February 2017


Maha Shivarathri: The ‘Great Night of Shiva’
February 2017




Lord Shiva in meditation

Maha Shivarathri is more of an observance, a night devoted to the veneration of Shiva, an extraordinarily powerful, complex and paradoxical god.


Words: Richard Boyle | Photography: Varnan Sivanesan


A Shivarathri is held every lunar month during the darkest night, the first night of the new moon. Once a year, however, usually in February or March, Maha Shivarathri, "The Great Night of Shiva" - apparently the god's favourite night - is observed in the month of Phalguna in the Hindu calendar. In 2017 this falls on Friday, February 24.


Shiva and Parvati


Shiva, meaning "The Auspicious One", together with Brahma and Vishnu, form the Trimurti, the Hindu Trinity. In Shaivism, the Hindu denomination that reveres Shiva, he is considered the Supreme Being who creates, protects but ultimately destroys the universe. Thus Shiva combines contradictory and complementary aspects: he is creative and destructive, austere and exuberant, benevolent and fierce, good and evil.


Shiva is the Mahayogi, "Great Yogi", and the patron of Yoga who generates immense power through tapas, or austerity. Yet this austere yogic aspect is associated with generation and fertility. He is depicted in various forms in iconography, one of which is as an omniscient Yogi in meditation. A more familial example represents Shiva with his wife Parvati - another principal deity in Shaivism - who is the Hindu mother goddess, gentle and nurturing.


Shiva's image


Whatever the form, Shiva is depicted with a third eye and the matted hair of a Hindu ascetic, from which flows the sacred River Ganges and which is adorned with the crescent moon, thrown by jealous ascetics. Shiva, sometimes blue-skinned as he drank poison to save the universe, embraces or holds a trishula (trident) to deter demons, a dumara (drum) to provide the bass sound to create the universe, and a cobra around his neck, the three coils symbolising the past, present and future.


Sometimes the Shiva Lingam, the god's main emblem, graces the foreground of such iconography, but in reality this stone cylindrical pillar with a rounded top, which symbolises his generative and creative powers, should preferably be seen in a Shiva temple at the holiest time of Maha Shivarathri.


Maha Shivarathri


According to Hindu tradition, Maha Shivarathri is associated with Shiva's second marriage to Parvati after the death of his first wife, Shakti, in a Yagna, or sacrificial fire. Subsequently Shiva lived as an ascetic on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, but Shakti, reborn as Parvati wooed Shiva, and their marital union is commemorated by devotees.


In addition it is believed this was the night that Shiva, as Nataraja, "The Lord of the Dance", performed the Cosmic Dance displayed in the bronze sculptures, which capture this event.

Sometimes the Shiva Lingam, the god’s main emblem, graces the foreground of such iconography, but in reality this stone cylindrical pillar with a rounded top, which symbolises his generative and creative powers, should preferably be seen in a Shiva temple at the holiest time of Maha Shivarathri.


Customs and observance


Maha Shivarathri is held on the darkest night, invariably at a temple; physical darkness the requisite ambience for overcoming the spiritual darkness in order to worship Shiva.


On Maha Shivarathri day, devotees fast throughout the observance, and early in the morning after washing and donning clean clothes, proceed to the temple. Their purpose is the ritual bathing of the Shiva Lingam with water or milk. Vermillion paste, lamps and betel leaves are used in the ritual.


The sound of bells and constant chant of Om Namah Shivaya ("I offer to Shiva a respectful invocation of his name"), the most important mantra in Shaivism resonates in the temple.


At night devotees worship Shiva by dropping water with leaves of the woodapple tree onto the Lingam in four prahars, three-hour periods, to acquire unification with Shiva in the afterlife.


Maha Shivarathri also has other significances. Parvati,is prayed to by married women for the well-being of their husbands and children, while unmarried women pray for a husband with Shiva's qualities. For true devotees, however, it is a time to respect Lord Shiva through worship, fasting, prayer and meditation.


Five Abodes of Shiva


There are many Hindu temples devoted to Shiva in Sri Lanka where Maha Shivarathri may be witnessed. But, if possible, visit one of the ancient Pancha Ishwarams (“Five Abodes of Shiva”), located round the coast to safeguard the Island against natural disasters. From the ancient past to today, these temples have attracted a multitude of Shaivite devotees from India.


North - Naguleswaram near Jaffna: has a 15-day festival prior to Maha Shivarathri.
North-West - Ketheeswaram near Mannar: once served the ancient Tamil ports of Manthai and Kudiramalai.
West - Munneswaram near Chilaw: Rama of the Ramayana is said to have visited.
South - Tondeswaram near Matara: sacked by the Portuguese like the others, but not restored.
North-East - Koneswaram near Trincomalee: lies on the same longitude as Mount Kailash, Shiva’s abode.

 

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    Nataraja, 'The Lord of the Dance'

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    Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati

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    The Kalasam pooja

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    Abhishekam - bathing of the Lingam with tumeric, milk, curd and thiruneru

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    Abhishekam - bathing of the Lingam with tumeric, milk, curd and thiruneru

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    Abhishekam - bathing of the Lingam with tumeric, milk, curd and thiruneru

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    Abhishekam - bathing of the Lingam with tumeric, milk, curd and thiruneru

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    A ritual being performed

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    Bathing the Lingam with water

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    After the bathing has been completed it is adorned with flower garlands

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    After the bathing has been completed it is adorned with flower garlands

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    The Kalasam being taken around the temple

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    'Five Abodes of Shiva'

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