Happy Birthday, Shiva!

Posted on March 6, 2011

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This week, the Hindu population of Kathmandu had reason to celebrate. The ladies wore their finest saris or kurtas bedazzled all over with silver and gold, while the men gathered in big, roving groups with mischievous glints in their eyes. Little children drank too much “bhang”—yogurt mixed with cannabis—and had to take to their beds until its effects wore off. Hundreds (maybe thousands?) of sadhus, or itinerant holy men, from all over Nepal gathered at the temple of Pashupati. It was Shiva’s birthday, and the biggest party in the nation was going down at Pashupati, just minutes from our house.

Sadhu portrait.

Partying with sadhus also means taking pictures with them, which is one way sadhus make money.

Shivaratri (or “The Night of Shiva”) is a holiday that comes once a year, and marijuana plays a key role in the celebrations. Not only is much of the food laced or prepared with marijuana, but the main way to mark the event is to smoke a bunch of it at Pashupati with the sadhus. For centuries it’s been culturally accepted as a religious rite to smoke on Shivaratri, but this year there was a crackdown: The sadhus, who normally carry “ganja” as part of their spiritual equipage, were banned from selling any to normal civilians. Sadhus have historically been known to share the wealth on Shivaratri, as it were. They sell it to any willing body, many of whom are high school kids, and this has resulted in some unsavory rowdiness in recent years. This year, the authorities told sadhus to keep the ganj to themselves.

Sadhu enjoying the spirit of the season with his pipe.

Lots of smoke.

I did not make the pilgrimage to Pashupati because it’s reportedly very dangerous for a woman to be alone there at night during Shivaratri. Sexual harassment, and at times rape, has been a bane of the holiday. Because Taylor was on an official press pass shooting the event, I couldn’t stay with him. Which meant I had to stay put at home. So this post comes entirely from second-hand sources (mainly Taylor’s experience and other bits of hearsay). Sorry for the lack of journalistic integrity here, but it ain’t easy being a woman in a third-world country where sex discrimination is still alive and well.

Handsome, young sadhu.

Apparently, the new ban didn’t curb much of the civilian pot-smoking. The grounds of Pashupati were still packed with men sitting side by side with sadhus, partaking in the toking. It’s customary to stay up all night on Shivaratri, holding vigil and keeping sacrificial fires going.

A view of the aftermath of Shivaratri.

One friend said he was surprised with how mellow the whole scene was. Apparently, past years were much bigger productions with music and, as he put it, “ecstatic dancing” around the fires. This year, there were fewer sadhus and goings-on. Taylor told me previous Shivaratris were sponsored by the king of Nepal, who paid for firewood, food, and other amenities. Now that the Nepali government has overthrown the monarchy and can’t quite decide what to do with itself, there was no official sponsorship at Pashupati for the holiday. Maybe that’s why the ambiance was so much more tame. Either way, let’s give Taylor credit for taking some awesome portraits. Not too shabby for a guy who thinks he sucks at portrait photography!

All photos by Taylor Weidman.

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