Maha Shivaratri or “Great Night of Shiva” is an annual Hindu celebration dedicated to the god Shiva, destroyer of evil, unusually solemn with all night prayers dedicated to overcoming darkness in life. In Nepal hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flock to Pashputinath.
Pashputhinath, sitting on the banks of the Bagmati River, is one of the most sacred temples in Hinduism and the oldest in Kathmandu. It’s a large complex containing the main temple itself, in which non-Hindus are not allowed, along with many smaller temples and shrines and the cremation ghats on the river bank.
I walked from Thamel towards Pashputinath. The closer I got the thicker the crowds became, ending up in an enormous throng outside the temple complex. The main road was a swarm of people, closed to traffic for the day. The queue to enter the temple itself was a snaking mass stretching for hundreds of metres outside of the complex, let alone within it. Every time the queue moved there would be a rush to not let any gaps develop.
The road was in festival mode with pop-up shops everywhere, essentially just a sheet on the ground, selling all sorts from clothes and hats to handbags, flip flops, mobile accessories, and shoes accompanied to cries of “Tin se pachas! Tin se pachase!” (350 rupees, roughly the equivalent of £2.80 for a pair of trainers). There were candy floss vendors, pani puri stalls, dhal bhat kitchens along with snack and fruit-laden bicycles plying their wares.
Around the edges of all this was the inescapable presence of the police guarding every entrance, wielding their lathis (wooden sticks) to anyone who did not keep in line, dressed in full riot gear with shields yelling at the crowds. Yet still there were people climbing over fences and wading across the filthy river to get to the temple complex. It appeared as if you couldn’t get in for love nor money. However, for money, you could. There was no queue at the “tourist gate”, which I came to by accident in my wanderings, and for a fee one is allowed access to the complex.
It was still a crush to try to get through the crowds towards the ghats where the aarti – a nightly offering of light to the Gods – would be held. Several of us foreigners were being ushered through to a disgruntled comment of “The tourist card”. When I finally made it through there was a sea of red-clad ladies, red being the most auspicious colour, at the front of the aarti stage offering money to the deities when the microphone chirped into life and everyone was welcomed by the chant of “Om shanti, om shanti, om shanti”, an invocation of peace in body, spirit and mind.
Despite this being a solemn occasion, the crowds were overwhelming and eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. I tried to leave and it was chaos; a heaving mass of bodies trying to fit into spaces that weren’t there and through doorways too narrow with people fighting to get in and people fighting to get out. People seemed to be enjoying the swaying, seething mob, rushing forwards then pushing backwards, squeezed together. I finally forced my way out of the complex, from one chaotic crowd into another. The main road had now opened to traffic so not only were we fighting each other for space, but now we were fighting cars, buses and motorbikes until I finally broke free.