really off the wall question though. What does the place smell like? With all those cremations and smoke in the air is it bad?

    1. Cheers Stuart. Pashupatinath doesn’t smell as intense as Varanasi in India. Mainly due to the fact it’s a smaller area. If the wind blows in your direction and there’s a cremation going on it simply smells of the wood. The closer you get and yes you will smell something else. If there’s not wind blowing in your direction, then there’s very little smell. Other than from the river which really needs cleaning.

  7. Happy Shivratri and Hat’s off to you! You have covered all the aspects connected to this holy festival. You have traced its historical connections well. India is definitely a land of saints and sages.

  8. Really informative and thorough post, thanks! I really hope I get to go to India one day – all the colours, pictures and people look amazing. If I do I think I need to try and target my visit around one of these festivals – sure there’s enough of them in India :)

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