Sadhus, the dreadlocked holy men usually seen lurking around Hindu temples, are essentially an Indian phenomenon. However, Nepal, the setting for many of the amorous and ascetic exploits of Shiva, the sadhus’ favourite deity, is also one of their favourite stomping grounds. Sadhus are especially common at Pashupatinath, which is rated as one of the subcontinent’s four most important Shaiva pilgrimage sites. During the festival of Shiva Raatri, Pashupatinath hosts a full-scale sadhu convention, with the government laying on free firewood for the festival.
Shaiva sadhus follow Shiva in one of his best-loved and most enigmatic guises: the wild, dishevelled yogin, the master of yoga, who sits motionless atop a Himalayan peak for aeons at a time and whose hair is the source of the mighty Ganga (Ganges) river. Traditionally, sadhus live solitary lives, always on the move, subsisting on alms and owning nothing but what they carry. They bear Shiva’s emblems: the trisul (trident), damaru (two-sided drum), a necklace of furrowed rudraksha seeds, and perhaps a conch shell for blowing haunting calls across the cosmic ocean. Some smear themselves with ashes, symbolizing Shiva’s role as the destroyer, who reduces all things to ash so that creation can begin anew. The trident-shaped tika of Shiva is often painted on their foreheads, although they may employ scores of other tika patterns, each with its own cult affiliation and symbolism.
Sadhus have a curious role model in Shiva, who is both a mountaintop ascetic and the omnipotent god of the phallus. Some, such as the members of the Gorakhnath cult (which has a strong presence at Pashupatinath), follow the tantric “left-hand” path, employing deliberately transgressive practices to free themselves of sensual passions and transcend the illusory physical world. The most notorious of these spiritual exercises is the tying of a heavy stone to the penis, thus destroying the erectile tissues and helping to tame the distractions of sexual desire. Aghoris, the most extreme of the left-hand practitioners, are famed for their cult of death, embracing the forbidden in order to destroy it. Cremation grounds like Pashupatinath are effectively their temples, and they are even rumoured to ingest human flesh – all in pursuit of the liberation of the soul.
Like Shiva, sadhus also make liberal use of intoxicants as a path to spiritual insight. It was Shiva, in fact, who supposedly discovered the transcendental powers of ganja (cannabis), which grows wild throughout hill Nepal. Sadhus usually consume the weed in the form of bhang (a liquid preparation) or charas (hashish, smoked in a vertical clay pipe known as a chilam). With each toke, the holy man intones “Bam Shankar”: “I am Shiva”.