The Troubadours of Shiva's Dance

Features Issue 87 Jul, 2010
Text by Thomas L. Kelly / Photo: V. Carroll Dunham

A lone sadhu, shrouded in morning mist, crouches on a rock ledge and blows conch, emitting a haunting echo into the forests, caves, ashrams and city streets. Emerging like trails of ants from a Mahabharata epic, plods an odd assortment of pilgrims towards the sound of the holy man’s shell.

It is Shiva Ratri, the gathering of holy men and pilgrims in celebration of Lord Shiva at his temple of Pashupatinath in the Kathmandu Valley.

Below the sadhu beside the temple walls, a small crowd of shivering Hindu pilgrims ritually bathe in the eternally flowing waters of the sacred Bagmati River. The poetry and harmony of this silent rite of purification in the cool quiet calm of dawn has been going on for centuries in Himalayan nation of Nepal, traditional home of Lord shiva, one of the most important Hindu gods.

Nepal is a magical, symbolic, enchanted land, said to harbor the divine and mysterious presence of Shiva. No other humans symbolize or embody this sense of mystery, legend and myth better than the wandering mystic sadhus, the troubadours of Shiva. Their song is the penetrating song of the universe, their dance is the dance of life.

Having tossed the cares of family, society and business to the wind, the sadhu is a pilgrim who has embarked on a personal spiritual journey in quest of the divine. Performing various feats of mortification and self-mutilation out of love for his god, the sadhu wanders across the Indian subcontinent, with the sky as his roof, the forests, caves and city gutters his dwelling. Like the troubadours of yore, the sadhu’s life is one characterized by movement, and occasionally joins others for religious gatherings such as Shiva Ratri.

Generations of holy men have beaten numerous trails from the Ganges plains to the high snow and ice fields of Asia’s most sacred mountains.

These foot worn paths cross three district areas of Nepal: the fertile Terai region of the south, with its tigers and elephants hidden by the jungle, but also the breadbasket of Nepal; the middle hills which house 50 percent of Nepal’s 17 million people; and the northern Himalayan region with snow peaks and glaciers towering to Mount Everest’s 29,035 feet (8,850 metres).

It is here, amid the dramatically contrasting landscapes of the pilgrimage trail, that the sadhu makes his home. Yet he is never alone. For each glen, valley and thicket is alive with a host of spirits and manifestations.

Living in harmony with these spirits are the villagers of the mountains. With over 40 dialects spoken in Nepal, a sadhu will encounter a myriad of people, customs and languages with every ridge he climbs. It’s little wonder that a country characterized by peaks and spirits should be home of Lord Shiva, mountain god and patron deity of Nepal. Shiva is a god of countless manifestations and variety of forms, each famed with certain attributes, deeds and powers. In Sanskrit literature alone he is exalted under 1,800 different names.

It is from this vast array of symbolic forms encompassing all aspects of existence that the sadhu draws his knowledge and worships Shiva. Thus the paradox: each sadhu’s quest is intensely individual and personal, yet their aspirations and goal is one: union with Shiva. To obtain this goal, the sadhu seeks the aid of a guru, a spiritual teacher and friend who prompts him to drink deep from the well of experience. In a rigid, caste-oriented structure, a sadhu transcends the order of society. Sadhus, like the god they follow, come in many and all forms: young, old, high caste and low, male and female.

Shiva is also known as Nateshwar, Lord of Dance. It’s this common rhythm that the individual followers of Shiva share. Gracious, supreme, infinite and eternal, the cosmos is Shiva’s theater, with infinite steps in his repertoire. He dances in sheer joy of creation, in sorrow and in the frenzy of destruction and decay. Shiva’s dance, like the Shiva Ratri festival which celebrates him, embraces all themes of life.

Manifested as Pashupati, Shiva is known as the divine herdsman, lord of the animals, peaceful and loving, with the souls of all men his cattle. So it is here at Pashupatinath, with the divine sound of the conch, that he calls his flock to gather on the 12th day of Phagun (February 23, 2009), Shiva Ratri.

Legend has it that Lord Shiva once lived here at Pashupatinath in the incarnation of a gentle deer and that here an eternal fire has been kept ablaze since the origin of the universe. Yet Pashupatinath’s sacredness is generated most by a one-meter black, stone lingam, the holiest of holies, carved with the five faces of Shiva on its head. It is this that prompts the sadhus and pilgrims to make the arduous journey here to reverently bow and utter “Om nama Shivaya” (I bow to Shiva) while pouring holy water and sprinkling colored flower petals on Shiva’s sacred phallus.

The worship of Shiva lingams is an ancient custom and there are now untold numbers in fields, forests, city streets and village pathways throughout Nepal. The lingam usually stands on a flat-rimmed dish called a yoni, representing the female aspect and the energy of the universe. The union of the yoni and lingam symbolically portrays procreation and continuity, for it is believed that from the sacred lingam and yoni the whole world continues.

There is a legend in the Linga Purana, a holy scripture, explaining how Shiva came to be symbolized and worshipped in the form of the lingam. One day Brahma, Vishnu and other illustrious Hindu gods decided to pay Shiva a visit in his mountain paradise of Mount Kailash. They found Shiva and his wife, Durga, in the act of love. Shamelessly drunk and full of passion, Shiva continued to gratify his sensual desires, regardless of presence of his visitors.

The gods hurled insults and curses, roaring with laughter at Shiva. When Shiva finally recovered his sense, he asked his guards who the visitors were and what had taken place. Upon hearing the horrifying truth, Shiva and Durga, as if struck by lightning, died instantly in grief.

Yet the immortal spirit within Shiva decided the act which brought his shame and death should be celebrated among mankind. He said: “My shame has killed me, but it has also given me new life and a new shape, which is that of lingam. The lingam is I, my double self. I am the Supreme Being, and so is my lingam. All should worship and offer sacrifice to it as if to me. To obtain my favors, offer me the fruits, leaves and flowers of the margosa tree, which I love the best. Those who fast on the 14th day of the moon in Magha in honour of my lingam, who at night do puja (ritual worship) and present me with the leaves of margosa, shall be certain of a place in Mount Kailash.”

Thus, on this day of celebration, as drums beat, cymbals shimmer and sweet bells rings, the belly of each devout sadhu and pilgrim remains empty and all eyes stay alert for an all night vigil to please Lord Shiva.

The morning mist burns away from the river’s edge revealing the curling smoke from a nearby smoldering funeral pyre. The flames dance in the mouth of the corpse, soon to be reduced to ashes and scattered into the Bagmati, a tributary of the Holy Ganges. The festival is microcosm of Shiva’s Dance of life and death. Women bathe together with their husbands, believing they will receive the same partners in the next life. Meanwhile, the ill, the crippled and the deformed crawl to the banks of the Bagmati to immerse their feet in the sacred water, waiting to die and be relieved of the suffering of this life.

On a grassy knoll above the temple, a group of sadhus crouch in the shade, smoking ganja. They watch as the calm, graceful rhythm of the morning bathers is replaced by the chaotic tempo of maya, or illusion, the samasaric twirl of life.

Some, with soft eyes glowing like a fawn’s, others, with fierce, blazing eyes of fire, slowly light up a chillum (clay pipe) of ganja, ritually inhale and, with reverence, utter “Bom shankar” (I am Shiva), their eyes glazed in blissful reverie.

Hindu devotees call Shiva the Bhangeri Bana—the god who is given to the enjoyment of ganja—for it’s believed that Shiva was the first god to discover the sacred plant. Shiva’s dance is said to represent the transitory nature of existence, and it is the truth that the sadhus attempt to experience through the usage of ganja. Ganja is believed to be aid seers in the comprehensions of this world as maya, and under its effect one’s personality is transformed and a blissful union with the divine can be experienced. The sadhus also believe one can escape the disillusionments of life in the utter state of oblivion created by ganja, which also sublimates and decreases sexual passion. By giving deeper mental and spiritual insight, the sadhus believe that ganja creates a vision of existence, which pierces the veil of ignorance by transforming human consciousness and giving peace of mind.

 A bridge spans the Bagmati River to a woody knoll lined with small temples said to represent the other 108 holy pilgrimage sites in India. In this way sadhus unable to journey to all the sites may bow before each temple and receive blessings from all the sacred temples. Here, many sadhus curl up and rest, disappearing from the swirl of activity below. Like a huge carnival, Pashupatinath is full of the bizarre and grotesque on Shiva Ratri.

It is Shiva’s role as the archetypal ascetic who has renounced the world and is emancipated from the bondage of sensual passion which creates the idea every sadhu follows and which colors and creates the mood of this festive day. In his ascetic form, Shiva is depicted as fair-skinned, his body smeared in ashes, his loins girded with animal skins, and his neck garlanded with snakes and rosaries of nuts. In his hand he carries his spiritual weapon, the trident, and holds a damaru, a drum that beats sound of truth.

As ageless manifestations of Shiva’s form, living and re-creating the myth of the god they seek to become, the sadhus cover themselves in ghostly white ashes to mimic Shiva’s fair skin. The ashes neutralize the ions in their ego, the burned fetters that bind them to this physical world.

As if wandering harlequins, laughing at the conventions of society, the attire of these painted clowns of the universe speaks a language of myth and symbolism. Their anachroman’s ancient and eternal quest for a transcendent inner truth.

Looking like medusa with their wild, disheveled, snakelike dreadlocks, the sadhus’ hair provokes dread and attractions, symbolizing the matted confusion and chaos of this world, combined with his dormant sexual energy stored through the act of celibacy. Many ascetics forsake food in their quest for their god and are now but fragile wisps of skeletal frames. Other holy men congregate by the temple where they wind and curl their supple bodies into pretzel-like, gravity-defying feats of wonder. In ecstasy, transcending pain and pleasure, like freaks in a sideshow. Still others jab tridents through their tongues and penises, or sacrifice an arm or finger to Shiva.

Sadhus beg, living off alms. “Some give,” a sadhu relates, shrugging his shoulders. “Others don’t. It really doesn’t matter.” Like charlatans, a few sadhus of questionable spirituality don robes of Shiva and alither through the crowd, making a profitable living off the generosity of others.

Masses of pilgrims, dressed in their finest, stream through the temple gates. Hundreds press together, patiently waiting for darshan (worship) at Shiva’s sacred lingam, ceremoniously housed in the hallowed inner sanctum of the temple where non-Hindus are forbidden to tread. The Brahman priest gently smudges the pilgrim’s forehead with tika, a mixture of blessed colored powder, rice flower petals and holy water, which signifies the pilgrim’s act of union through darshan with Shiva. Above, families of monkeys scamper about on the gold-tiered, pagoda-style roof – living guardians and protectors of the temples.

Vendors hawk their goods at Shiva’s fair, mixing the mundane and pragmatic affairs of this world with aspirations for the next. They crouch beside their bountiful displays of eye catching toys, silky and filmy fabrics, vibrant piles of tika powder, and stands overwhelmingly pungent garlands of flowers. The marketplace is an explosion of color, sound and movement. The smell and smoke of sumptuous food sizzling in its pan wafts in the air. A child playfully screams and chases his little brother through the dense crowd.

Meanwhile, Shiva’s troubadours and minstrels play their delicate song. In the shadows, on the far side of the courtyard, a sadhu sits alone and meditates, passing the rudraksha beads through his gnarled hands. Another minstrel sits and offers sage advice, while next to him, like a gypsy, his fellow sadhu reads the palm of an expectant pilgrim.

Darkness descends and the wild religious intensity and fervor increases. Sacrificial flames dance and lick at the night. Pilgrims return to their camps set on the surrounding slopes and, by the light of the fires, sing and chant to Shiva the divine. Shiva’s flame glows in the temple yard with thousands of oil-fed lamps and burning tapers. Fasting sadhus remain awake until dawn, dipping in the cool, soothing Bagmati and returning to the temple every three hours with more offerings and prayers.

It is for this ancient sacred rite that the troubadours of Shiva wander so far. Mysterious, eternal and as omniscient as Shiva himself, these holy men now shrouded in the oblivion of smoke created by ganga, perform the song and dance of Shiva. In the early grey dawn, the universal “Om” of their conch echoes and persists here, in the magical Himals of Nepal. g

The photographer, Thomas L. Kelly, can be contacted at (, and the author,
V. Carroll Dunham, is at (