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...If you arrive during
a week without a festival, it will probably be time for
marriage processions
in the streets.

~ Marc Cofer, Author

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Maha Shivaratri: Great night of Lord Shiva

Every festival in Nepal traditionally begins with something religious and proceeds with spontaneous sprit.

Our festivals are rooted in history, mythology and religion. They honour and propitiate the multitude of gods and control malicious spirits.

A festival is a social occasion. It is an affirmation of the ancient and strong bonds of religion and culture. Festivals in Nepal are reckoned not only as occasions to indulge in eating, drinking and making merry but also as occasions when one is to devote some of one’s time to the worship of and meditation upon gods and goddesses in different forms.

Among numerous festivals of Nepal, Maha Shivaratrai is worthy to note in the cultural aspect of Nepal, which is to be celebrated on Feb./March.

There are many festivals held in honor of the Hindu God Shiva every year, but the most important is Maha Shivaratri, the Great Night of Lord Shiva.

Hindu devotees on this night throng Shiva shrines everywhere, but the grandest of all activities revolve around Pashupatinath temple located on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River about three kilometres east of downtown Kathmandu.

This all-night vigil and the exciting crowded festival days before and after attract thousands of people from India and Nepal.

Pashupatinath temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva in the form of Pashupati, Lord of the Animals, who protect and care for all men. It is said that Lord Shiva once roamed as a deer in the forest behind Pashupatinath.

The large pagoda temple, open only to Hindus, stands above broad stone platforms at the river’s edge – the ghats, where the dead are burned. All around are small shrines, temples and pavilions where yogis and priests talk, relax, chant prayers and meditate.

The days before and after Shiva’s night are like a mela, or religious fair, at its best. People fill the roads around Pashupati Temple – holy men, beggars, Indian pilgrims, children and gawking tourists. Vendors of red tika powder, sacred rudraksha beads do a rousing business.

On the occasion, pilgrims and sadhus from all around the country and from India visit the Pashupatinath temple and spend the night lightning sacred fires, singing praises of the deity, and keeping a constant vigil to greet his descent to earth on the grassy hills around the temple to enjoy the warmth of good companionship and chatting around.

At midnight Shivaratri officially begins with priests making offerings inside the temple. Throughout the night, devotees take a holy dip in the sacred Bagmati River and bring holy water in their cupped palms to offer it to the stone stele, the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva, enshrined in the splendid temple and throw flowers.

In the morning priests start the recitation of sacred texts, continuing until about noon, when the chanting of sacred songs begins. This is a favourite time, for some of the finest tabla and sitar musicians, of course, from India and Nepal come to make musical offerings to Lord Shiva.

For visitors, Shivaratri offers a fascinating look at the Hindu sacred men – yogis or sadhus. Smeared with ash, with minds focused far from the everyday concerns of the world, they can be seen sitting quietly in small groups. These ascetics, naked with no sense of shame, have mastered cold and heat, hunger and sensual desire. These wanders, thin but powerful, with fierce intelligent eyes, live a life detached, seeking union with Lord Shiva.

Temple priests in ochre coloured robes perform elaborate ceremonies and offerings to Lord Shiva. They devote their lives to chanting the Holy Scriptures, performing wedding ceremonies, presiding over cremations, looking after temples, and caring for the spiritual needs of all Hindus.

Although the priests’ vows forbid taking intoxicants, the yogis’ “Sixteen Elements of Shiva Worship” include marijuana and its derivatives. The Brahmins will often be seen performing their ceremonies alongside a host of sadhus riding away on clouds of smoke into uncharted realms of consciousness.

Ascetics, worshipping gods of a different name, have lived in sacred forests like the one above Pashupati for even longer. However, Maha Shivaratri is one of the few times and places where one can look millennia into the past.

The Himalayan Kingdom Nepal is rich in scenic nature to diverse culture. Thus, the foreigners would like to say “Every other building is a temple; every other day is a festival (in Nepal)”.

Thus, every country’s cultural heritage needs to be made known to the world which would help in sharing of the cultural borrowings made possible.

By Arun Ranjit (Article published in The Rising Nepal on March 06, 2005 )

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