Maha Shivaratri: the sacred night of Lord Shiva

Shiva Ratri, literally meaning "the night dedicated to Shiva", is one of the most important festivals of the Hindu calendar. It is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the waning moon in February or in some years early March (20 February in 2012) in all Shiva temples but the main place for this festival is the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu. At this day as much as 100 000 worshippers pass through the temple gates. Thousands and thousands of pilgrims come here from all over Nepal and India.

Many devotees commence their 24-hour fast before dawn on Shiva Ratri day. Everyone brings something to the Linga: the poor - holy water to splash over it; the wealthy - costly gifts; many give bitter margosa tree leaves. In return the Brahman priest smudges the pilgrim's forehead with tika, a mixture of blessed coloured powder, rice, flower petals and holy water, which signifies the pilgrim's act of union with Shiva.

There are many sadhus in the Pashupatinath area at this day. They are almost naked, covered with ashes, with dreads on their heads and rudraksha beads on their chests. They sit in meditation, smoke ganja (marijuana) or talk quietly to each others.

However, many young guys come, it seems, just to hang out in the crowd, to see the sadhus, to smoke bought from them ganja, to drink and dance. Interestingly, some drunken/stoned fans of Lord Shiva, all of them men, gather in groups of 15-20 people, invite a hijra (eunuch) and then dance around him and sing songs. I do not know whether the hijra is supposed to represent a woman for more fun or he's there simply to attract good luck, which is more likely in my opinion.

Those who did not go to the temple or have returned, have something interesting to see as well - on the main field of Kathmandu (Tundikhel) on this day the military performance is shown and antique guns are fired.

By the end of the day, when darkness sets in, thousands of lamps are lit inside the temple compound. Bonfires are lit on the nearby hills and on the cross roads. Prayers, singing and chanting of mantras continue all through the night. Many take holy baths in the Bagmati river and return to the temple every three hours with offerings and prayer.

The Linga-Purana text says: "Those who fast on the fourteenth day of the moon in February (Shiva Ratri) in honour of my lingam, and those who that night do puja and present me with leaves of the margosa shall be certain of a place in Kailas." These are the words of Lord Shiva himself. And devotees believe him.

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