Night of Worship and Fire

Winter in Kathmandu valley can feel freezing, although not actually freezing! The temperature during the night falls below zero, leaving frosty fields in open lands, however the daytime temperature seldom gets to zero. Yet the cold is biting, chilling the very core of your heart and a respite from the winter weather is much awaited. This respite has been associated with the festival of Siva-ratri for a long long time. Elders and locals of the Valley await the festival, more because it is believed to be the harbinger of spring and secondly for its religious significance. However for devotees of Lord Siva, this festival means the day they can pay all their reverence and veneration to the deity. Lord Siva is considered the supreme god in Hinduism, one amongst its holy trinity. He is worshiped in various forms: as Maha Siva, the mighty God, as Jagesvera, the god of the universe and as Pashupati, the lord of all animals—though these are just a few of the names that define his multiple aspects. Among his various rupas, he is famously known for his benign and loving nature, easy to please and granting people’s wishes.

The worship of Siva predates the current calendar and much evidence has been found of his being worshiped before the 10th century BCE in the area around the Indus River, currently in the countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the areas of Kashmir and Punjab in India. Legends tell how he visited Nepal with his consort Parvati, and were so mesmerized by the beauty of the place that they transformed themselves into deer. In this way they would be unrecognizable and stay undisturbed. Archaeological history dates the worship of Lord Siva to the Lichhavi period (5th-9th CE) and beyond. We have many inscriptions of this period revering the lord and the giving of numerous donations in cash and kind in the name of the god, by kings, queens and aristocrats and sometimes even trade leaders.

Kings have taken various titles in the name of Lord Pashupati and issued coins in the name of the god, which leaves no doubt that he was the most popular deity during those times. And this acclaim only grew with time, and with the main temple of Pashupatinath in Kathmandu being one of the most important pilgrimage destinations for all followers of Hinduism today. The temple and its huge premises also fall under one of the monuments of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Kathmandu Valley.

Amongst various festivals celebrated in the name of the Lord, Siva-Ratri is one of the most popular in Nepal. By its very name ‘Night of Lord Siva’ the festival is celebrated on the 14th day of the dark fortnight of the Māgha month (February- March), as per the Hindu lunar calendar, or just before the new moon. It is believed that the stars in the northern hemisphere are then at the most optimum positions to help raise a person’s spiritual energy and also that the Shiva principle is most active on this day of the year.

Last year saw over a million devotees and more than 7,000 holy men visit the temple premises and this year the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), the authority that is the caretaker of the tangible and intangible heritages of the temple complex, expects around 5,000 Sadhus and over 1.1 million devotees from across the country and abroad. The PADT is known to have released Rs 1.1 million for accommodation and food for the Sadhus, these holy men visiting the temple on the occasion of Siva-ratri.

As can be seen by the data provided above on the number of devotees, the PADT spend a lot of resources on the management of this festival. Their main concern is to provide safe and easy access for devotees to pay veneration to the deity together while maintaining discipline and order amongst the huge crowd, without compromising the security of the devotes and the temple premises.

The colorful attire of the devotees and as well as their offerings are a feast for the eye, and another area of interest are the holy men or Sadhus, their body covered in ashes, some deep in meditation, some intoxicated by the consumption of marijuana, considered a prasada from the Lord and some engaged in entertaining devotes and visitors. During the 1970s, popularly referred to as the Hippie era, marijuana was legally sold in Nepal, making it a popular hippie destination. The Government freely distributed marijuana to the Sadhus before the 1990s, but after that period it has been considered illegal, however some concession is provided for its consumption on this day only to the holy men, while prohibiting its sales in any form. Despite the changes, most who visit Nepal today are nostalgic for the good times experienced during the 1960-70s.

The festival begins at night, with devotees staying awake, chanting mantras and singing devotional songs to invoke the deity. Firewood is provided to keep everyone warm and also to keep the night bright. In the wee hours of dawn, devotees take a dip in the holy Bagmati River and come to the temple, whose four doors are opened around 4 am. Many followers observe a fast on this day or simply abstain from non-vegetarian food. Even at the household level, any non-vegetarian items are avoided during the whole day out of reverence to Lord Siva. The celebration of the festival begins with swarms of devotees queuing up with special offerings of leaves from the Bel tree, milk, fruits, colorful flowers and incense, amidst captivating music played by a team of traditional musicians who do this on a daily basis.

When asking older members of the community the reason for celebrating this festival, one receives a variety of answers, related to legends and mythologies. It is believed that during the episode of Samundramanthan or the churning of the ocean, the poison that came out of the mouth of Vasuki the serpent, being used as the rope to stir the water, threatened to fall into the ocean and destroy humanity; Shiva came as the savior, consumed it and held it in his throat, a feat that turned his throat blue, thus assuming the name Neelakantha. For this reason, people worship him to pay their respects, acknowledging his heroic deed and showing their gratitude for his saving the universe.

Some tales also mention that it was on this day that Lord Siva and his consort Parvati got married. So married women pray to him for a good married life and for the prosperity of their husband and family, whereas unmarried women pray to him for a good partner. However worshipers of this festival are both men and women, with equal reverence to seek for prosperity and well-being from the Devadideva, the supreme of all deities!

The Pashupati Temple is always thronged by devotees on this day, and the traffic around the whole area is blocked or in some ways managed by the traffic police, with security provided by both the Civil Police and the Nepal Police. Besides the main temple of the Lord, every other temple is equally crowded, by devotees who are unable to go the main shrine of Pashupatinath. It is indeed a commendable joint effort of the PADT, Traffic Police and the Civil and Nepal Police to manage this event with over a million visitors in such a small area!

The author is a scholar in Nepalese culture, with special interest in art & iconography. She can be reached at