For Maha Shivratri, thousands of devotees gather to celebrate the mighty Shiva, but the gatherings at Varanasi and Pashupatinath are worth witnessing.
Lord Shiva, the destroyer, epitomises strength, potency and valour. He, the God of the wilderness is one whose dexterity knows no bounds, and whose legend has spurned one of the most ardent base of devotees across the world. Maha Shivratri as the name suggests is a festival that celebrates Shiva and his vigour. The festival is a show of vibrancy and a mix of traditional Hindu traditions, ranging from some purely dynamic, to some largely whimsical.
As Mount Kailash in the Himalayan Range is considered to be the abode of Shiva, the festival’s show of splendour at the mountains is more impassioned than any you will have witnessed. As are the celebrations at India’s holiest city, Varanasi.
Maha Shivratri and the many stories of its genesis
There are several themes that amount to the origin of the festival. Some believe that Shiva married his wife Parvati on that day, thereby marking the union of the two greatest forces in the world, Shiva and Shakti. Whereas some believe that Maha Shivratri was the day that Lord Shiva appeared as a lingam or a ‘penile like structure’ at midnight, and therefore it is this form of his that is most widely prayed to.
One of the stronger causes for celebrating Maha Shivratri is that many Hindus believe it to be the day Shiva saved the world from destruction. When the ocean was churned by Devas (gods) and the Asuras (devils), out came a pot of poison, that many believed would cause the world’s destruction. To counter that, Shiva is known to have consumed the entire pot, and held the poison in his throat instead of swallowing it, which gives his throat the deep shade of blue symbolic in his representation. He was not supposed to fall asleep after consuming the poison, therefore the devas stayed awake the entire night to give him company. It is for this reason that Hindu devotees stay awake the entire night of Maha Shivratri in celebrations to commemorate the incident.
Maha Shivratri is also the day that women pray to the Shiva Linga, a phallic structure of stone meant to represent Shiva’s penis, for it represents his potency and manhood. They do so, for young, unmarried women want a husband as ideal and manly as Shiva himself was.
What they do
Traditionally, devotees rise early in the morning to offer prayer to Shiva. They do so by assembling at the nearest lingam and pouring over it milk, honey and water, and as well as offering it Bilva patra (leaves of the Bael). They then spend the day celebrating the festival by preparing sweetmeats as well as consuming thandai with bhaang, a cold drink prepared with cannabis, considered to have been consumed by Lord Shiva himself. Fervent devotees gather at the many holy meeting points that are important to Shiva, including Varanasi, Ujjain, Pashupatinath in Nepal, Kedarnath and Somnath.
Varanasi’s holy aartis
Varanasi is undisputedly India’s holiest pilgrimage centre – home to several greatly revered temples and the many sadhus that practice the Hindu religion in India. The weed-smoking sadhus popular to Varanasi’s culture as well as the aghori sadhus are considered the greatest devotees of Shiva and they celebrate the festival fasting as well as smoking the drug. They take a dip in the Holy Ganges, the river that is mythologically known to flow through the knots in Shiva’s hair, as there are aartis through the night to the wee hours of the morning.
The gathering at Pashupatinath in Nepal
The Pashupatinath temple at the banks of the River Bagmati in Kathmandu, is one of the holiest temples for Lord Shiva and it is where the most spirited celebrations of Lord Shiva can be witnessed. Holy sadhus who’ve committed their lives to the worship of Lord Shiva gather at the festival at dawn and begin praying to Shiva as well as blessing the plainer devotees inclined to attend the celebrations. The festival then descends into a night of music and dance as drums and flutes are rounded off to bhajans with plays and parades as common sight.