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   Religious Fasts
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Religious Fasts

On the 'Treodashi' or the Thirteenth day of the waning moon in the month of Phagun falls the festival of Mahashivratri, symbolosing the wedding day of Shiv and Parvati. This festival comes some time in February or March according to the English calendar (14-15 days before Holi).

Shivratri is a very auspicious day. The married and the unmarried girls perform puja with great faith, fervour and feeling, since Parvati is considered 'Gaura' the giver of 'suhag' - married bliss and a long and prosperous married life. The unmarried girls pray to 'Gaura' to give them handsome husbands with wealth, knowledge and talent.

Shivji is reputed to be of frightening aspect with ash smeared all over his body and wearing garlands of human skulls, live snakes and malas (necklaces) of rudraksh round his neck and arms. He has matted hair piled up on his head (jatta) with the new moon stuck in front of the jatta and the Ganga (river) coming from heaven and falling into his locks, so as to find a soft spot to fall upon (or else she would have gone into the earth due to the impact of the fall). From his hair Ganga gently finds her way on to the plains of 'Bharatvarsh'. Shivji's neck is blue, because he was the one who consumed the poison when the sea was churned and out came the various things that are relevant to life. The devtas eagerly wanted the good things, but none would take the poison, so Shivji took it and drank it, retaining it in his throat, thereby giving the neck the blue colour. It is said that the bird 'Neel Kanth' with its blue neck is specially dear to Shiv and will take your message straight to him, if you tell it to do so.

Shivji is easily pleased and grants boons and wishes to his bhakts without going into the pros and cons of the situation or the consequences thereof, usually landing everyone in a mess! Shiv was specially close to Ravan whose 'Isht Devta' (family god) he was and always helped him although Ravan was an Asur. Shiv came to Ravan's side during the great war with Ram, but was disenchanted due to the arrogance of the king of Lanka, and took refuge in the fact that although Brahma had granted Ravan near immortality and given him the knowledge of ten heads, he had still withheld one which enabled Ram to kill him. Shiv did not then interfere, or else the fight would never have ended.

There was another Asur named Banasur, the grandson of Prahlad, who was a great bhakt of Shiv. Banasur ruled the mountain kingdom of Shonita (now known as Sarahan, about 200 km from Shimla). Banasur had a beautiful daughter named Usha, who fell in love in her dreams with Anirudh the grandson of Krishna and Rukhmini and, as usual, wanted to marry him in real life. She got Anirudh kidnapped from Dwarka through friend Chitralekha who could fly. There was a great war between Krishna and Banasur and Shiv came to fight on the side of Banasur. The two indestructible aspects of Almighty - Vishnu and Shiv - could not lose to each other nor could be slain! All the other gods beseeched Shiv and Vishnu to reach a compromise or else the world would have been destroyed.

Shiv is as much in the hearts of the Hindus as Vishnu and most of the Hindus pray to both with equal devotion.

The Hindus believe the 'Supreme' to be unmanifest, but to visualise and understand such a phenomenon, the Hindu has projected it into the form of 'Brahma', 'Vishnu' and 'Mahesh', i.e., Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Mahesh or Shiv the destroyer (all facets of the Supreme Power equal in strength and knowledge, never born, never destroyed). Brahma, after creating leaves the work of the world in the hands of Vishnu and Shiv. That is why those that live on this earth pray to them. The devtas are not 'supreme' but only ministering angels, and a Hindu never mixes the two.

Vishnu comes down to earth as an avtar (incarnation) whenever the people stray away from the path of righteousness, whereas Brahma and Shiv do not come down to earth in human form. While Brahma washes his hands off after creating, Shiv has a lot to do with the world. He does a lot himself, or through his doots (emissaries). The chief of the doots is Yum, who takes away those have finished their span on this earth.

Mahashivratri is the most revered festival of the Kashmiri pandits. It is celebrated for full sixteen beginning days beginning with Parva of the waning moon to Parva of the waxing moon (i.e., to the day after Amavas). The wedding of Shiv and Parvati is usually celebrated for four days continuously -- Thrathshi, Choutash, Amavas (of the waxing moon) and Parva (of the waxing moon). Mahashivratri normally comes just fourteen or fifteen days before Holi. The preparation for this festival begins 10 days earlier and it is treated like Diwali as far as house cleaning and related activities are concerned. The house is generally whitewashed or the kuchcha houses made of mud have cow dung applied on them, a custom now slowly disappearing. New beddings, utensils and other household items that are required are bought. Everyone in the family purchases new clothes -- as many as they can afford, but one set definitely for the main pujan. When one gets down to the nitty-gritty, the activity motivates everyone; there is a lot of excitement and a good deal of work for the whole fortnight and much interaction between the members of the family results. Both young and old alike are involved. Food becomes a great attraction and special dishes of mutton, fish and chicken are prepared. The Kashmiri pandit is not necessarily a vegetarian and, for every meal, everyone is given a chance to learn to cook the dishes. Meat is not taboo during the Shivratri week, but on the main days it is not cooked or eaten.

The whole of the 16-day period is devoted to gambling. The old custom of playing with kauri (a type of sea shell) is still prevalent, and no one forbids it. The elders also join in the evenings. Nowadays, of course, cards have taken the place of kauri and flash is played in most homes.

The Kashmiri Hindu buys earthen pots (gaggar) as symbols for Ganesh, Shiv and Parvati and the other gods and the baratis. Dhatura, aak, aak flowers and camphor are bought for pujan. Also, about 50 walnuts form an essential part of the prasad. In Kashmir itself all the items, except the Walnuts, are available in dry powder form because it is cold and wintry and not much can be grown in the valley during this time. This is known as 'vatuk' masala, since the puja is known as 'vatuk puja'.

On the eleventh day the puja room is decorated with the images or pictures of gods and devtas. Floral decoration is usually not done because the carpets and other related items cannot be removed. Everything pertaining to the clothing of the gods or the puja is new.

Next, comes the twelfth day or the day of Ganesh puja. One earthen pot (gaggar) is placed in the centre, filled with water, a little Ganga jal (Ganga water) and some walnuts. This symbolises Ganesh. Pujan is done to this gaggar with water, roli, aipun, rice and flowers so that the marriage of Shiv and Parvati is blessed. Although Ganesh is their son, still it is decreed that he must be worshipped first and anything coming after that decree must be adhered to in all pujas.

The thirteenth day, Thrathshi or Terash commemorates the great marriage day and is the actual day of Mahashivratri. Decorated earthen pots filled with walnuts are placed on the puja pedestal symbolising Shiv, Parvati, Ganesh, and the baratis, rishis and munis of great repute. Mutton and fish are offered to the baratis as prasad and many types of eatables are made. Only milk sweets made of khoya and fruits are placed for the rishis and munis and the devtas as prasad, other than Shiv himself who is offered bhang, dhatura, belpatra, aak, etc. The katha (story) of Shiv and Parvati is read from a booklet. A small havan kund is set in front of the gods and the head family performs a small havan, after performing agni puja (prayer to the fire), with the help of the family priest if the head of the family does not know the mantras. Of course, the head of the family keeps a fast and only takes phalar during the day. The havan ends with the ringing of bells and the sounding of the conch shell when the arti to Shiv and Parvati is sung.

On the fourteenth day or 'Chauthas', the daughters and sons-in-law are invited for a special meal by the father and mother or the brothers and sisters-in-law. The meal is sumptuous and consists of meat, fish, chick and vegetables, prepared in the manner that the family decides. The day is treated like Diwali and gambling is the order of the day. Children are given money to go and buy anything that catches their fancy, according to what the grandparents and parents can afford. As the Muslim culture has had a lot of impact on the Hindus of Kashmir, this day is known as 'Salaam'. People greet each other and send sweets and prasad. Great rejoicing marks this occasion. Girls receive money from their parents and so do the children. The sons-in-law are given the pyala (money in lieu of a drink) and at the end everyone is tired but content.

The fifteenth day or 'Amavas' heralds the end of the wedding celebrations. All the earthen pots are collected and immersed in the nearest river or lake and things are cleared up. On this day, rotis made of rice atta and the soaked walnuts are distributed as prasad to the members of the community living nearby. Thus the Kashmiris honour Lord Shiv and his consort Parvati.

A little further down, in the plains of North India, Mahashivratri celebrations are confined to the temples, and not much is done in the house and no arrangement for puja needs to be done at home. Those who keep the vrat naturally prepare the phalar which is taken as the main meal during the 36 hours of vrat in this case.

In any case, the family prepares for the festival from the early morning of 'Terash'. Every member takes a bath and dresses up in clean clothes. The puja room is naturally cleaned up and the images of Ganesh, Shiv and Parvati cleaned and placed in the centre of the room. A jyot (lamp) is lit in front of the images and agarbattis are also lit.

The persons who go to the temple take a vessel (usually made of copper) filled with water with a little Ganga jal and milk mixed. They also take along some belpatra (leaves of the bel tree), a bel fruit (available with the people who sit around temples selling flowers), dhatura, bhang, aak and bits of flowers, fruit, aipun, roli and rice and a small katori with oil and a wick of cotton all nicely set in a thaali which can be carried easily. Shiv bhakts are allowed to drink bhang. The aak flower can be cooked as a vegetable or achar (pickles) can be made but dhatura etc., are poisonous. Such prasad of Shiv is not

In the temple, the devotees bathe the Shiv ling with the water mixed with milk, by pouring the liquid slowly
on top of the ling. The puja is then done with water, roli, aipun and rice and then flowers are showered on the ling. Fruits and other stuff are then offered to the deity and the small jyot is lit and arti performed by circling with the thaali three to four times in front of the ling. Parikrama is then performed three times. In the case of a Shiv ling the parikrama is half only, one returns from where the water falls away from the ling. This water is given as charnamrit to the devotees but the prasad is not eaten as it contains poisonous and intoxicating items.

In homes, the persons who have observed the fast prepare the palahar (or phalar) which is taken during midday and consists of non-cereal food such as boiled potatoes made into chaat or made into a curry without garlic, onion, adrak or haldi but with zeera, salt and a little chilli if required; arvi in any form is eaten. Kuttu singare ki puri or pakori is also prepared. Fruit, methai made from milk -like barfi (without lentils) is taken and so is curd. Tea, coffee or milk is allowed, but should be restricted. Water can be taken. No meal is taken at night and the next meal can be taken only in the morning of Amavas or the third day, after a special alms giving. This consists of giving cooked rice and khari to the sadhus who are bhakts of Shiv with ash smeared on their body and faces. These sadhus also wear rudraksh and other beads and malas round their necks and arms. They have long plaited hair full of ash, looking as fearsome as fearsome as the god they worship. These sadhus carry a kamandal (a kind of pot) and get it filled with the rice and khari. The stuff is cooked the next morning after Shivratri and only when it is given away the vrat can be broken and a normal meal taken by the vratis. This will be around 10.30 or 11 a.m. One has to be prepared for this type of fasting, if one wants to keep the sanctity of the vrat. (The vrat lasts for more than 36 hours).

The real celebration of Shivratri takes place in the temples on the night of' Chautas' or 'Choudesh' (fourteenth day of the waxing moon) and lasts till the morning of Amavas (dark night) although the wedding starts from Terash (thirteenth day of the waxing moon) and singing continues throughout the night in the temples. On Choudesh night everyone who wants to take part in the pujan is individually given a Shiv ling by the temple management this ling is placed in front of the person. A medium size vessel with a narrow neck known as kalsa is also placed near that person and is filled with water mixed with milk, and also leaves of the bel tree, flowers and fruit. Roli, aipun and rice along with water for pujan are kept individually. The puja is directed by a priest (pandit) of the temple who sits on a platform and performs the rituals with chanting of mantras, and everyone follows his actions even if they cannot chant the mantras verbatim. The puja is done four times during the night. The directions are given by the learned pandit; therefore one need not know the rituals oneself and should merely follow him. On the next day (Amavas) the alms-giving to the sadhus - bhakts of Shiv - is done and only then the vrat kept is broken, after the last meal of 'Thrathshi' has been taken.

It is believed that Shiv and Sati (later Parvati or Uma) fly on their vahan (vehicle), i.e., the bullock, around the world every 24 hours and keep a watch on the inhabitants of the earth. At one such time in the 'Treta Yug' when Ram avtar had taken place Shivji spotted Ram when he was hurt and crying, while looking for his wife Sita who had been carried away by Ravan. Shivji at once recognised him as Vishnu' in the form of Ram on earth and saying 'O! Ram avtar has taken place on earth', he bowed and performed 'namaskar' to Ram from above. Now, it is a fact that the three manifest aspects of the 'Supreme', whenever they meet each other, bow and worship the other as the 'Supreme' and so Shivji did just that. The whole incident intrigued Sati who asked: 'My Lord, who is that you bow to?' 'It is Lord Vishnu who has, at last, taken a human form and has come down to earth to rid it of all its sins,' replied Shiv. 'If it is so why does he lament? He knows all, for he is the "Supreme." So why is he crying for his wife, he should know where she is?' asked Parvati.

Shivji laughed and let this comment pass. Sati was not satisfied and she quietly took the form of Sita and
stood in the path of Ram. On seeing her, Ram bowed with folded hands and said: 'Mother, how come you are alone, where is Shivji?' Sati was very ashamed and promptly went back to her husband, who was sitting in a samadhi by now. She went to sit on his left side as usual, the place always reserved for a wife, but he told her to sit in front of him and not by his side. She protested and asked him for the reason. He replied: 'You took the form of Sita who is like a mother to me so you cannot be my wife any more and shall from henceforth take the place that is meant for a mother - only in front of me. Also you did not trust me; I am your husband, there should be absolute trust between a husband and wife, instead you wanted to test if I had told you the truth. I now forsake you as a wife.'

Sati was very upset but sat down in front of Shivji, who straightaway went into a samadhi again. Sati looked up and saw a lot of uran khatolas (flying objects) going past towards 'the north, and asked her husband where the devtas were going. He replied: 'They are going to your father's house; he is conducting a big yagya and has not invited us.' This angered Sati very much; still she wanted to go. Shivji told her that one should never go anywhere without an invitation, but she insisted saying that a daughter could surely go to her father's house without being invited. Shivji couldn't refuse anything to Sati and told her that although she would be sorry to do so, he would not stop her.

So, Sati went to her father's house where no one came forward to receive her except her mother. Her father spurned her and did not speak to her, and the rest of the people kept their distance. When the yagya was over, food as a special potion, was taken out in the names of all the gods and devtas but no havis (potion) was taken out for Shivji. Sati was furious at this insult to her husband, and also at all that had befallen her lately; so she threw herself in the havan kund and burnt herself.

Sati was reborn to the king of the mountains 'Himalaya' and his wife Mama as Parvati and was again married to Shiv on Shivratri. They are believed to be living blissfully together even now and it is said that Parvati can get anything done by Shivji even if he is not doing it on his own.

There is a belief that when Shiv and Parvati travel round the world on their vahan - the bullock - even today, they visit every nook and corner, looking down on the inhabitants with great benevolence. If at the precise moment when they are right above you, you wish for something, that wish will come true. That is why sometimes when one wishes even for a silly thing it comes true! Well, anyway try it, but you have to keep wishing for 24 hours (all the time) for Shiv and Parvati's time of visiting is never the same.

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