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|Significance||Auspicious day to worship the Lord Shiva beyond birth and death.|
|Observances||Fasting, worship of Lingam|
|2015 date||17 February|
|2016 date||7 March|
|2017 date||24 February|
|Related to||Nepalese culture and Indian culture|
Maha Shivaratri is a Hindu festival celebrated annually in honour of the God Shiva. The festival, which means "The Great Night of Shiva", is also popularly known as "Shivaratri" (spelt as Sivaratri, Shivaratri, Sivarathri, and Shivarathri).
Unlike most Hindu festivals which are celebrated during the day, Maha Shivaratri is celebrated at night. The celebration includes maintaining a "jaagaran", an all-night vigil. Offerings of Bael leaves to Shiva, and all-day fasting with vedic or tantrik worship of Shiva also mark the occasion. Devotees chant "Om Namah Shivaya", the sacred mantra of Shiva, all through the day. Penance is performed on the day too, in the belief that worshippers will obtain boons. It is also believed that the planetary positions in the Northern hemisphere on this day act as potent catalysts of enhanced spiritual energy. Ancient Sanskrit mantras such as Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra are believed to especially powerful on this night.
Maha Shivaratri is celebrated on the Krishna Paksha Chaturdashi in the month of Falgun of Bikram Sambat lunar calendar as per Amavasya-ant month calculation (in which the lunar month ends on new moon night). As per Poornima-ant month calculation (months end on the full moon night), the day is Krishna Paksha Trayodashi or Chaturdashi in the month of Falgun. According to the Gregorian calendar, the day falls in either February or March. Of the twelve Shivaratris in the year, the Maha Shivarathri is the most holy. The specific period of the day on Maha Shivaratri during which the Shiva Pooja (worship) is best performed is Nishita Kala. It is believed that it was during this part of the day that the manifestation of Shiva as the Linga or Lingodbhava occurred.
The festival is celebrated across India, Nepal, as well as in Hindu communities across the world. Maha Shivaratri is a national holiday in some countries. Hindus from Nepal and around the world celebrate at the famous Pashupatinath Temple, the seat of Shiva in his form of Pashupatinath (the Lord of All Animals).
In Indo-Caribbean communities, thousands of Hindus spend the auspicious night in over four hundred temples across the country, offering special jhalls ((an offering of milk and curd, flowers, sugarcane and sweets)) to Lord Shiva. In Mauritius, Hindus go on pilgrimage to Ganga Talao, a crater-lake, turned into the main Hindu prayer site of this sole Hindu majority African country. Maha Shivaratri is the main Hindu festival among the Hindu diaspora from Nepal and the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Bihar.
Many legends are woven around the reasons for celebrating Maha Shivaratri. One tale suggests that Lord Shiva saved the universe from destruction on this day, when he consumed the poison arising out of The Churning of the Ocean by the Devas and the Asuras to obtain The Nectar of Immortality. It is believed that Shiva married Parvati on this day, and it is also held that the day marks the union of Shiva with Shakti. Another story has it that this marks the day Shiva danced the Tandava, the dance which was the source of all cosmic creation.
Yet another story links the day to Lingodbhava - the emergence of the Linga -, Shiva's effort at settling the contest of superiority between Vishnu and Brahma. Brahma was born from a lotus emerging from the navel of Vishnu. He gets into an argument with Vishnu about which one of them is the greater. As they quarrel, a luminous vertical pillar of flame suddenly appears with no apparent beginning or end. Deciding to settle the argument by finding the source of the flame, Brahma assumed the form of a swan and flew up while Vishnu, as Varaha or the boar, dug downward. Centuries passed, but neither was able to find an end to the pillar. Brahma finally came across a flower, Ketaki, falling down and asked it whence it came and how long it was since it started falling. The flower replied that the pillar was infinite and hence it had no knowledge of when or where it began its fall. Having convinced the flower to back him up, Brahma turned back, found Vishnu and told him that he, Brahma, had reached the source and brought the flower back as proof. Vishnu accepted defeat. However, the pillar, which came later to symbolize him as the Linga, suddenly transformed into Shiva who punished Brahma for the lie, decreeing that Brahma would not be worshipped on earth any more. Shiva also tells them that Brahma emerged from Shiva's right hand and Vishnu, from his left hand while the minor gods, the Devas, were his fragments.
After the creation of earth was complete, Parvati, in conversation with Shiva, asked him which days, devotees and rituals pleased him the most. The Lord replied that the fourteenth night of the new moon in the Amavasya fortnight during the month of Falgun was his favourite day. Parvati conveyed this to her friends from whom it spread to all of creation, which celebrated the day in his honour from then on.
Chitrabhanu explained that in a previous life, he was a hunter from Varanasi called Suswarna. The day before the new moon, he saw a deer while hunting, but before could let fly his arrow, he noticed the deer's family and their sadness at its impending death. His heart melted and he let it live. He had still not caught anything when night fell, so he climbed up a tree for shelter. It happened to be a Bael tree. His canteen leaked water, so he was both hungry and thirsty. Besides he could not help but think of his starving family awaiting his return. Unable to sleep, he distracted himself by plucking the Bael leaves and dropping them down onto the ground.
Much later, when Suswarna was dying, he was astonished to see two messengers from Shiva appear before him. They had come to conduct his soul to the abode of Shiva. Asked why he merited such treatment, the messengers told him that there was a Linga at the bottom of the tree he had once sheltered on. The Bael leaves he dropped had fallen into the shape of a Linga, in imitation of Shiva's icon. The water from his leaky canteen had washed the Linga and Suswarna himself had fasted all day and all night. Thus, he unconsciously had worshiped Lord Shiva on his most favourite day.
At the conclusion of the tale, the King said that he had lived in the abode of the Shiva and enjoyed divine bliss for a long time before being reborn as Chitrabhanu, and he continued to mark the day with the worship of the Linga and a fast. This story is narrated in the Garuda Purana.
In a slight different conclusion to the same story, Shiva's messengers battle the messengers of Yama, the god of death, and after defeating them conduct Suswarna to the abode of Shiva. Yama, puzzled, arrived to ask Shiva why Suswarna's soul was not his, as it ought to be by right. Shiva's gatekeeper, Nandi explains to him the significance of the day of Shivaratri and the love Shiva had for Suswarna after the latter had, however inadvertently, marked that day. Yama promptly gave up seeking the soul of Suswarna, and also pledged not to claim any of Shiva's devotees without Shiva's consent.
At dawn, devotees flock to Shiva temples to perform the traditional Linga worship (puja) and seek favours from the god. Devotees bathe at sunrise, preferably in the Ganga or any other holy water source, in a rite of purification. After changing into fresh clothes, worshippers carry pots of water to the temple to bathe the Linga. Women and men both offer prayers to the Sun, Vishnu, Shiva. The temple reverberates with the sound of bells and shouts of Shankerji ki Jai' (Hail Shiva!).
Offering water to Shiva accompanied by the chanting of Vedic and tantric mantras is known as Rudrabhishek (Ablution to Rudra - another name for Shiva). Eight chapters of the Yajurveda, dedicated to Shiva and known as the Rudradhyaya or Rudrashtdhyayi, are chanted. Incidentally, the eight chapters constitute the largest eulogical section in the Vedas dedicated to a single god. The 5th and the 8th chapters, Namakam and Chamakam respectively, are the most significant of the verses and are often chanted over and over.
Devotees circumambulate around the lingam three or seven times, and then pour water, or sometimes milk, over it.
According to the Shiva Purana, the Maha Shivaratri ritual must be a panchopchar puja (worship with five offerings symbolizing the five elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether) or a shodashopachar puja (worship with sixteen offerings).
The panchopchar puja comprises
Bhasma or sacred ash, Rudraksha or Shiva's Teardrops and the Panchakshara Stotra, three significant constituents of the worship of Shiva also feature in Maha Shivaratri observances. The Tripundra, the three horizontal stripes of Bhasma applied to the forehead by worshippers of Shiva, is a powerful metaphor with layers of meaning and symbolism associated with Hindu philosophy and spirituality in general and Shiva in particular.
Maha Shivaratri is celebrated widely in the temples all over Nepal but especially in the Pashupatinath temple. Thousands of devotees visit the famous Shiva Shakti Peetham nearby as well. The Nepalese army parades around the city of Kathmandu to pay tribute to Lord Shiva, and holy rituals are performed all over the nation. Artists from various classical music and dance forms perform through the night. Maha Shivaratri is considered especially auspicious for women. While married women pray for the well being of their husbands, unmarried women pray for a husband like Shiva, considered as the ideal husband. Shiva is also worshipped as the Adi Guru (first teacher) from whom the yogic tradition originates.
The Mandi fair is particularly famous as a venue for Maha Shivaratri celebrations; it transforms the town of Mandi as devotees pour in. It is believed that all gods and goddesses of the area, said to number more than 200, assemble here on the day of Maha Shivaratri. Mandi, located on the banks of Beas, is popularly known as the "Cathedral of Temples" and one of the oldest towns of Himachal Pradesh, with about 81 temples of different Gods and Goddesses on its periphery. The festival is centred around the protector deity of Mandi, "Mado Rai" (Lord Vishnu), and Shiva of the Bhootnath temple
Maha Shivaratri is the most important festival for Kashmiri Brahmins. It is celebrated as the anniversary of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. The festivities start 3 or 4 days before Maha Shivaratri and continue for two days after it.
Central India has a large number of Shiva followers. The Mahakaleshwar Temple, Ujjain is one of the most venerated shrines consecrated to Shiva where a large congregation of devotees gathers to offer prayers on the day of Maha Shivaratri. Tilwara Ghat in the city of Jabalpur and the Math Temple in the village of Jeonara, Seoni are two other places where the festival is celebrated with much religious fervour.
Maha Shivaratri is celebrated widely in the temples all over Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana.
The Thrikkuratti Mahadeva temple in Kerala conducts a special ceremony called the Sahasrakalasabhishekam, the Ritual of a Thousand Pitchers or Pots. Parashurama and the sage Kroshti are believed to have bathed the deity in this temple with a thousand pots of holy water. This act of worship is repeated annually by the priests of the temple in a ten day ceremony with an offering of 101 pots daily - a 100 silver pots and 1 gold pot called the Brahmakalasam. This offering of holy water symbolizes the cooling of Shiva, who is said to burn with the fire of his characteristic austerity.
The temple also conducts a Sivaratri Nrutham, to mark the Tandava - the cosmic dance of Shiva which cycles through creation and destruction. A priest with an idol of Shiva fixed on a frame atop his head circumambulates seven times in a pradakshina on a walkway around the sanctum sanctorum. When he reaches the western gate in the fifth round, the gate is opened for 10 minutes so that devotees can glimpse the sanctum sanctorum, and the camphor and brass temple lamps lining the walkway are lit. The Nrutham is followed by traditional fireworks.
The Thrikkuratti Maha Shivaratri procession is regarded as one of the most spectacular in the country. The main procession, comprising several floats, elephants and folk artists, commences from the Kadapra Kainikkara temple. Smaller processions from the Kurattikkadu Mutharamman, Kurattissery Kannamkavil Mutharamman, Thrippavoor Mahavishnu, Vishavarsherikkara Subrahmanya Swami, Sreekaryam Maliekal Rajan and Alumoodu Sivaparvathy temples merge with the main one along the way. The procession includes Singari Melam, a percussion ensemble, and the Panchavadyam an ensemble with four percussion instruments and one wind instrument.
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