Nepal has many secular and religious holidays throughout the year. Some have criticised this for undermining the country’s productivity and global competitiveness. Animal welfare groups take issue with festivals that encourage mass killings. Regardless of economic or environmental concerns, from a social perspective, festivals such as Maha Shivaratri and Democracy Day are taken very seriously and celebrated accordingly.
I arrived in Nepal with barely any understanding of Hinduism. In my first weeks at the guesthouse, we met travellers from all over the world, many of whom were very interested in teachings of the Buddhist and Hindu faiths. Luckily my classmate Yadu is a practising Hindu and was able to explain the mythology of the religion. A visiting German academic who specialised in eastern religions was also able to weigh in on the subject and provided a more historical perspective.
It was super interesting to draw parallels between my knowledge of the Bible and Hindu texts which share similar parables on loyalty, betrayal, love and conflict. Mahu and I agreed that out of all the gods and goddesses we heard about Lord Shiva (after whom the festival of Maha Shivaratri is named) was the most badass. With his blue skin, third eye and tiger skin, Lord Shiva is the destroyer and the transformer. Lord Shiva also has a penchant for smoking weed which is why the consumption of cannabis in Nepal is legal on Maha Shivaratri.
On our day off we decided to visit Pashupatinath temple, one of the most sacred in the Hindu faith, and which also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage site. During Maha Shivaratri the temple attracts tens of thousands of followers for puja (worship). As most streets were closed, we caught a taxi to the main intersection and walked the rest of the way. I found Kathmandu sans traffic to be a dramatic improvement on the dust and pollution that would inhibit walking most days.
The lines to enter the temple were at least two-hours long so we milled about in the streets. By the roadside were dozens of vendors, some of them young children, offering roasted nuts, fruit of varying freshness, clothing and balloons. We also gatecrashed a dance performance in a nearby compound and it was lovely to see men and women of all ages dressed in their most refined suits and sarees. People more impatient than us attempted to climb over the gates encircling the Pashupatinath temple compound – which worked until the police showed up. While I wouldn’t fancy my chances against a baton, the cat and mouse chase that followed invited plenty of cheering from the crowds waiting outside.
We abandoned our efforts to enter Pashupatinath in the afternoon and made another visit the day after. Outside the temple were stalls selling offerings for puja, marigold garlands, pote (glass bead necklaces worn by brides), incense sticks, mālā (prayer beads made from the seeds of the rudraksha tree) and religious icons, which I thought was very convenient for patrons. While Yadu bought puja items, Mahu and I scoured the stalls for tika to wear to uni.
The temple compound was huge. Inside we saw many sādhus (holy men) who Yadu informed me travel from all across India, Nepal and Sri Lanka to celebrate Shivaratri. The Indian government even pays a stipend for sādhus to attend. The holy men are easily identified by their garb (robes in saffron or vermillion hues), jata (dreadlocks) and long beards. The more flamboyantly dressed of the holy men would often be stopped by foreigners for a photo and they would acquiesce for a small fee. Some holy men practise extreme asceticism, giving up their material possessions and dedicating their existence to practising their religion.
I really enjoyed wandering around the compound barefoot albeit being careful to avoid spit deposits. There was only one part of the temple that was reserved for Hindus (as stated on a rather explicit sign) though I noticed some foreigners entering the prayer area anyway. I was much more comfortable getting an account from Yadu after he had finished puja, who said it was very beautiful inside.
One thing that struck me was the openness of Hindu societies towards death. We stumbled upon a cremation on the banks of the Bagmati river and all at once I was affected by a mixed bag of emotions. Initially, I was shocked to see bodies being carried to the river for cremation. That was until I realised there was a crowd of no less than fifty people, including families with young children, all watching those grieving with expressions of either curiosity or empathy. Yadu later informed me that there was a hierarchy in the sites for cremation, with the ashes of politicians and civil servants scattered closer to the mouth of the river and the ashes of the working class distributed further downstream.
Aside from my grandfather’s funeral, I’d never seen a deceased person at church and even then, I’d expect the body to be encased in a coffin. In a way, I found this communal, un-sentimentalised and nonchalant attitude to death rather refreshing. Instead of death being a taboo topic, euphemised, overshadowed by promises of the afterlife or prevalent in media to the point of caricature, my visit to Pashupatinath was a reminder to live life to the fullest, surrounded by the people I love.