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A number of legends in Hindu mythology explain the observance of the various rituals during Maha Shaivaratri. A particular legend has it that Lord Shiva once declared the 14th night of the dark fortnight of the Phalgun month to be his most favourite day. He also laid down the steps of the performance of the rituals in his honour to Goddess Parvati, his divine consort, who repeated it to her friends who in turn passed it on to the ruling princes on earth. Thus the sanctity of Shivaratri was broadcast all over the world. The present day Shivaratri rituals are performed in accordance with the age-old Shivaratri observances and as per the ceremonial instructions given by Lord Shiva.
The real celebration of Shivratri takes place in the temples on the night of "Chauthas" or "Choudesh" (fourteenth day of the waxing moon) and lasts till the morning of Amavas (dark night). On the Maha Shivaratri day, the orthodox Hindu rises early in the morning and bathes in a sacred river (like the Ganga), or any other holy water source. He offers prayers to the sun-god, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva.
Thereafter, he wears clean clothes (preferably new) and applies vibhuthi (sacred ash) on the forehead making a special mark of three horizontal stripes (tripundra). The three stripes symbolise spiritual knowledge, purity and penance. In a way, they are also said to represent the three eyes of Lord Shiva.
Many people also wear a Rudraksha Mala (bead made with seeds of the Rudraksha tree). The Rudraksha tree is said to have sprung from the tears of Lord Shiva and is considered holy for the Hindus.
Then he carries a pot of water and proceeds to any Shiva temple nearby to bathe the Shiva Lingam. If he worships at home, he sets up a small Shiva Lingam there itself and bathes it. In most places, Shivratri is largely observed in temples. The devotees walk around the Shiva Lingam three or seven times with his pot, and then pour water over it. Some also pour milk. Joyful shouts of 'Shankarji ki Jai' (Hail Lord Shiva) and the sound of bells reverberate throughout the temple.
According to the Shiva Purana, the Maha Shivratri worship must incorporate six items:
1) Bael leaves - The ceremonial offering of bael leaves represents purification of the soul.
2) Vermilion paste (Sindoor) - Applying this on the linga after bathing it represents virtue.
3) Food items - Food items such as rice and fruits are offered to the Lord to ensure a long life and fulfillment of desires.
4) Incense (Dhoop) - Incense sticks are kindled before the deity to gain wealth.
5) Lamp (Diya) - The lighting of the lamp is believed to be conducive to the attainment of knowledge.
6) Betel leaves (Paan patta) - This signifies satisfaction with worldly pleasures.
These six items form an indispensable part of Maha Shivratri and are still used in the traditional worship of the Lord, be it a simple ceremony at home or grand temple worship.
In many temples, everyone who wants to take part in the pujan(worship) on Choudesh night is individually given a Shiv ling by the temple management. As the devotee sits down to perform the worship, this Shiv ling is placed before him. A medium-sized vessel with a narrow neck known as "kalsa" or "kalash" is kept near him. It 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 pandit(priest) of the temple who sits on a platform and performs the rituals with chanting of mantras, and everyone imitates his actions even if they do not know the rituals themselves or cannot chant the mantras verbatim.
A magnificent light is the indication or identity of Lord Shiva and the Shiva Lingam is considered to be the symbol of it. Hence, the formal worship on Maha Shivratri consists of bathing the Shiva Lingam. Lord Shiva is said to be burning with the fire of austerity and so only those items are offered to Him that have a cooling effect. A cool water bath is believed to propitiate Him best. The devotee baths the Lingam and prays that He give him wisdom. He decorates the linga with flowers and garlands; offers incense sticks and fruit; hugs the linga and rings the temple bells.
On Maha Shivaratri, pious Hindus abstain from food and drink for the whole day and night, a ritual that is believed to give great merit to the worshipper. They observe a Vrata (penance) during the night and worship the Lord by dropping water with bel leaves onto his emblem - the Shiva linga. This is done in commemoration of the dropping of the bel leaves by the hunter Suswara as mentioned in the story of King Chitrabhanu. The story of Suswara is recounted during the Maha Shivaratri night and is believed to give much merit to the listeners. The puja is done four times during the night. The whole night is divided into four "prahars", or quarters, of three hours each. There are special prayers for each of the four quarters and the devotee who goes through these prayers is considered to be working his way up to unification with Lord Shiva after his death. At the end of each "prahar", a bath is taken in milk, curd, ghee and honey respectively. This is followed by a service which may include singing and dancing. The observance of all these rituals are said to give one happiness in this and the next world. The same is as much true for a high-class person as an outcaste.
On the next day (Amavas), alms are given to the sadhus - bhakts(devotees) of Shiv. In memory of Suswara's hospitality to the stranger, Brahmans are fed and the worshipper makes a prayer to Lord Shiva that He be propitiated with his fast and grant him self-knowledge and bless him with salvation.
The occassion of Maha Shivaratri has a different significance for different people. For the insincere, Maha Shivaratri is a day of celebration shorn of any piety or depth of knowledge. Unmarried women pray for a husband like Shiva, who is considered to be the ideal husband. For housewives, it is the time to seek blessings of the Lord for their family and children. For most people, especially children, it is time to celebrate, enjoy and eat the delicious "mithai" (sweets) first offered to god as 'Prasad' (food offering) and then distributed to friends and family members. But for ardent devotees, it is an auspicious day to honour the Lord, purify themselves and express their devotion to God through worship and the performance of rituals such as fasting, praying and meditation.
Om namo hiranya bahade
Pashupataye Namo Namaha
Brahma Shivo me Astu Sada Shiv Om
Tanno Shiva Prachodayaat
Oho devaya vidmahi
Tanno Shiva Prachodayaat
Namaste Astu Bhagavan
Shriman Mahadevaya Namaha