This year, I’m making an effort to celebrate as many Nepali holidays as I can. Each year there are tons of festivities for Maha Shivaratri in Nepal, but if you don’t know where to look, you might miss it. Last year, I only knew about the holiday because small children were blocking my street and demanding money. So, what is the best way to get involved in Maha Shivaratri as a tourist? Here’s everything you need to know…
What is Maha Shivaratri?
Maha Shivaratri translates to the “Great Night of Shiva” or “Night of Lord Shiva.”
Maha Shivaratri is a festival in Hinduism that celebrates Lord Shiva. Depending on where you are, the reason it is celebrated may be different due to different beliefs. When I was in Kathmandu, I asked several locals what the holiday celebrated and they told me that Shivaratri is like Lord Shiva’s birthday. According to folklore, it’s believed that this is the day that Lord Shiva saved the world by drinking blue poison and holding it in his throat. It can also be seen as the day Lord Shiva was married to Shakti making it a day to celebrate love.
Locals in Kathmandu believe the weather will always be gloomy, cold and rainy on Shivaratri. The day marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. It’s said that flowers will begin to bloom the very next day as if the earth has been blessed. This held true this year when Shivaratri was in fact cold and gloomy. It hadn’t rained in over a week and dust was at its worst in Kathmandu. In the evening it rained, and the very next day was beautiful. The sky was clear, the sun shined, dust settled, and flowers did in fact bloom.
Who is Lord Shiva?
In Hinduism, there are three major gods who take multiple forms. Brahma is the creator. Vishnu is the preserver, and Shiva is the god of destruction. In the western world, we may wonder why people would worship the god of destruction, but destruction is not always viewed as bad in Hinduism. He can be the god who destroys the obstacles in your path. He could destroy your ignorance. And, at the end of the day, yes, he could be seen a bit like the grim reaper. The god who meets you at the holy gates.
Why is Pashupatinath Temple important on this day?
Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Pashupatinath is the location where Hindus are cremated in open air cremations along the holy Bagmati River which flows into the Ganges River in India. It’s considered one of the holiest temples in the world for Hindus, and this is a popular place to worship Shiva. Therefore, thousands of sadhus (holy men) walk to Kathmandu from all over Nepal and India as a pilgrimage during Maha Shivaratri.
When is Maha Shivaratri celebrated?
How do locals celebrate Maha Shivaratri in Nepal?
Locals celebrate Maha Shivaratri in a myriad of ways. Adults who are extremely devoted to Lord Shiva will participate in parades, chanting, singing, and will even fast for the day while making offerings to the god. Women who fast (don’t eat) are often praying for good health for their husbands and those who are single are praying to find a good husband. This coincides with the belief that Maha Shivaratri celebrates the wedding day of Lord Shiva. Many Hindus will visit Pashupatinath Temple during the week of Shivaratri to please Lord Shiva and pray.
Those who are less traditional/religious will have bon fires throughout the city with music, chanting, and dance. Lord Shiva was known for smoking weed, so many will indulge in getting high on this day. It’s important to note that pot is illegal in Nepal and those who partake in the festivities should do so with caution. It’s said that police don’t normally bother people smoking on Shivaratri, however this year they confiscated weed from many holy men at Pashupatinath Temple.
While adults spend the day praying, children get to have a lot of fun on Shivaratri. In Nepal, many will be seen on the sides of roads holding a small rope and blocking the way. They hold up traffic and demand money from the drivers. It reminds me a bit of trick or treating at Halloween. After they collect enough money, the kids go and buy sweets to enjoy in the evening. You may also see children singing or dancing at local restaurants to collect money.
How can you get involved in the festivities?
The best way to get involved in the festivities is to visit Pashupatinath Temple on Shivaratri or the days leading up to it. Baba’s and Sadhu’s (holy men) come from all over the world. Some claim to have special abilities, and some show up naked. It’s quite the spectacle. It’s also one of the most beautiful times to visit the temple as it’s decorated with millions of flowers. The bright colors of the marigold and fabric draped over the temples is truly stunning.
Tips for tourists…
Money: Bring small notes with you when you are walking around. While children may not expect tourists to participate in the festivities, it is fun to join in and give change if you get stopped in a taxi or if the kids come and sing for you. Typically, the kids expect anywhere between 5 and 20 rupees (5-20 cents USD). We saw a large group sing and I gave them a 100 rupee note ($1). They came and shook our hands to say thanks as that seemed to be a large amount.
Negotiate: Negotiate with Baba’s and Sadhu’s before taking their photo at Pashupatinath Temple. While these men may be considered “holy,” they expect a pretty penny for their photos. Some demand as much a $10 USD for a picture! Make sure to ask before taking their pictures and hand the money over first so there is no confusion. Otherwise, you may be surprised when they charge a very high amount after the photo has already been taken.
Drugs: Be careful smoking weed in public. While most people won’t bother you on Shivaratri, it is against the law to smoke pot in Nepal. Make sure to avoid public places and police officers.
Have any questions about celebrating Maha Shivaratri in Nepal? Ask me in the comments!
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.