Maha Shivaratri is one of the most revered Hindu festivals celebrated once a year as the night of Shiva, the Lord of Destruction. It is celebrated with great vigour and devotion in India, Nepal and across all Hindu communities worldwide. The uniqueness of this festival lies in observing 'jagaran' at night as the best time to perform the puja is at 'Nishita Kala' that is at night contrary to most other Hindu festivals that are celebrated during day time. Devotees keep fast all day, chant 'Om Namah Shiva', perform rituals and offer special puja to get blessings from Lord Shiva.
When is Maha Shivaratri Celebrated?
Maha Shivaratri falls in the period of fading moon or on dark half of the month of Phagun of the Hindu calendar on Krishna Paksha Chaturdashi that is the moonless fourteenth night of the new moon. It coincides with a moonless night of February/March. According to Hindu mythology Lord Shiva performed the divine dance, 'Tandava Nritya' on that night depicting 'Srishti' that is creation; 'Sthiti' that is preservation; and 'Samhara' that is vinasha or destruction. The special puja of Lord Shiva is performed at 'Nishita Kala' that is at night time as according to legends it is at this half of the day when Lord Shiva manifested in the form of a Lingodbhava or a Linga.
Legends Associated with Maha Shivaratri
Maha Shivaratri celebration is associated with several legendary stories. While some say that it is on this auspicious day Lord Shiva got married to Goddess Parvati and others hold that the day marks the famous divine dance, 'Tandava Nritya' of Lord Shiva depicting 'Srishti' (creation), 'Sthiti' (preservation) and 'Samhara' (destruction). It is also believed that on this day Lord Shiva got united with Shakti. According to a legend in Linga Purana this day marks the emergence of Lord Shiva in the form of Lingodbhava or a Linga.
According to another legend it is on this day Lord Shiva saved the universe from devastation by consuming poison that emerged when both the Devas and Asuras churned the ocean, an act popularly known as 'Samudra Manthan', to get 'Amrita' or the nectar, consuming which they would become immortal.
Yet another legend says that following the creation of Earth once Goddess Parvati asked Lord Shiva about his most preferred day when he gets pleased with the pujas and rituals performed by his devotees. To this Lord Shiva mentioned that his favourite day is the moonless fourteenth night of the new moon of the month of Phagun. Goddess Parvati informed her acquaintances about this conversation which gradually spread to all mankind and since then devotees celebrate this day in the honour of Lord Shiva.
A legendary story in Garuda Purana mentions about King Chitrabhanu of the Ikshvaku dynasty. One day a wise man saw the King and his wife keeping a fast. Upon enquiring the King narrated him a part of his previous life. Chitrabhanu said that he was a hunter called Suswarna from Varanasi in his previous life. One day before he could hunt a deer the thought of the forthcoming agony of the deer's family overwhelmed him and he let the deer live. When night fell and he was left with no catch he climbed up a Bael tree to spend the night. Worrying about his family and distressed with hunger and thirst he spent the whole night awake plucking and throwing the Bael leaves on the ground while water dribbled out of his leaked container. Later while he was in his death bed, Suswarna was surprised that two messengers of Lord Shiva came to escort his soul to the abode of Lord Shiva. He was told that he received such boon as he unknowingly worshipped Lord Shiva on the Lord's favourite day remaining awake all night, keeping fast, dropping Bael leaves and water on the Linga that was seated at the bottom of the Baell tree he took shelter for the night. The King said to the wise man that he remained blessed to live in the abode of Lord Shiva and thus continues to worship the Lord on this special day after being reborn as Chitrabhanu.
Maha Shivaratri Celebration in India - Rituals & Traditions
Maha Shivaratri celebration takes place with great vigour and devotion across India. Devotees wake up early in the morning and conduct the ritual of purification by taking bath preferably in the Holy Ganges otherwise in any other source of holy water and wear new clothes before visiting the Shiva temple. The worshippers observe strict fast since the morning throughout day and night and many even refrain from consuming even a drop of water. However many follow a fruit and milk diet. The devotees visit the Shiva temple and bathe the Linga of Lord Shiva with milk, water and honey among others. They walk around the Linga in circles for around 3 to 7 times and pour milk or water over it. Lord Shiva is worshipped throughout the day and night with the priest conducting one of the most significant rituals of bathing the Shiva Linga with milk, ghee, yoghurt, honey, Ganges water, among others every three hours with all chanting the holy mantra 'Om Namah Shivay'. 'Jaagran' or a night vigil is observed in this auspicious day by the devotees who gather in huge numbers and sing devotional songs and hymns throughout the night in the honour of Lord Shiva. The worshippers break their fast on the next morning by consuming prasad that was offered to Lord Shiva.
It is considered that if Lord Shiva is worshipped with utter devotion and dedication on this auspicious day then one gets released of sins and thus becomes free from the cycle of birth and death.
Maha Shivaratri also holds special significance for women. Lord Shiva is considered as the ideal husband and it is said that if an unmarried girl worships Lord Shiva with full dedication then the Lord blesses her with an ideal husband like him. On the other hand married women worship Lord Shiva for their husband's well-being.
The Shiva Purana manifests worship of Lord Shiva by conducting a 'panchopchar puja' or a 'shodashopachar puja'. While the first one encompasses 5 offerings that represent the 5 elements including Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Ether, the second one consists of 16 offerings.
This festival is celebrated with much fanfare across India. Some of the places need special mention. The town of Mandi in Himachal Pradesh that is considered the 'Cathedral of Temples' comes to life during Maha Shivaratri with thousands of devotees pouring in. Legends say that during this time all the deities assemble here. Ujjain's Mahakaleshwar Temple attracts umpteen numbers of devotees during this festival. The ceremony of 'Sahasrakalasabhishekam', the Ritual of a Thousand Pots is observed in Kerala's Thrikkuratti Mahadeva Temple. The temple observes a ten day ceremony and each day the priests offer holy water in 101 pots including 1 gold pot and 100 silver pots. This tradition is followed maintaining a legend that says Parashurama, considered the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu, and sage Kroshti bathed the idol of the temple with 1000 pots of holy water. Again the Kashmiri Brahmins revere this festival for around 5-6 days, starting from 3-4 days prior to the day of Maha Shivaratri, as the marriage anniversary of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati.