Makeup as Ritual: The Sadhus of Nepal

August 23, 2011

Living in the Western world, it’s easy to take our participation with cosmetics for granted. Whether we use makeup to smooth and conceal, or to express ourselves loudly à la Gaga, we are using it as an accessory, as status, and as a game. But before the commercial cosmetics industry brought so many expressions to market, face paint was a used as a far more potent symbol of identity.

Few people express this tradition as vividly as the Sadhus of Nepal. The Sanskrit terms sādhu (“good man”) and sādhvī (“good woman”) refer to renunciants who have chosen to live a life apart from or on the edges of society in order to focus on their own spiritual growth. Camped in cloisters around the Pashupatinath temple complex in Khathmandu, these Hindu holy men cover themselves with ash or chalk, and paint their faces in accordance with the deity they have devoted themselves to. The ash represents their death to their worldly life – in fact, many of them are required to attend their own funeral as part of their holy training.

Sadhus have been around for thousands of years and today there are about five million men that are considered to be true Sadhus. (There are also women renunciants, but they mostly live in cloistered communities, not on the streets.) Living without ties to family, social obligations, or worldly wealth, the Sadhus of Nepal nevertheless enjoy a fairly easy life. Because it is thought that their austere practices help burn off their karma and that of the community at large, Sadhus are seen as benefiting society, and are supported by donations from laypeople seeking to share their holiness. They are also allowed to smoke hashish and marijuana, which is illegal for everyone else in Nepal, but is said to help them commune with the god Shiva.

Thanks to these photos by  Lex Linghorn, we can look into the lives of these holy men. Chalk and pigments have replaced the traditional ash, and combined with copious hashish smoking, the face paint and long locks on these guys can make them seem more like P-Funk reggae stars than austere mendicant monks with few earthly possessions. But for the people coming to them to perform religious rituals, these holy men are revered for their devotion to the spiritual realm.

All photos by Lex Linghorn.

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