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KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Hindu holy man Tarkeshwor Giri sat naked at Nepal's biggest annual religious gathering Monday as throngs of pilgrims sought his blessings at a centuries-old temple in Kathmandu.
Devotees bow before Giri, who has travelled from Rudra Prayag in the northern Indian state of Uttaranchal, and offer him coins, rice and sweets. He places his palm on their heads and paints a streak of ash on their foreheads.
"I do this for the prosperity and welfare of the world," 50-year-old Giri, with ash-smeared body and dreadlocked hair that has not been combed or cut for 20 years, said as he smoked marijuana sitting cross-legged by the side of burning logs.
"We are the Naga army and work for the protection of our Vedic religion," Giri said of the Naga Sadhu sect, who are said to have overcome earthly life and declare themselves "dead."
Hundreds of naked Sadhus like Giri have travelled from neighboring India, alongside others dressed in saffron clothes and those holding tridents, to add religious fervor to the Maha Shivaratri or the great night of Lord Shiva, one of the trinity of Hindu gods.
Some also celebrate the festival as Shiva's wedding night, marking the deity's union with consort Parvati.h
"Lord Shiva is truth and that is beautiful," said devotee Ganga Bista waiting in line to get into the shrine.
One folklore has it that the lord, who fled his Himalayan abodes of Mount Kailash in Tibet, was later found in the form of a golden-horned deer grazing in the Mrigasthali forests close to the sprawling Pashupatinath temple on the outskirts of Kathmandu where the festival is held.
The shrine, a UNESCO heritage site, is located on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River next to the forests where some of the rare deer roam.
Lord Shiva is depicted in sketches as a young man sitting on a tiger skin with a snake garland around his neck.
The festival is marked by the simple rituals of devotees, who ignore pollution in the river to bathe or sprinkle its water over their heads and bodies to wash away their "sins."
Many devotees began queuing outside the temple before dawn, holding marigold garlands, incense sticks, butter lamps and coconut fruits in leafy trays.
Organizers said more than 4,200 police stood guard over crowds expected to top 800,000 people.
Some poured milk from tiny pitchers over the Shiva Linga, or stone phallus, symbol of the virile energy of Lord Shiva, and carried sandal wood paste to take back for relatives.
Hindu holy men, considered the god's attendants sat around the fire with a smell of burning butter lamps and cannabis heavy in the air. The drug is banned in Nepal but the holy men are spared during the festival.
Around 80 percent of Nepal's 26.6 million people are Hindus, many deeply religious. Devotees say the marijuana smoking naked men add to the color of the festival.
"It is a matter of understanding. It is the beauty of our culture. It is okay," said Jagannath Mahato, from Nepal's southern plains standing by Giri's side.
Norwegian tourist Marit Thomasse -- who stood on the pebbles outside the Hindus-only temple watching long lines of devotees -- accepted that entrance was something that should be reserved for believers alone.
"I can understand that. I have to respect the tradition."
Reporting by Gopal Sharma