It was the night before a new moon, and a rotating palette of color, reflecting off the buildings, floated like a halo in the mist. Silhouettes of cows dotted my periphery, accompanied by the gentle rustle of their grazing on the riverbank.
As I approached the center of the complex, the crowds pressed closer together, filling every inch of the paths and ghats, a term for stairways in the Indian subcontinent, lining the sacred Bagmati River. Those who weren’t huddled under umbrellas or shielded by plastic bags seemed content enough to stick it out in the rain.
The scents of burning wood, marijuana and incense filled the air — as did the spiced smoke of corpses being cremated on the far side of the river. Rhythmic claps and chimes bounced around the temple walls, in tandem with the evening prayer playing over the loudspeaker.
I was experiencing the sensory abundance of Maha Shivaratri, the Great Night of Shiva.
Every year, thousands of celebrants gather at Pashupatinath in honor of Shiva, one of Hinduism’s three most revered gods. The festival commemorates the wedding night of Shiva and Parvati, a Hindu goddess. According to the Linga Purana, a sacred Hindu text, it also marks the day that Shiva took the form of the lingam, an object — often viewed in the West as a phallic symbol — that is typically found in temples and that represents the god’s infinite existence.
Attendees of Maha Shivaratri mark the holy festival with a range of prayers and rituals. Devotees begin bathing in the river at sunrise, and descend the ghats throughout the day to be cleansed. A puja, or worship ritual, is performed every three hours on the Shiva lingam by bathing it with water, milk and honey alongside offerings of fruit, sandalwood paste and incense. “Om Namah Shivaya,” the sacred mantra of Shiva, echoes through the temple complex to invoke the inner consciousness and invite clarity and prosperity. Practicing Hindus enter the main temple, which is lined with shoes that visitors have removed, to be blessed by the temple priests. Some participants observe a fast, while others aim to stay awake all through the night.
As a holy offering to Shiva, Sadhus — Hindu holy men who wear saffron-colored clothing (or, occasionally, none at all) — smoke marijuana out of chillums, or traditional clay pipes, sharing with those around them.
When I attended the festival, in February 2020, a participant dressed as Kali, the Hindu mother goddess often depicted with wild hair and a necklace of skulls, walked around the temple grounds with an outstretched tongue, bulging eyes and four arms. She brushed passers-by with a bundle of peacock feathers, inviting them to place monetary offerings onto her platter.
But as is often the case with festivals that attract visitors from around the world, there were also people who came purely for the spectacle, or to enjoy time with family and friends in a magnificent — even mystical — setting.
Looking back on these photographs, as the world is still grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, I find that the visual splendor is less striking than the sight of the crowds in such proximity.
Maha Shivaratri would be the last large-scale event that I — and surely thousands of the other participants — would attend before the virus’s spread around the globe.
But at the time, proximity wasn’t yet a concern. Many of us bumped and nudged our ways through the dense crowds. Strangers seated together in a small temple, we sat shoulder to shoulder, passed around a shared chillum and thoughtlessly shared the air.
Pashupatinath is regularly used as a cremation site, but the day of Maha Shivaratri is a particularly auspicious time for Hindus to pass on to the next life.
Earlier in the evening, families had dipped the toes and washed the bodies of their deceased loved ones — dressed in orange and marigold — with the holy water of the Bagmati River.
Now, as I left the temple, the air turning brisk as the collective heat of all the close bodies gave way to the cool air, I caught sight of five lit pyres, their orange flames set against the dark night sky.