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Maha Shivratri

Come Maha Shivaratri and devotees throng Lord Shiva temples across the country to offer their obeisance

ON the day of Maha Shivaratri, celebrations take place in all the Shiva temples across India. Devotees bathe at sunrise in any holy water source (like the Ganga or Shiva Sagar tank at Khajuraho). They offer prayers to the sun, Vishnu and Shiva. The Shivlingam is bathed with the five sacred offerings of a cow, called the panchagavya - milk, sour milk, urine, butter and dung. Thereafter the five foods of immortality . milk, clarified butter, curd, honey and sugar are placed before the Shivlingam. Dhatura and Jati, though poisonous fruits, are believed to be sacred to Shiva and thus offered at his temple.

People also decorate the linga with flowers and garlands and offer incensesticks and fruit. Devotees celebrate the day by observing a fast during the day and offer prayers throughout the night.

All through the day, devotees abstain from eating food and break their fast only the next morning, after the nightlong worship. The day is considered especially auspicious for women. Married women pray for the well being of their husbands and sons, while unmarried women pray for a husband like Shiva, who is considered the ideal husband.

Hymns in praise of Lord Shiva are sung with great fervour and devotion. People repeat the Panchakshara Mantra, Om Namah Shivaya. It is believed that one who utters the name of Shiva during Shivratri with proper devotion is freed from all sins. He reaches the abode of Shiva and lives happily there. He is liberated from the cyle of birth and death.

According to the Shiva Purana, the Maha Shivaratri worship must incorporate six items: the ceremonial offer of cooling bael leaves to the hot-blooded deity, representing purification of the soul; the vermilion paste applied on the linga after bathing it, representing virtue; food offering which is conducive to longevity and gratification of desires; incense, yielding wealth; the lighting of the lamp which is conducive
tathe attainment of knowledge; and betel leaves marking satisfaction with worldly pleasures.

These six items, till today, forman indispensable part of Maha Shivaratri, be it a simple ceremony at home or grand temple worship. By offering water, hugging the linga, lighting the diya and incense; and ringing the temple bells, devotees call into focus all their senses, making them acutely aware of themselves and the universe to which they belong.

Lord Shiva and Maha Shivaratri

Shiva - the word meaning auspicious is one of the Hindu Trinity, comprising Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the Preserver and Shiva or Mahesh, the Destroyer and Re-Producer of life. Time is invisible and formless. Therefore, Mahakal Shiva, as per the Vedas, manifested himself as "LINGUM" to make mankind aware of the presence of Eternal Time. That day when Shiva manifested himself in the form of "Lingum" was the fourth day of the dark night in the month Magh i.e. February - March. This is confirmed by Rishi Markendeya in the sloka:

"That night, when the many -splendoured Shiv-Lingum dazzled the world with its appearance, was the night of the Maha Shivaratri the night of the great Shiva". This Maha Shivaratri festival continues to be celebrated for ever and ever. Maharshi Narad advised mankind to fast on this day and pray to the all-powerful Shiva so that, in all his kindness, he pardons all the sins that are committed in the past three lives.

Maha Shivaratri celebrations in different corners

Different regions of India celebrate the festival in their unique traditions

IN West Bengal, Shlvratrl has become almost a.folk festIval. Young unmarried glrls observe day long fast, keep awake the whole night, sing devotional songs and pray to Lord Shiva to give them good and virtuous husbands. In Allahabad In Uttar Pradesh devotees of Shlva take holy bath at Sangam the confluence of the three sacred rivers, Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswatl- with faith that all their sins in the past and present be washed away so that they can go to heaven after death. Magh Mela fair Is also held In Allahabad. In Maharashtra on this day of Shlvratrl every temple of Lord Shiv resounds with Vedic mantras and shlokas.

These are recited during the Lord Shiva's "Abhlshekh" which Is the ritual bath given to the Shlva-Lingum. Fasting Is observed, night vigil is kept, alms, food and sweets are dIstributed amongst the poor.

This festival of Maha Shlvaratri is held in great esteem In most of the regions In India but especially in UJJain in Madhya Pradesh. In UJJain in the famous temple of Mahakaleshwar Shiva's Llngum is worshipped with the performance of all the religious rites and rituals.

In Gujarat, people fast on this day and visit temples of Lord Shlva. They offer milk and water to the Shiva Linga. In the evenlng Lotus flowers made of Desl Ghee are decorated around the Shiva Llnga.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Sri Kalahasteshwara Temple at Kalahastl and the Bhramaramba Malikarjunaswamy Temple at Srlsailam are thronged by pilgrims during the festival.

In Assam, the Umananda Temple at Peacock Island and the Sukreswar Temple on the banks of the river Brahmaputra become the hub of activity on this auspicious day.

In Sibsagar, the capital of the erstwhile Ahom kings, hundreds of devotees from all over the state throng the Shlva Dol to offer prayers.