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.
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.