One of the most auspicious festivals of the Hindu calendar, Maha Shivaratri falls this year on 01-Mar. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, who is also known as Mahadev, this festival is celebrated on Krishna Paksha Chaturdashi of the Hindu month, Falgun. The festival whose name literally translates into “the great night of Lord Shiva” usually falls in the month of February or March and during the onset of spring. Celebrated with great passion and fervour all across the country, this festival is believed to have originated as early as the 5th century.
Legends, myths and beliefs
Legend has it that it was on Maha Shivaratri day that the union of Lord Shiva and his consort Goddess Shakti took place and this synergy of masculine and feminine energies helped create a balance in the universe. It is believed that on this day, Lord Shiva performs the heavenly dance or tandav, which is the cosmic dance of ‘creation, preservation and destruction’. According to another theory it was on this day that Lord Shiva first attained the form of a Linga.
In yet another story, it is said the during Samudra Manthan or the great churning of the ocean, a pot of poison emerged which scared all the Gods and Goddesses. Lord Shiva, in a bid to protect the world, drank the entire poison and Goddess Parvathi stayed up the whole night while holding the Lord’s neck to prevent the poison from spreading into His body. This resulted in Lord Shiva’s neck turning blue giving him the name “Neelkanta”. This is also one of the reasons people stay up all night during the festival chanting the name of Lord Shiva.
On the day of the festival, people get up early, cleanse themselves and offer prayers to Lord Shiva. They generally visit a Shiva temple or take bath in a holy river like the Ganga and offer prayers to the Sun God. In the temple, it is customary to bathe the idol of Lord Shiva with milk, honey, water etc and perform ‘abhisheka’. Sacred leaves like the Bael leaf and Bilwapatra leaf are offered to the Lord apart from colourful flowers of all kinds. Rudrabhikshekam, yagnas and homas are performed in temples all over as part of the festival. People also chant the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra all night and offer bhajans to the Lord. All night vigils are observed in temples as well as houses.
Unlike most festivals, it is key to note that Maha Shivaratri is not one of fun, frolic or merry making. It is a time to self-reflect and is all about overcoming darkness and ignorance. People usually fast during the festival and restrict consumption to sattvic foods like fruits, milk, bael (wood apple) juice etc. and break their fast only the next day. Fasting is a symbol of self-control and restraint leading to righteousness.
Given that it is an extremely popular festival, people visit the highly sacred 12 jyotirlingas in the country to worship the Lord on this day. Among other famous temples that are considered highly auspicious include the Kashi Vishwanath of Varanasi which is one of the most important temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, the Mahakaleshwar Temple in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh and Kedarnath in Uttarakhand. The latter is believed to have been visited by the Panadavas and is hence considered one of the oldest temples of Lord Shiva. The Pashupatinath temple in Nepal which is a UNESCO world heritage site is yet another holy temple dedicated to the Lord. In the south the Shiva temples of Gokarna, Murudeshwar and Nanjangud, the Brihadeshwara temple, Kapaleeswarar temple in Chennai and the Gavi Gangadeshwara temple in Bangalore are extremely significant too.