Puranas contain many stories and legends describing the
origin of this festival. According to one, during the samudra manthan, a pot of
poison emerged from the ocean. This terrified the Gods and demons as the poison
was capable of destroying the entire world, and they ran to Shiva for help. To
protect the world from its evil effects, Shiva drank the deathly poison but
held it in his throat instead of swallowing it. This made his throat turn blue,
and he was given the name Neelakantha, the blue-throated one. Shivaratri is the
celebration of this event by which Shiva saved the world.
Maha Shivaratri Festival Various traditions and customs related to Shivaratri Festival are dutifully followed by the worshipers of Lord Shiva. Devotees observe strict fast in honour of Shiva, though many go on a diet of fruits and milk some do not consume even a drop of water. Devotees strongly believe that sincere worship of Lord Shiva on the auspicious day of Shivaratri, absolves a person of sins and liberates him from the cycle of birth and death. 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 Lord Shiva, who is regarded as the ideal husband.
To mark the Shivratri festival, devotees wake up early
and take a ritual bath, preferably in river Ganga. After wearing fresh new
clothes devotees visit the nearest Shiva temple to give ritual bath to the
Shiva Lingum with milk, honey, water etc.
On Shivaratri, worship of Lord Shiva continues all through the day and night. Every three hours priests perform ritual pooja of Shivalingam by bathing it with milk, yoghurt, honey, ghee, sugar and water amidst the chanting of ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ and ringing of temple bells. Nightlong vigil or jaagran is also observed in Shiva temples where large number of devotees spends the night singing hymns and devotional songs in praise of Lord Shiva. It is only on the following morning that devotee break their fast by partaking prasad offered to the deity.
Shivratri Festival is particularly awaited by Hindu women. On Shivaratri, married and unmarried women perform puja with great faith, as Goddess Parvati who is also called ′Gaura′, is regarded as the giver of ′suhag′ – good husbands, marital bliss and a long and prosperous married life. One can therefore see find women enthusiastically observing the fast and performing the rituals Shiva Pujas on the day.
After the ritual bath, preferably in the sacred waters of river Ganga, devotees pay a visit to the nearest Lord Shiva temple carrying the traditional puja items like milk, water, bel leaves, fruits, incense stick, oil lamp etc. Due to massive popularity of the festival several stalls selling puja items come up outside the temple and do a thriving business.
In the bigger and more popular Shiva temples there is massive rush of devotees. Long queues can be noticed as devotees, mostly women, wait for their turn to perform puja. Since, bathing of Shiva Linga with milk is part of the Shivaratri Puja tradition; little rivers are formed due to the excessively overflowing milk and fruit in the Shiva temples on this day.
Ritual worship of Shiva Linga is done by temple priests every three hours all through the day and night of Shivaratri Festival. Shouts of ‘Shivaji ki Jai’, chanting of the mantra, ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ and ringing of temple bells make the atmosphere religious and devotional.
Nightlong vigil on Shivratri or the Jaagran is celebrated by singing of devotional hymns and songs in worship of Lord Shiva. And, it is only in the following morning that the devotees break their fast by consuming prasad offered to the Lord.
Since Lord Shiva is regarded as an ascetic god, Maha Shivratri is very popular with ascetics. Thandai, a drink made with bhang (cannabis), almonds, and milk, is essentially drunk by the devout on the day as cannabis is said to have been very dear to Shiva.