The most famous celebration of Lord Shiva is the Maha Shivratri. It is the most important day of worshipping Lord Shiva and usually falls in the month of March. It falls on the moonless (amavasya) 14th night of the new moon in the month of Phalgun of the Hindu calendar. There are many legends associated with this particular festival. According to one of the legends it is believed that it was on the night of Shivratri that Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati got married. Another legend states that it was on this auspicious day that the Lord performed the ‘Tandava’, the dance of the creation, preservation and destruction. The day is considered very auspicious by the followers of Lord Shiva and hence the name Maha Shivratri which actually means the grand night of Shiva. Some experts believe that on Shivratri Lord Shiva became the ‘Neelkantam’ the one with the blue throat by swallowing the deadly poison ‘Halaahal’ that came up during the churning of the ‘Kshir Sagar’ or the milky ocean.
One of the most interesting account about this festival comes from the Shiva Maha Puran, where Lord Shiva is urged by Goddess Parvati to explain to Dev Rishi Narad the significance of the festival. Lord Shiva narrates how on that day, long ago, he had presented himself for the first time in the form of a ‘Jyotirmay Stambh’ or a pillar of light and was witnessed first by Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu. The heralded the assimilation of Lord Shiva into the Hindu triumvirate of ‘Tri-Dev’, composed by the coming together of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar. United, they decided to look after the formation, preservation and continuation of the universe.
Devotees observe a day and night of fast and worship Lord Shiva to seek his blessings on this particular day. It is believed that Lord Shiva is the easiest to please, so many people pray with true dedication to get the benefits of worshipping Lord Shiva. By keeping a fast on this day, you can be liberated from the cycle of birth and death.
Traditions and Customs of Shivratri:
There are many traditions that devotees follow to perform the worship of Lord Shiva. The most common is observing a strict day and night fast. Some people consume only fruits and milk on that day while others don’t even consume a drop of water till their fast is over. By successfully observing the fast Lord Shiva blesses his followers with a long life and liberates them from all their sins. Devotees get up early in the morning, take a bath (preferably with Ganga jal) and go to the temple. They take with them Panchamrit (milk, water, Ganga jal, sugar/honey and Saffron) in a bronze container, white flowers (as Lord Shiva liked white flowers), Bel leaves, Bel fruit, garland, sandalwood paste, Ber fruit and incense sticks to the temple. As the devotees reach the Shiva temple they pour the Panchamrit on the Shivling followed by water. Next all the other things like the Bel leaves, fruits and flowers are offered to the Lord. After the sandalwood paste tilak is put on all idols, the incense sticks are lighted and the puja is performed. The worship of Lord Shiva continues all through the day and night. In many Shiva temples jaagrans also happen wherein a large number of devotees spend the night singing hymns, chants, mantras and devotional songs in praise of Lord Shiva. It is only on the following morning that devotee break their fast by taking prasad offered to the deity.
The festival is considered auspicious especially for women. While married women pray for the wellbeing and happiness of their husbands, the unmarried ones pray that they get a good husband like Lord Shiva as he is considered to be the ideal husband. The fast is considered extremely auspicious and many times devotees rate it equal or more than performing the Ashvamedha Yagna.
Significance of Puja items:
According to the Shiva Purana (the holy book of chants and mantras of Lord Shiva) there is a special significance of all the items that are used in puja on Shivratri.
- Bathing the Shiva-Ling with Panchamrit represents purification of soul.
- The vermilion or the sandalwood paste that is applied on the Shivling after bathing it, represents virtue.
- Offering in the form of fruits and flowers symbolize longevity and gratification of desires.
- Burning of incense sticks yields wealth.
- The lighting of the lamp symbolizes attainment of knowledge.
- Offering of betel leaves marks satisfaction with worldly pleasures.
Tradition of Thandai:
The festival of Maha Shivratri is marked with great festivities throughout the country. And as Lord Shiva is considered to be an ascetic god, the festival is hugely popular with the ascetics or the ‘baba’. There is a tradition of drinking thandai on this festival. Thandai is a drink that is made by mixing bhang (cannabis) and almonds in milk. It is believed that bhang or cannabis was really relished by Lord Shiva. And apart from drinking the traditional thandai these days there are bhang laddoos are also consumed on the festival.
By performing the worship with pure devotion and dedication the followers reap the benefits of the blessings that Lord Shiva shower upon them.
Om Namah Shivaya!!!