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Mahashivratri: The night of Shiva worship

Mahashivratri: The night of Shiva worship
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Mahashivratri, the night of the worship of Lord Shiva, is an auspicious and important festival celebrated across the country. The Shaivites celebrate the festival with great enthusiasm and cultural fervour. According to the Indian calendar, the Mahashivratri festival, also much popular as 'Shivratri' or 'Great Night of Lord Shiva', is observed on the 14th night of the new moon during the dark half of the month of Phalguna. It falls on a moonless February night, when devotees offer special prayer to the lord of destruction. Shivratri (Sanskrit ‘ratri’ = night) is the night when he is said to have performed the Tandava Nritya or the dance of primordial creation, preservation and destruction. Like each year, Mahashivratri  in 2014 will be celebrated on Thursday (27 February) by decorating the Shiv temples in colourful ways.

The legend of origin of Shivratri has it that according to the Puranas, during the great mythical churning of the ocean called Samudra Manthan, a pot of poison emerged from the ocean. The gods and the demons were terrified as it could destroy the entire world. When they ran to Shiva for help, he, in order to protect the world, drank the deadly poison but held it in his throat instead of swallowing it. This turned his throat blue, and since then he came to be known as ‘Nilkantha’, the blue-throated one. Shivratri celebrates this event by which Shiva saved the world.

According to Hindu mythology, Mahashivratri is Lord Shiva's favourite day. Devotees on this day remain on fast or perform hour long spiritual meditation by following rituals to commemorate Mahashivratri and be blessed with grace. In the early morning, they visit temples to offer cold water, milk and bael leaves on the Lingam, a symbol for the worship of Lord Shiva, after properly cleaning it. Many sadhus on Maha Shivratri visit shrines and offer marijuana to worshipers to spread the significance of the festival. Wearing a garland made from rudraksha and applying
turmeric vermilion or holy ash on forehead symbolizes a holy ritual on this religious festival. Holy mantras are also recited and special puja ceremonies are held throughout the night to celebrate Shivratri.

There are many mythological legends associated with this day. According to a popular legend, when a hunter could not find anything to kill for his food in a forest, he waited on the branch of a woodapple tree. In order to attract deer, he started throwing the leaves of the tree on the ground, unaware that there was a Shiva Lingam beneath the tree. Pleased with the woodapple leaves and the patience of the hunter, it is believed that Lord Shiva appeared in front of the hunter and blessed him with wisdom. From that day onwards, the hunter stopped eating meat. Another legend has it that after the Earth was faced with an imminent destruction, Goddess Parvati pledged with Lord Shiva to save the world. Pleased with her prayers, Lord Shiva agreed to save the world on the pretext that the people of the Earth would have to worship him with dedication and passion. From that day onwards, the night came to be known as Maha Shivratri and people began worshipping Shiva with a great enthusiasm.

Among the several other intriguing mythological stories, one is related with marriage Shiva and Parvati as devotees believe that Shivratri is auspicious because it marks the marriage ceremony of Lord Shiva and Parvati. However, many believe that Mahashivratri signifies the auspicious night when Lord Shiva performed the dance ‘Tandava’ that led to the creation, conservation and devastation of the universe.

Mahashivratri is not only one of the magnificent festivals in India but also in Nepal and other regions where Lord Shiva is worshipped. Among the various popular shrines, Amarnath temple pilgrimage or Mount Amarnath (about 140 km from Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir) is believed to be the holiest in Hinduism. Surrounded by fascinating mountainous terrains and picturesque snowy mountains this shrine remains crowded by pilgrims throughout the year especially on Mahashivratri.

Shivratri is considered especially auspicious for women. Married women pray for the well being of their husbands and sons, while unmarried women pray for an ideal husband like Shiva, who is the spouse of Kali, Parvati and Durga. But generally it is believed that anyone who utters the name of Shiva during Shivratri with pure devotion is freed from all sins. He or she reaches the abode of Shiva and is liberated from the cycle of birth and death.
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