… It’s a Celebration! (Part One)

People joke that there are more holidays and festivals in Nepal than there are days in the year, and it certainly felt that way this week. With the Hindu Maha Shivaratri on Tuesday and the Buddhist Tibetan Losar (New Year) on Thursday (see Part Two), we stayed very busy! Didn’t get much actual WORK done this week, but hey – we sure did have fun!

Before moving on, a few notes about holidays in Kathmandu from this foreigner’s viewpoint:

1) It seems nearly impossible to pin down dates. As most holidays in Nepal take place according to various astrological events (the second full moon on the fifth month of yadda yadda according to the yadda yadda calendar, etc. etc.), most holidays shift from year to year. Generally, you can only pin down a month or two in which the holiday normally falls with any degree of certainty – i.e. “Tibetan New Year usually falls in January or February.” Hours of internet research will leave you with conflicting dates, a whole slew of names for what turns out to be the same holiday, several different explanations for the origin of the holidays, and well… a lot of confusion. (Not to mention that, apparently, the government sometimes sets national holiday dates and then just changes them. You know… because. Sigh.)

2) With all that in mind, the best way to find out about holidays is by word of mouth. If a local tells you something will be happening on XYZ day, go with it. Show up and bring your camera. BUT don’t expect everyone to know about any given holiday. As I’ve mentioned before, Nepal is a very ethnically/culturally diverse place, and not everyone celebrates all the same holidays.  In my experience, most folks don’t seem to know much about the holidays they themselves do not celebrate, so it helps to get information straight from the source if you can.

3) The second best way to find out about holidays and festivals is pure dumb luck. You just happen to be in the right place at the right time, and – BAM! – you’re in the midst of a celebration. I absolutely love this about Kathmandu, but I admit that it also makes me a little crazy because, of course, dumb luck works both ways.  Sometimes you are lucky and sometimes… you’re not. There’s nothing worse than only hearing about the elephants who were parading through the tiny streets surrounding your studio for some sort of celebration or only hearing about the helicopter that hovered above Krishna’s temple in the town square (literally right outside your studio building) in order to drop orange marigold petals from the sky on Valentine’s Day.  (Yes, these are true stories told to me by the lucky friends who actually witnessed these events). It can be maddening, indeed – if only there was a reliable and accurate source of information for these events, I’d make it my business to BE THERE, dammit! Sigh. (Maybe there is this magic source of information that I haven’t found yet? If you know the secret, please tell me!)

Ah well. Frustrations aside, I’ll tell you about what I actually DID get to do and see this week. But please note that, given everything I’ve shared above, I tend not to have a lot of detailed information about these celebrations. I’m not always sure what I’m looking at or what it means, and the internet doesn’t always answer my questions. (Or, I can’t be sure that it’s answering them accurately, anyway). And language barriers being what they are, I generally don’t get very long or complex answers from the folks I ask in the midst of these festivals, so please forgive me for any inaccurate or incomplete information.

And so. Without further ado… Shivaratri.

Somehow, late last week I got word about the upcoming Maha Shivaratri festival on Tuesday (the most holy of 12 Shivaratri festivals each year, I believe), and I was told that the best place to go see the festivities was the Pashupatinath temple.  Worshipers, sadhus, pilgrims from India, and all kinds of people spend the entire day and night there (several days, even?), offering puja, dancing, waiting in line for the main temple, milling about the temple grounds, talking, eating, etc.

And then, of course, there’s the pot smoking. Lord Shiva was all about smoking weed, apparently, and so many people -although not all- follow suit on this special day. Some young Nepali college students we met there told us, “This is the one day and one place where smoking marijuana is legal in Nepal,” with big grins on their faces… but more about them and Pashupatinath later.

There are also other, smaller, celebrations throughout the city, in smaller temples, town squares, and outside people’s homes throughout the day and night.  I found a traditional band and Lord Shiva worshipers at Krishna’s temple in Patan Durbar Square on my way to the studio that day… (Yeah – it confuses me too. Krishna’s temple on Shivaratri? I asked a woman there if these celebrations were for Shivaratri or perhaps another holiday, but she answered Shivaratri, so what do I know?)…

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Love these horns!

Love these horns!

Dressed in their best for Shivaratri...

Dressed in their best for Shivaratri…

There was also a lovely horse-drawn carriage in the Square that was somehow connected to this whole scene, but alas, I don’t know for what reason exactly…

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The nightly wintertime street bonfires were especially big on the night of Shivaratri, a festive mood hanging in the air. Here’s some evidence of such a fire the following day…

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Another notable aspect of Shivaratri is the Shiva Lingam, which represents… well… ummm… the phallus. It is combined with the yoni, a symbol for female creative energy, and together they represent the “indivisible two-in-oneness of male and female, the passive space and active time from which all life originates.” (Although even this interpretation seems to be in dispute, so again, what do I know?)….

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Puja on the lingam for Shivaratri...

Puja on the lingam for Shivaratri…

And then, of course, there’s the opportunity for young children to extort money from strangers! Say what? Yeah, you read that correctly. It’s all pretty cute, actually. Kids work together in groups all over the city during Shivaratri, holding ropes and wires across small streets forcing travelers, on wheels and feet alike, to stop and pay their way through the ‘barrier.’ There’s no set amount, of course – pay what you like (or don’t, as I witnessed several Scrooge’s doing), although you will likely hear about it if you’re stingy. “Only 1 rupee!?” they’ll say indignantly. But what can I say? It IS a great way to get rid of the coins you get here, which are essentially worthless and just pile up in your change purse. 100 rupees is equivalent to about $1 right now, so you can imagine how it’s not so easy to use those 1 rupee coins on a daily basis…

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Note the kiddo in the blue sweatshirt holding money in his hand - what a sense of triumph, indeed!

Note the kiddo in the foreground holding money in his hand – what a sense of triumph!

Although the children seemed to stop (or attempt to stop) all of the Nepali folks they encountered, their approach to me, a bideshi (foreigner), was varied. Some groups seemed to avoid interacting with me (maybe they thought I wouldn’t understand the tradition?), while others seemed to think, “Hey look! Bideshi – big money, get her!” These guys definitely adhered to the latter school of thought. I traded them 5 rupees for safe passage and this photo…

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Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make it to Pashupatinath during the daytime, as my first Nepali language lesson was that afternoon (more on language-learning adventures in a future post), so we arrived in the evening, when there was a decidedly more party-like vibe in the air…

A lighted gate at one of the temple ground's entrances...

A lighted gate at one of the temple ground’s entrances…

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It felt more like a state fair than a religious celebration to me, but that could certainly be a function of the time of day we were there. And the decorations. These animated light boards leading to the main temple area were pretty great (and strange) – winged goddesses, cranes, a Halloween-esque skeleton smoking a joint, and more. Ummm… okay. Sure. Why not?

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Getting into the main temple area was a challenge. The newspapers here estimate that approximately 1 million people showed up to Pashupatinath throughout the course of the day, so you know… it was crowded. (Please forgive my blurry pictures – I’m currently using my back-up camera, as my best camera broke within a few days of being here, and the back-up is terrible in low-light situations)…

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I’ve never been in a crowd like this – quite literally a sea of humanity, if you will – and it was definitely intense at times. I was a bit worried about being crushed, to be honest. We stepped up onto higher ground to get some relief and snap a few photos, when out of the crowd our saviors arrived, shouting “Hey! Take our picture! Take our picture!”

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That done, they then began shouting, “Come with us! Come with us!,” and so… we did. They seemed to know what they were doing, and they really were experts at navigating the enormous crowd. They got us through (safely) in no time. Phew. That friendly Nepali spirit saves you every time!

We spent a good chunk of the evening hanging out with these young men, talking about Shivaratri, their studies at a local engineering college, movies, their aspirations for traveling abroad, what they do for fun, and more. They were really quite sweet, and I’m so glad that they took us under their wing…

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The rest of the evening was spent wandering around, taking in the sights and people watching…

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Photo shoots galore...

Photo shoots galore…

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This is the main temple where, as non-Hindus, we were not permitted to go. But really, I wasn’t too sad about that, as the line to get in was unbelievably long. It stretched throughout the temple grounds, and was probably close to a mile long, no exaggeration! I heard estimates (rumors?) that people waited in line from 5 hours all the way up to 24 hours! And apparently, you get just a few seconds in the temple before you’re pushed through to make way for all the other patiently waiting devotees…

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Just a small fraction of the insane line...

Just a small fraction of the line to get into the temple…

With all that said, it certainly seemed that the REAL party was inside the main temple and its courtyard. Music and singing drifted across the river to us and you could see bodies bouncing around as people shouted and danced. Check out this SHORT VIDEO to get an idea of what I mean.

The line stretching past a Shiva Lingam...

The line for the temple stretching past a Shiva Lingam…

Puja on the lingam - it takes many forms! Food, incense, flowers, money, pigments, and more...

Puja on the lingam… It takes many forms – food, incense, flowers, money, pigments, and more.

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After we’d had enough of the festivities, we made our way out of the temple grounds. (Luckily, the way out was significantly less crowded than the way in!) Just before the exit, we walked past what must be the world’s largest Shiva Lingam…

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I was sad to miss spending some time at Pashupatinath during the day – one of my friend’s pictures make it seem like almost an entirely different scene. I’ll have to make a point to get there during daylight hours next year. (NEXT YEAR! Isn’t it cool that I can say that?!) Happy Shivaratri to all, and to all a good night!

Learn about our Tibetan Losar (New Year) celebrations in Part Two

2 thoughts on “… It’s a Celebration! (Part One)

  1. Pingback: … Let’s Celebrate, It’s Alright (Part Two) | Home is Where the Hair Is

  2. Pingback: Holy Holi! | Home is Where the Hair Is

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