Sadhus, Nepal

Two Sadhus in Pashupatinah temple, Nepal

A couple of well spaced sadhus in the Pashupatinah temple complex, Kathmandu, Nepal.

There are no sad Sadhus in Nepal

They say that the Himalayas are the Home of the Gods, but that’s not the reason that the Nepal’s Khathmandu valley, at the foot of the Himalayas, is close to heaven for tourists. It’s more because the people are friendly and interesting, the town centres are packed with ornate architecture and medieval religious relics in daily use, souvenirs are unique, the food is eminently edible – especially if you like Indian, Mexican or Italian cuisine – and all of this comes at the right price.

Khathmandu used to be the end of the hippie trail, when restaurants served magic mushroom omelettes all day long and smoke got in your highs, but now, though the hippies have mostly gone the countryside is still high and the prices are still low.

Painted Sadhu with snake and trident, Kathmandu, Nepal

Painted Sadhu with snake and trident, Kathmandu

There are hippie-ish alternatives for foreigners in search of socially interesting and photogenic phenomena – the Sadhus.
Dressed in reds and yellows, with long, unwashed hair coiled on their heads, white lines painted on their foreheads and huge forks in one hand, these wandering, ascetic Hindu monks, like the hippies of the 60’s know how to have a good time in Nepal.

Nepal is a Hindu state but tolerates other religious beliefs.

Buddhism is also popular, perhaps because Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha – was born in western Nepal. Hinduism is curious religion in some respects; you cannot convert to it, you can only be born into it. Hindus believe in a cycle of reincarnation, with the next life depending on karma, the quality of the present life. Nirvana, heaven, the goal of every being, is the end of the life and death cycle, in other words extinction.

Hinduism has a confusing number of gods, who have confusing numbers of arms, legs and heads. Some say that these gods are simply alternative forms of one god, others disagree. Whatever, the five faced, four armed, three eyed Shiva (in one of his less bizarre forms), is, with his elephant headed son Ganesh, the most helpful god in this valley.
Shiva comes in many shapes sizes and forms, sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, and is often represented by a stone linga, a kind of short, thick penis on a female genital platform – a common shrine around Nepal and India.

Life has four stages for the traditional Hindu

1) The dedicated student

2) The family man

3) The retired ‘Forest Dweller’, meditating in a remote area with his wife

4) The travelling, ascetic Sadhu, with no family connections

Some Hindus, however, give up on the ‘crushing burden’ of Hindu life, bypass the first three phases and go straight to the fourth stage, spending their entire adult lives as sadhus. Sadhus, like the gods, come in many styles, but they have some common characteristics:

Most of them follow Shiva. They don’t cut or wash their hair. They are sometimes totally naked, but usually wear a simple, loose cloth, decorated with strings of tulsi beads . They put ash on their heads and bodies, and marks on their foreheads to indicate their religious affiliation. Three white, horizontal stripes means Shiva, while red and white vertical stripes means Vishnu. They carry a brass pot for begging, and some also have a symbol favoured by Shiva – the three pointed spear called a trident. They have no other possessions.

Sadhus practice severe self-discipline, even self-torture on their road to total body control, magical powers and nirvana. They start with celibacy, silence, starvation, and painful body positions. There are recorded instances of sadhus who never lie down or who never stand up, who hold one or both arms permanently over their heads or who stand on one leg.

Some sadhus stretch their penis’ from an early age by hanging weights on them. Over 60cm is not unusual, but the organs no longer function as sex tools at that length, in case you were thought it was a good idea.

Other sadhus sew up their mouths and consume liquids only, some have coconuts or other fruit sewn onto their bodies, or hang from a frame by hooks through their flesh.

But these extreme cases of self-torture are rarely visible in Nepal. The sadhus there are more interested in gain than pain. Life for sadhus in Nepal is too good to be blue.

Firstly they have total freedom – of worship, of movement, of expression, from social and familial responsibility, from want, from fear. They are also freed from the chains of their minds by the constant use of hashish or marijuana, illegal in Nepal but permitted to Shivaites as part of their religion.

Secondly the Khathmandu Valley climate is comfortable, and the local people are tolerant and generous. Tourists too keep the money flowing, paying well for pictures.


Pashupatinath temple, Kathmandu valley, Nepal

Pashupatinath temple photo by Luca Galuzzi.

And finally, the Pashupatinath Temple in the suburbs of Khatmandu is second only to Varanasi as a Hindu religious goal, the end of a long pilgrimage for many Indian sadhus and a big step towards a better next life, or even no life at all so it’s a major draw for sadhus.

Stoned, free and headed for nirvana in Khathmandu. Isn’t that something to smile about?