A Hindu holy man, or sadhu, smokes marijuana on a chillum at the premises of Pashupatinath Temple during the Shivaratri festival in Kathmandu.

Police in Nepal said on Monday they had cracked down on members of the public using cannabis at a major Hindu festival where the drug is smoked legally by thousands of holy men to honour a Hindu god.

The wandering mystics - known as sadhus - use an ancient legal loophole to smoke marijuana during a night of celebrations in honour of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, but ordinary Nepalis are not permitted to join them.

“We have arrested 70 people including dozens of youths who took excessive marijuana. We have not arrested any sadhus,” said Nepal police spokesman Dhiraj Pratap Shah.

Thousands of pilgrims travel to the Pashupatinath temple complex in Kathmandu every year from all over Nepal and India to mark the Shivaratri festival.

At one time the government used to provide marijuana for the occasion, but authorities decided last year to begin enforcing a ban on sadhus selling the drug because of complaints they were dealing to local people.

“The Pashupati Area Development Trust has allowed the sadhus to use the drugs only for themselves,” Pratap told AFP.

He said 4 500 officers, 1 800 of them armed, and 200 detectives in plain clothes were deployed to maintain law and order inside the temple.

Sadhus, who renounce all worldly possessions and usually live in caves or temples, have been coming to Kathmandu for hundreds of years to celebrate the festival.

They mark it by smoking cannabis because Hindu mythology suggests Shiva himself enjoyed the drug.

Shivaratri is a public holiday in India and Nepal, where all government offices and schools are shut for the day.

Huge camps are set up to accommodate the visiting sadhus, many of whom arrive weeks ahead of the celebrations. - Sapa-AFP