| Literally 'the great night of Shiva', celebrated
on the moonless night of the month of Phalguna, which is fourteenth day in the
dark half, this festival is specially dedicated to Shiva, the destroyer.
This is an important day for the devotees of Shiva, who stay awake throughout
the night, praying to him. In all major centers of Shivaling worship, Shivaratri,
also called Mahashivaratri, is a grand occasion. From the very early morning,
Shiva temples are flocked by devotees, mostly women, who come to perform the traditional
Shoveling worship and hence hope for favors from the god. All through the day,
devotees abstain from eating food and break their fast only the next morning,
after the nightlong worship. The day is considered to be especially auspicious
for women. According to one myth, Parvati performed tapas, and prayed and meditated
on this day to ward off any evil that may befall her husband on the Moonless night.
Since then, Mahashivaratri is also believed to bean auspicious occasion for women
to pray for the well being of their husbands and sons. An unmarried woman prays
for a husband like Shiva, who is considered to be the ideal husband.
| Devotees bathe at sunrise, preferably in the Ganga,
or any other holy water source (like the Shiva Sagartank at Khajuraho). They offer
prayers to the sun, Vishnu and Shiva. This is a purificatory rite, an important
part of all Hindu festivals. Wearing a clean piece of clothing after the holy
bath, worshippers carry pots of water to the temple to bathe the Shoveling. The
temple reverberates with the sound of bells and shouts of Shankerji ki Jai or
'Hail Shiva'. Devotees circumambulate the linga, three or seven times, and then
pour water over it. Some also pour milk.
According to a legend in the Ramayana, once King Bhagiratha left his kingdom to
mediate for the salvation of the souls of his ancestors. He observed a penance
to Brahma for a thousand years, requesting Ganga to come down to earth from heaven.
He wanted her to wash over his ancestor's ashes to release them from a curse and
allow them to go to heaven. Brahma granted his wish but told him to pray to Shiva,
who alone could sustain the weight of her descent. Accordingly, Ganga descended
on Shiva's head, and after meandering through his thick matted locks, reached
the earth. According to a modified version, what reached the earth was just sprinkles
from his hair. This story is re-enacted by bathing the linga. The love of water,
the primary element of life, is also remembered in this ritualistic action.
The linga is bathed with milk, water and honey. It is then anointed with sandalwood
paste. People offer wood apple or bel leaves and fruit, milk, sandalwood and jujube
fruit to the linga. Shiva is believed to be very hot tempered, and hence things,
which have a cooling effect, are offered to him. People decorate the linga with
flowers and garlands and also offer incense sticks and fruit. In bigger temples,
there is almost a stampede as devotees seek favors from the beloved god. Many
also employ the services of a priest to perform special prayers.
According to the Shiva Purana, the Mahashivaratri worship must incorporate six
items: the ceremonial People offer the cooling bel leaves to the hot-blooded deity
bath representing purification of the soul; the vermilion paste applied on the
linga after bathing it, representing virtue; food offering which is conducive
to longevity and gratification of desires; incense, yielding wealth; the lighting
of the lamp which is conducive to the attainment of knowledge; and betel leaves
marking satisfaction with worldly pleasures. These six items, till today, form
an indispensable part of Maha shivaratri, be it a simple ceremony at home or grand
temple worship. By offering water, hugging the linga, lighting the diya and incense,
and ringing the temple bells, devotees call into focus all their senses, making
them acutely aware of themselves and the universe to which they belong.