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Photo Essay : Pilgrims Drawn to Shiva Rites in Nepal

March 08, 1994|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | Times staff writer

In the mountain kingdom of Nepal, pilgrims are gathering for Thursday's annual celebration of Shivaratri--the Night of Lord Shiva--a festival of devotion to one of the most complex and perplexing of Hindu gods. It is the most famous religious event in Nepal, where 90% of the 18 million people are Hindu.

The focus is the temple of Pashupatinath, which sits on the sacred Bagmati river outside Katmandu, the Nepalese capital. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims will gather at the temple, whose two-tiered golden roof and silver doors make it one of the country's most spectacular examples of sacred architecture. They offer flowers, fruit and coins to Shiva and chant Hindu prayers. Among them will be a large number of ascetics--ash-smeared sadhus , wandering holy men. On Thursday, the celebration will move from pious devotion to a modern aspect, when the Royal Nepalese Army, in the presence of King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, the 10th monarch of the present dynasty, puts on a military review, including cannon fire.

The revered and feared three-eyed Shiva, who Hindus believe created the world and is said to dwell with his consort Parvati on a mountaintop in the Himalayas, combines a number of contradictory qualities. He is both the destroyer and the restorer, an epicure and an ascetic. Fittingly, he is sometimes represented as the androgynous union of himself and his consort in one body, half male and half female.

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