Every year between late February and early March, Maha Shivaratri—or the Great Night of Shiva—is celebrated all over India and Nepal.
As the name suggests, it’s a celebration dedicated to Shiva the destroyer, one of the three gods of the Trimurti, or triple supreme deities of Hinduism. During Maha Shivaratri, Kathmandu is filled with worshippers. Countless Hinduists make the pilgrimage to Nepal’s capital to visit the Pashupatinath Temple, one of the most important religious sites for devotees of Shiva, and bring offerings of flowers and fruits in hopes of being blessed with an auspicious year.
Skanda Gautam is a Nepalese photojournalist, who, for the past six years, has taken to the streets of Kathmandu with camera in hand to capture the celebrations. “One of the toughest things about shooting Maha Shivaratri is how crowded it gets,” he says. “I try to get my shots on the eve of the festival or in the early morning before the temple-goers come out in droves.” And amidst the hustle and bustle of these religious festivities, he’s decided to train his camera on one specific subject: the sadhus.
Sadhus are holy men who typically live in seclusion, but during Maha Shivaratri, they show up to attend the festivities. With faces decorated in ash and saffron-colored paint, the sadhus are practitioners of asceticism who seek to attain moksha, freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth. Many sadhus openly smoke cannabis during the festival, as the government temporarily lifts a ban on the drug for its use in ascetic rituals. Shiva himself is said to have smoked the drug, and some of his devotees believe it helps them achieve a higher spirituality. Gautam’s portraits offer an intimate look at these sages, their unwavering religious devotion, and the vibrant colors of Nepalese traditions.