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Twelve Jyotirlingas

The Shiva Linga is the most common object of worship all over India. But twelve such stones are considered more important and are known as Jyotirlinga. They are situated in the following places:

    Omkareshwar in Madhya Pradesh
    Rameshwar in Tamil Nadu
    Bhimashankar in Daminyal near Pune in Maharashtra
    Mahakaleshwar in Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh
    Somanath in Saurashtra
    Nageshwar in Dwarka
    Mallika1 in Uttar Pradesh,
    Kedarnath in the Himalayas,
    Dhushmeshwar in Ellora near Aurangabad
    Trimbakeshwar near Nashik
    Vishvanath in Benares and
    Vaidyanath in Parli in Marathvada.

All over India, Maha Shivratri occurs on the 14th night of the new moon during the dark half of the month of Phalguna. On a moonless night in February every year, occurs the night of Shiva, the destroyer. This is the night when He is said to have performed the Tandava or the dance of primordial creation, preservation and destruction.

Devotees of Shiva fast during the day and maintain a long vigil during the night. In temples all across the country, bells ring, sacred texts are chanted and traditional offerings of leaves and milk are made to the Shiv lingam, the phallic symbol of the god. There is a legend behind Shiva's phallic form. It is believed that once Brahma and Vishnu, the two pillars of the holy Trinity were having an argument as to who was supreme. Brahma declared himself to be the Creator of all and thus more revered. Vishnu claimed that since he was the Creator and the Destroyer, he commanded more respect. At that moment a huge lingam ablaze with flames appeared from nowhere. Both the gods were so overwhelmed by its constantly increasing size, that they forgot their quarrel and decided to determine its size. Vishnu took the form of a boar and went to the netherworld while Brahma in the form of a swan ascended to the skies. Neither could ascertain the size. Just then, Shiva appeared out of the lingam and proclaimed that he was the progenitor of both of them. He was the Creator, Preserver and the Destroyer. He demanded that thereafter he be worshipped in his phallic form, the lingam.

On the day of Shivratri, the lingam 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 lingam. Dhatura and jati, though poisonous fruits, are believed to be sacred to Shiva and thus offered at his temple. Eleven is considered to be the sacred number of the Lord. Devotees keep a fast (vrat) on Shivratri and observe strict rules, for vardan (boon).

Special celebrations are held at important Shiva temples at Chidambaram, Kalahasi, Khajuraho and Varanasi. Worship of Shiva is to release the worshipper from the cycle of birth and rebirth. In Kashmir, the festival is held for 15 days; the thirteenth day is observed as Herath, a day of fast followed by a family feast.

Every month in the Hindu calendar has listed the thirteenth day of the darker half of the month as Shivaratri i.e. 'Shiva's great night'. The Shivaratri which falls in the krishna paksha of the month of Magha is celebrated all over the country as 'Mahashivaratri'. As the name indicates this festival is celebrated in honour of Shiva, the third God of the Hindu Trinity. This is one time when the Hindus of all castes and creeds get together to observe this day with a fast and pious exercises. The peculiar feature of this festival is that the night before the feast the devotees keep an all night vigil. To stay awake the whole night is very important for every Hindu as it adds up to ones merits. The devotees spend the night singing hymns, reading sacred texts and other such religious activities. The Puranas say that those who keep an all night vigil on Shivaratri will be rewarded will material prosperity and paradise after death.

It is believed that if one has to worship Shiva he/she must follow a very strict regimen. The Lord is offered bel leaves, ketaki flowers, dhatura, milk, rice, water. This is one time when all the people irrespective of caste and creed take part in the rituals. There are no restrictions as to who can or cannot observe this fast.

One of the prehistoric festivals of India is Sivaratri, or night of Siva. Siva is an ancient deity. Among the Hindu triumvirate, Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the preserver and Siva is considered the destroyer (Trident force). In various forms Siva may be traced clearly right through the early historic age to the Indus valley civilization : further back in mesolithic carvings on walls. Some feel Siva as the lord of the animals or the hunt, is reflected even as far ago as the paleolithic age as found in the cave paintings in many places in the world. This symbolizes Siva as an ancient deity.

The legends of Siva reveal all these aspects. Sivaratri signifies the end of winter and the arrival of spring as well.

People get up earlier than usual, take a bath preferably in a river, lake or at home. Then they go to a temple nearby or set up a small linga at home.

They commence the rituals (pooja) in the usual manner of sprinkling water, offering flowers, leaves, incense , wave bits of burning camphor on a plate (aarati), etc while listening or repeating the mantras. These are for the most part a collection of terms in Sanskrit of the titles of Siva, a type of shorthand reference to the legends. In the rituals, leaves of a forest tree Aegle marmelos ( bilva, maredu, wood apple) are traditionally used in the services. After the pooja is over they observe a fast. During the period people are permitted to eat some light snacks made of sago, puffed rice and sweet potato.

Unlike each Hindu festival which begins with the ritualistic worship of the presiding deity followed by a feast, Sivaratri differs in that one dedicates the entire day of twenty-four hours to the worship of Lord Siva. Among the entire pantheon of Indian Gods, Siva is known as the "poor Lord" (Daridranarayana) whose attire consists of deer's skin wrapped around his body and one who wears snakes for ornaments and ash on his forehead.

In the evening they generally go to a nearby temple where in the company of many others they listen to recitals of the legends and their meanings. They do not sleep that night, but remain awake. The worship continues throughout the night either by way of chanting the Rudrama, singing in eulogy of Lord Siva or/and listening to religious discourses interpreting the legends associated with the festival.

Often the family visits a holy shrine -- the trip may take a few days. At such temples the crowds are huge. There may be various platforms / stages erected for the occasion all over the place for various traditional performing arts. A regular fair or market springs up. In olden days people used to buy things which weren't available in the remote villages.

Today the market aspect is not important, but it affords a chance to see old traditional dances, drama and other performing arts which are disappearing.

A point to note is everyone in Siva temples is considered equal : in Siva temples in the Deccan, anyone can walk in. Even animals like bulls and dogs are not stopped from wandering where they please--- right inside the chamber, if they feel like it. ( This was due to the activities of medieval reformers like the Virasaivas and others.)

In Andhra Pradesh Siva temples are very important. It appears the ancient faith of the Telugu people was some form of Saivism. There are important centers like Srisailam, Kalahasti, Kalesvaram, Draksharamam, Keesara among many others.

The rituals are more or less the same all over India. The ancient nature of Saivism explains the existence of Siva temples in all corners of India. There are a number of sects in Hinduism but almost all observe Sivaratri.