India is getting ready to celebrate the Great Night of Shiva or Maha Shivaratri, a festival that honors Lord Shiva. Some legends say that on this night, Shiva performed his Thandav, the dance of creation, preservation, and destruction. Others hold that it is the night of Shiva’s marriage with Parvati. It is the tradition to observe Maha Shivaratri with a rigorous fast, a night-long vigil, chanting of Shiva Mantras, and meditation.

Among the three major gods of the Hindu trinity, Shiva is the most fascinating. In the earliest Hindu texts or Vedas, there is no direction mention of him. Instead, he appears as an aspect of a deity called Rudra. Rudra was responsible for the heavy monsoon rains, while his Shiva aspect was credited with bringing forth new life from the deluge. In essence, he brings balance to Rudra by turning the destructive energy into a constructive one. Thanks to this narrative, he was seen as a god who could destroy and create.

Shiva resembles the Greek god of pleasure, wine, grape harvest, theater, ecstasy, and ritual madness, Dionysus, in many ways. Both are androgynous (Shiva is often depicted as Ardhanarishwara -half-man, half-woman). Some scholars claim that they developed simultaneously when trade brought the ancient Greeks in contact with the Indus Valley people.

Shiva’s personality is intense and sometimes violent. But he is often shown as a yogi deep in meditation. This is probably because his wife, Parvati, is said to have a calming effect on him. While the other gods are depicted as flamboyant and pleasure-loving, Shiva is rather austere in his attire and ways and more of an ascetic.

Some Hindus think that Shiva, like Vishnu, has incarnated many times. One such avatar/incarnation is Hanuman, the monkey-god who is instrumental in helping Rama (an avatar of Vishnu) rescue his wife and defeat Ravana in the Ramayana. But this is not a common view among Shaivites or Shiva devotees. Vishnu devotees look to Vishnu for salvation and hence need his avatars to guide them. Shiva’s devotees tend to look within themselves for their own salvation.

Shiva devotees celebrate the Shivaratri festival every lunar month, from the 13th night into the 14th day. “Shivaratri” denotes “night of Shiva.” The festival is on the darkest night of the lunar calendar and honors the destruction and re-creation orchestrated by Shiva. They spend the night fasting, chanting mantras, visiting Shiva temples, performing Poojas, and doing meditation.

Maha Shivaratri usually occurs in February or March. It celebrates the nuptials of Shiva and Parvati. Instead of having grand celebrations, the faithful keep vigil on this night, praying and meditating in order to purify themselves. By doing so, they hope to overcome darkness and obtain enlightenment.

On this day, they also visit Shiva temples across India to offer worship. Given below are some of the temples that attract large numbers of devotees on Maha Shivaratri.

Tilbhandeshwar Temple, Varanasi

Shiva and Varanasi have a very close bond, so it is not surprising that Mahashivratri celebrations at this temple attract a lot of pilgrims. The rituals include bathing in the Ganges and offering prayers all through the night. Adding color to the religious fervor is the marriage procession of Shiva and Parvati. 

Accompanied by music and dancing, the procession begins at Tilbhandeshwar temple and makes its way to the popular Kashi Vishwanath temple. The Shiva Lingam here supposedly increases in length every year. The temple has a unique combination of Keralite and Banarasi religious practices. For instance, Makara Sankranti and Ayyappa Pooja are performed here.

Bhootnath Temple, Himachal Pradesh

The temple of Bhoothnath at Mandi in Himachal Pradesh is said to host the biggest Maha Shivaratri celebration in India. The tradition was begun by the royal family of Mandi around 500 years ago. Now, there is a week-long International Mandi Shivaratri Fair held every year. People from all over India and abroad visit the fair. 

Legend says that Raj Madhav, the deity who ruled Mandi, and other hill deities visit the temple and offer worship before going on a procession during Shivaratri. Thousands of devotees come to witness the festival. A hundred local deities supposedly attend the festival.
Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, Rishikesh

Neelkanth Mahadev temple is located at a height of 1330 mts. It was supposedly at this place that Shiva consumed the halahala poison that emerged from the Milky Ocean during Samudra Manthan. Due to the poison, his throat turned blue, and he got the name, Neelkanth (the blue-throated one). Every year, there are two huge fairs at this temple. The first is on Maha Shivaratri (February to March), and the other is on Shivaratri in Shraavana month (July to August).

Tapkeshwar Temple, Dehradun 

Tapkeshwar temple in Dehradun sees a huge number of visitors during Maha Shivaratri. The Shiva Linga here is inside a natural cave called Drona cave as supposedly, it was the residence of Dronacharya, the guru of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Water keeps dripping down from the cave’s ceiling on the Shiva Linga. A large fair takes place on the eve of Shivaratri near the temple. It draws a lot of people who also offer prayers to Shiva at the temple.

Baijnath Temple, Himachal Pradesh

Baijnath Temple is a holy shrine in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. Located around 16 km from Palampur in the Beas Valley, the temple is dedicated to Shiva, who is worshipped here as Vaidyanath (the Lord of Physicians). Shiva is in the form of a Lingam. One can see the temple history inscribed on the stone slabs inside the temple complex. Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, supposedly worshipped Shiva in this temple. The Maha Shivaratri festival at the temple is a very grand affair.

Maha Shivaratri 2022 is on March 1.

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