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Maha Shivaratri: An Intimate Look At This Year's Hindu Festival In Nepal

Inside the festival in Nepal where smoking weed is holy

Thousands of men from India and Nepal gathered last month to smoke marijuana, smear their bodies with colorful ash and offer prayers to the Hindu Deity, Lord Shiva.

Mar 13, 2018 - Rob Hoffman

A Sadhu or holy man applies color on his forehead while getting ready during Maha Shivaratri festival inside Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal on Tuesday, February 13, 2018. Thousands of sadhus from India and Nepal come to celebrate the festival of Maha Shivaratri by smoking marijuana, smearing their bodies with ash and offering prayers devoted to the Hindu Deity Lord Shiva. Photo by Skanda Gautam

Maha Shivaratri: An Intimate Look At This Year's Hindu Festival In Nepal

A Sadhu or holy man applies color on his forehead while getting ready during Maha Shivaratri festival inside Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal on Tuesday, February 13, 2018. Thousands of sadhus from India and Nepal come to celebrate the festival of Maha Shivaratri by smoking marijuana, smearing their bodies with ash and offering prayers devoted to the Hindu Deity Lord Shiva. Photo by Skanda Gautam

Every year, on the new moon of the 11th month in the Hindu calendar, Maagha, many followers of Hinduism will coat their bodies in colorful ash, say prayers, perform Yoga, fast, reflect and…smoke marijuana. Skanda Gautam, a photojournalist for The Himalayan Times Daily newspaper, captured the annual festival, known as Maha Shivaratri, in Nepal where, even though cannabis is illegal, holy men are permitted to smoke it as part of the religious ceremony.

Maha Shivaratri, a celebration of the Hindu god Shiva is observed by Hindus living in a number of countries around the world. In addition to Nepal, the countries that celebrate Maha Shivaratri include Bangladesh, India, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana. But in Nepal, the celebration centers around the Pashupatinath temple. Music, body art, religious ceremonies and dance are all important parts of the festivities. So is reflection on desirable virtues, like honesty and forgiveness.

The origin stories of Maha Shivaratri vary from source to source. Some tell tales of Shiva saving the world from imminent destruction. Others talk of Shiva granting a patient but luckless hunter the wisdom to stop eating meat. Others simply claim that the new moon of Maagha was the deity’s favorite day of the year. Legend also has it that the Hindu god smoked cannabis in the forests near his temple.

58W3979 Inside the festival in Nepal where smoking weed is holy
A Hindu Sadhu or holy man smokes marijuana placed in a chillum inside the Pashupatinath Temple premise in Kathmandu, Nepal on Sunday, March 6, 16. Holy men from India and Nepal come to celebrate the festival of Maha Shivaratri by smoking marijuana, smearing their bodies with ash, offering prayers devoted to the Hindu Deity, Lord Shiva. Photo by Skanda Gautam

One of the most well-known stories involves Shiva ingesting a pot of poison that was so deadly that its very existence jeopardized all life on earth. After consuming the poison, the story goes, Shiva’s skin turned a pale blue. 

Some men and women will dye their skin blue on Maha Shivaratri to honor Shiva’s sacrifice. Others will dress as believed-incarnations of Shiva, like Hanuman, another central figure in Hindu mythology.

While this year’s festival happened on Monday, February 18th, Maha Shivaratri falls on a different day every year, corresponding with the new moon. The celebration lasts between three and ten days, depending on the year.

KAN1783 Inside the festival in Nepal where smoking weed is holy
A Sadhu displays his beard on the eve of the Maha Shivaratri festival inside Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal on Monday, February 12, 2018. Thousands of sadhus from India and Nepal come to celebrate the festival of Maha Shivaratri by smoking marijuana, smearing their bodies with ash and offering prayers devoted to the Hindu Deity Lord Shiva. Photo by Skanda Gautam
58W2318 Inside the festival in Nepal where smoking weed is holy
A Sadhu or holy man looks at a pocket mirror while getting ready during Maha Shivaratri festival inside Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal on Tuesday, February 13, 2018. Photo by Skanda Gautam
KAN2019 Inside the festival in Nepal where smoking weed is holy
A person dressed as Lord Hanuman looks on during Maha Shivaratri festival inside Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal on Tuesday, February 13, 2018. Photo by Skanda Gautam
58W8377 Inside the festival in Nepal where smoking weed is holy
A Sadhu takes shade under an umbrella on the eve of the Maha Shivaratri festival at Pashupatinath Temple premise in Kathmandu, Nepal on Thursday, February 23, 2017. Photo by Skanda Gautam
58W2099 Inside the festival in Nepal where smoking weed is holy
A Sadhu, who is considered holy, smokes marijuana from a chillum on the eve of the Maha Shivaratri festival inside Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal on Monday, February 12, 2018. Photo by Skanda Gautam
58W4384 Inside the festival in Nepal where smoking weed is holy
A Hindu Sadhu or holy man smokes marijuana in a chillum inside the Pashupatinath Temple premise in Kathmandu, Nepal on Monday, March 7, 2016. Photo by Skanda Gautam
58W4170 Inside the festival in Nepal where smoking weed is holy
A Hindu Sadhu or holy man smokes marijuana placed in a chillum inside the Pashupatinath Temple premise in Kathmandu, Nepal on Sunday, March 6, 2016. Photo by Skanda Gautam
KAN1772 Inside the festival in Nepal where smoking weed is holy
A Sadhu, who is considered holy, keeps himself warm in firewood on the eve of the Maha Shivaratri festival inside Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal on Monday, February 12, 2018. Photo by Skanda Gautam

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