Phalgun Festivals (2)
Don’t expect anything austerely enlightened during Losar the three final days of the old Tibetan year: this is Tantric country. Tibetans and Sherpas have a simple formula of massive boozing and feasting, with fireworks (to chase off the old year’s devils) and ritual throwing of tsampa barley flour (it’s a bread fight – who needs a reason?). Colourful, heavily symbolic ceremonies take place on the morning of the final day, with yellow-hatted lamas gathering en masse around the main stupa at Boudha. Later on, it isn’t too hard to get yourself invited to an evening feast. But if hedonism palls, New Year is a good time to work on that karma, and Boudha is awash with Western-friendly meditation centres and monasteries.
Shivaites veer to the wilder side of Hinduism, particularly within Nepal’s Tantric tradition, and Shivaratri – also known as Mahashivaratri, or Shiva’s Big Night – is the night where they let rip. During the four-day build-up to the main event, and especially on the night itself, the place to be is on the east bank of the Bagmati River.
The paved area facing the ghats (river platforms) is a sort of royal enclosure – though nudity and dreads are more de rigueur than a hat. From the terrace above you can look down on pilgrims massing around the Pashupati temple (it’s closed to non-Hindus), praying and making offerings to the sacred lingam. The devout bathe in the river among thousands of margosa petals. Unless you’re used to it, stay well clear – it’s an open secret that the river is mostly fed by sewers. The worshippers aren’t only ascetics, either, but smart Nepalis in suits and garish topi hats, women dressed head to foot in festive red, and the odd shell-shocked traveller wondering if that was one smoke too far. Around dusk, an interminable gun salute rolls across the city from the king’s celebration at the Tundikhel, in central Kathmandu. Small oil lamps and fires light the woods of Gorakhnath, the hill on the east bank, where saffron- robed sadhus (holy men) and nagas (naked sadhus) camp out on mats, drawing deep on chillum pipes and practicing austerities. The yogis’ freak show would be disturbing anywhere else, but in the middle of Shivaratri it seems fairly cool to coat yourself in ash, lift weights with your penis or stab your flesh with a trisul (trident). Campfires burn all around, and a constant pounding of drums, wailing of flutes and chanting of Shiva’s many names carries in the smoky air. Midnight is the peak of the event, with things quietening down towards dawn, when many of the Indian pilgrims up sticks and head for home. – Nepalis believe that Shivaratri is usually followed by a last blast of Himalayan winter as Shiva’s way of chasing them home.
The much-celebrated colour and water-fights of Holi haven’t worn well. Apart from the final day, when areas of Kathmandu erupt into sporadic battle, there’s little more than a few kids’ bonfires in the streets and giggling schoolboys “Eve teasing” – read harassing – girls. By all means grab a handful of vermilion or a lola balloon and go hunting, but Holi only really hums during the raising and lowering of the chir pole. This twenty-foot expression of virility is raised by a frantic crowd in Basantapur Square (just south of Kathmandu’s Royal Palace) at the beginning of the ceremony. Eight days later (usually around late afternoon – only the astrologers know, and boy are they not telling you), it’s burnt at the Tundikhel parade ground in the centre of town, attended by the army in full-on Gorkhali costume. White-clad, scarlet-stained Newaris, Marwaris and other ethnic groups pray, beat drums, chant, and grab hot ashes with which to bless their homes. Later in the night, the hardcore head down to the strange buffalo sacrifices and burnings at Itum Bahai, deep in old Kathmandu, choosing to ignore the legend that someone disappears at this festival every year, a victim of the demon Guru Mapa.