Maha Shivaratri is a festival celebrated every year in reverence of lord Shiva. Maha Shivaratri literally means the great night of Shiva. It is celebrated every year on the 13th night/14th day of the Maagha month of Hindu. It is celebrated in the dark fortnight or Krishna Paksha (waning moon) of the month of Maagha. The festival is principally celebrated by offerings of Bael or Vilva leaves to Lord Shiva, daylong fasting and an all night long vigil.
After creation was complete, Parvati asked Lord Shiva which devotees and rituals pleased him the most. The Lord replied that the 13th night of the new moon, during the month of Maagha, is his most favourite day. Parvati repeated these words to her friends, from whom the word spread over all creation.
The Story Of King Chitrabhanu
Once upon a time King Chitrabhanu of the Ikshvaku dynasty, who ruled over the whole of Jambudvipa (India), was observing a fast with his wife, it being the day of Maha Shivaratri. The sage Ashtavakra came on a visit to the court of the king.
The sage asked the king the purpose of his observing the fast. King Chitrabhanu explained that he had a gift of remembering the incidents of his past birth, and in his previous life he had been a hunter in Varanasi and his name was Suswara. His only livelihood was to kill and sell birds and animals. The day before the new moon, while roaming through forests in search of animals, he saw a deer, but before his arrow flew he noticed the deer’s family and their sadness at its impending death. So he let it live. He had still not caught anything when he was overtaken by nightfall and climbed a tree for shelter. It happened to be a Bael (vilva) tree. His canteen leaked water, so he was both hungry and thirsty. These two torments kept him awake throughout the night, thinking of his poor wife and children who were starving and anxiously waiting for his return. To pass away the time he engaged himself in plucking the vilva leaves and dropping them down onto the ground.
The next day he returned home and bought some food for himself and his family. The moment he was about to break his fast a stranger came to him, begging for food. He served the food first to stranger and then had his own.
At the time of his death, he saw two messengers of Lord Shiva, sent to conduct his soul to the abode of Lord Shiva. He learnt then for the first time of the great merit he had earned by unconscious worship of Lord Shiva during the night of Shivaratri. The messengers told him that there had been a Shiva Lingam at the bottom of the tree. The leaves he dropped had fallen on the Lingam, in imitation of its ritual worship. The water from his leaky canteen had washed the Lingam (also a ritual action), and he had fasted all day and all night. Thus, he unconsciously had worshipped the Lord. As the conclusion of the tale the King said that he had lived in the abode of the Lord and enjoyed divine bliss for a long time before being reborn as Chitrabhanu. This story is narrated in the Garuda Purana.
This is why Hindus do not eat meat on Maha Shivarati. It is thought that those who fast on the evening of Maha Shivaratri will please Lord Shiva and also be granted a blessing.
Rituals of Maha Shivratri
Pashupatinath Temple (Kathmandu, Nepal) one of the most important shrines of Lord Shiva hosts one of the biggest gatherings on Maha Shivaratri. Hindu worshippers all over the world gather at Pashupati to perform pilgrimage. Worshippers must wait in line for hours to present their offerings at the temples. Tripundra refers to the three horizontal stripes of holy ash applied to the forehead by worshippers of Lord Shiva. These stripes symbolise spiritual knowledge, purity and penance, so also they represent the three eyes of Lord Shiva.
Wearing a rosary made of rudrakshas (said to have sprung from the tears of Lord Shiva) when worshipping Lord Shiva is ideal
On Shivaratri, only cold water and bael leaves are offered to the Lingam. Other traditional offerings, such as bathing Him in milk and Panchamruta (milk, curd, ghee, sugar and honey -symbols of sustenance) one after the other, or anointing Him with vermilion (kumkum) or white consecrated rice (Akshata) (symbols of fertility, or creation), are done on this day, when Lord Shiva is worshipped as the deity of dissolution. Chanting the Rudram is considered very auspicious.
According to the Shiva Purana, the Mahashivaratri worship should incorporate six items: offering vilva leaves to the deity after giving it a ceremonial bath, which represents purification of the soul; applying vermilion paste on the linga after bathing it, which represents virtue; offering food, which is conducive to longevity and the gratification of desires; lighting incense, which yields wealth; lighting an oil lamp, which signifies the attainment of knowledge; and offering betel leaves, which marks satisfaction with worldly pleasures. These six items form an indispensable part of the Mahashivaratri worship, be it a simple ceremony at home or grand temple worship.
Mahashivaratri in Southern India
Mahashivaratri is celebrated widely in the temples all over Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Shiva is considered the Adi (first) Guru from whom the yogic tradition originates. According to tradition, the planetary positions on this night are such that there is a powerful natural upsurge of energy in the human system. It is said to be beneficial for one’s physical and spiritual wellbeing to stay awake throughout the night. On this day, artists from various fields such as music and dance perform the whole night.
This is a very special and rare puja conducted during 10 days of Mahasivarathri festival. It is well known that Lord Siva is abhishekapriya (lover of ablutions). Lord Parasurama and Kroshta Muni, during their worship of the Lord here, are believed to have bathed the deity with Sahasrakalasam or a thousand pots of holy water according to Vedic rites. Now during Mahasivarathri festival days the Head Priest (Thanthri) and his team perform this puja. It is a ten day function, each day an offering of 101 Kalasam or pots of holy water (100 being made of silver, while one is made of gold), surcharged with mantras recited by learned Brahmins seated on the Mukhamantapam. These are poured on the deity, the golden pot Brahmakalasam being the last one. A magnificent light is the indication or identity of Lord Shiva and the Shiva Lingam is considered to be the symbol of it. Hence, the formal worship on Maha Shivaratri consists of bathing the Shiva Lingam. Lord Shiva is said to be burning with the fire of austerity and so only those items are offered to Him that have a cooling effect. A cool water bath is believed to propitiate Him best. There is a belief among devotees that participation in Sahasrakalasam and offering holy worship materials, will lead to blessings with prosperity and peaceful life. Hundreds of devotees thronging the shrine with chants of “Namah Shivaya”, “Hara hara Mahadeva”, and “Sambho Mahadeva”. This year Mahasivarathiri is observed on 20th February, 2012 in all of South India’s temples.
Sivarathri Nrutham at Thrikkuratti temple, according to religious scholars, resembles the cosmic dance of Shiva, called ‘Anandatandava,’ meaning, ‘the Dance of Bliss’ symbolizing the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, as well as the daily rhythm of birth and death. The dance is a pictorial allegory of the five principle manifestations of eternal energy – creation, destruction, preservation, salvation, and illusion.
The Priest keeps sheeveli vigraha (idol) fixed on a decorated frame on his head. He makes seven circumambulations on Pradakshina Vazhi (holy walkway made of granite around Sanctum Santorum). When the fifth round is reached at the west nada (Parvathi nada), the door opens for just 10 minutes. This is an annual ceremony. Thousands of Pilgims rush to have a glance of this auspicious moment. At this time all the pradakshina vazhi will be lit with camphor and brass temple lamps by thousands of devotees who stay awake through the night while chanting “Nama Sivaya”, “Hara Hara Mahadeva” and “Sambho Mahadeva”. Devotees sing “Hara sankara siva sankara duritham kala sivane”. In this enlightened serene mood, the Priest performs Nrutham and runs the pradakshina vazhi towards the east nada. During the next two rounds he accepts “Valiya kanikka”. The Sivarathri Nrutham is followed by the well known magnificent display of fireworks.
On Sivarathri day evening a grand procession starts from Kadapra Kainikkara Temple. It includes several decorated floats, Kaavadi Aaatam, Mayilattom, Amman Kudom, Thaiyyam, Vela Kali, Kuthiyotta Chuvadu, richly caparisoned elephants and folk art forms etc. It attracts thousands of devotees and tourists. When the main procession reaches Market Junction, other mini processions from Kurattikkadu Mutharamman Temple, Kurattissery Kannamkavil Mutharamman Temple, Thrippavoor Mahavishnu Temple, Vishavarsherikkara Subrahmanya Swami temple and Alumoodu Sivaparvathy Temple join and make the procession more vibrant. The magical effect of the Sinakari melam and Panchavadyam, a combination of five percussion and wind instruments is to be felt and enjoyed. Among the varieties of festivals celebrated in Kerala, Thrikkuratti Sivarathri Procession is one of the most spectacular. It is an expression of popular fascination for sound and colour, and because of the pageantry, it appeals to all. Once the procession reaches the temple, Deeparadhana is followed by colourful display of fireworks.
Shiva, as the god of destroying evil, is the third among the divine trinity of Hindu mythology. The holy mantra consisting of five-syllables: “Na” “Ma” “Shi” “Vaa” “Ya” (Om NamaH Shivaaya) in praise of Lord Shiva is chanted incessantly on special occasions like Shivaratri. His thousands of names, each of which describe His greatness, are also be chanted. Shiva means “auspicious”. As Shankara, He is the giver of happiness to all. Nataraja (the king of dancers) is a favourite form adored by dancers and musicians.