Holy cannabis, cannibals and sugarcane, it’s Shiva Ratri
Tonight belongs to Shiva, the hedonistic god, lord of animals. It's a night of partying across Nepal. Beyond Kathmandu children stop travellers and charge a toll to pass. The spoils of their work will be spent on sugarcane to roast on the village bonfire, exploding canes shower the night with shards of molten toffee to be fought over.
One almighty street party
Whilst Kathmandu hosts one almighty street party, it's an event that everyone should witness at least once, unless that is you suffer with claustrophobia, in which case you would be better off staying home. It's a seething mass of people all vying for room to move, with personal space out of the window people shuffle towards, well, to be honest no-one has a clue where they're going. The flow of humanity goes where it pleases. Bags of neon balloons on sticks held up above the crowd are the only fixed points you can see, stationary whilst the crowd mills around them. How the vendors are able to remain in one place is a mystery close to witchcraft. You may have thought you'd visit the funfair, you could visit but only if everyone else is heading that way, the same is true if you want to see one of the makeshift temporary shrines in all their gaudy plastic glory. That's what it's like to be one of the 6 million people who descend on Pashupatinath to celebrate Shiva Ratri.
The spectacle of Sadhus
Across the river an older, darker medieval Shiva Ratri unfolds against the smoky back drop of open cremations. Sadhus, the dreadlocked ascetic followers of Shiva have travelled in their hundreds from across South Asia to spend Shiva's night in one of Shiva's most sacred places. It's a strange world, just a small enclave of courtyards surrounding ancient temples opposite Pashupatinath. A place where heavy cannabis use is encouraged and chattering monkeys are tolerated. The spectacle attracts the curious from all walks of life. Tourists vie with locals to witness the extraordinary gathering and photograph like their lives depend on it. Born entertainers, some of the sadhus are only too happy to amuse onlookers, billowing great clouds of smoke from small clay chillums, drinking from human skulls and playing with pet snakes. Rowdy Nepalese boys crowd the scene, feigning intoxication as they compete to see who is the baddest of the bad bunch. Never missing a trick and after a few rupees donation, one of the Sadhus poses for a quick selfie with them, leading to howls of excitement from the boys as their photos hit social media.
As the sun sets and the temperature drops fires are lit and the night takes over. The fires will be tended until dawn, welcoming anyone who chooses to sit a while and take in the atmosphere. As soon as it gets dark the boys and tourists go and the circus is closed for another year. The rest of the night will be given to devout contemplation, no pomp, no ceremony, just being in the moment.
Stay a while and you may catch a glimpse of a ghostly figure in the shadows, an Aghori Sadhu naked and painted with ash from funeral pyres, a few beads their only adornment. Shunned and revered in equal measure they inhabit the furthest margins of society, home for them is the cremation grounds, dark places few dare to go. Shunned because eating human flesh is part of their ritual to become closer to God, revered because they have the courage to commit the ultimate taboo and renounce all worldly trappings permanently.
Up in smoke
Where I go my pet snake goes to