Maha Sivarathri - the great night
Maha Sivarathri Day is devoted to the Hindu God Siva, the third god
in the trimurthi , who is believed to have a third eye and is regarded
as the destroyer and reproducer, with his abode in the Himalayas.
Maha Sivarathri or great night means the night most auspicious for
worship and a great religious night consecrated to God Siva.
The night is emphasized to signify the darkness of the world of
senses in which man finds himself, while the endeavour is to pass from
darkness to light, from night to day, and from the night to the day of
Unlike other Hindu festivals, Mahasivarathri Day is not celebrated
with pomp and gaiety but is dedicated to meditation and solitude, with
rituals in Sivan Kovils being adhered to strictly, and fasting the whole
day and keeping awake for twenty four hours occupying the centre stage.
Devotees engage in singing devotional songs and offering poojas
throughout the night to spend Sivarathri night as a night-watch vigil
and it is the poojas which are held in almost every kovil as part of the
rituals throughout the night, that form the most important feature. The
offering of flowers as well as leaves of the Vilva (Belli) tree as part
of the pooja, in addition to the fasting and praying is a specialty on
this day of which the night is all important.
The significance of Mahasivarathri is given in detail in the Puranic
The main story which is most popularly imparted to devotees relates
to how the supremacy of Lord Siva was established, indicating the origin
and development of Sivalingam worship, and specifying that the final
release of the human soul is attained only through love, compassion and
devotion, stressing that book learning and display of wealth through
charitable deeds are of no benefit. Observance of religious rights on
this day are believed to procure absolution for the sins committed and
release from the suffering of Karma and rebirth in the cycle of birth
The origin of Mahasivarathri is explained in many mythological
stories - the most common which are found in the Puranas.
One story relates to a hunter who bagged a number of animals but had
to spend the night in the dense forest. In order not to lose the game,
he climbed a Vilva tree to spend the night in it.
This happened to be the night of the new moon in March when the
nights are chilly and the dew falls heavily. To keep himself from
falling asleep and shipping off the tree, the man began picking leaves
and flowers of the tree and dropping them one by one.
At the foot of the tree was a lingam onto which these fell and Lord
Siva was gratified at the homage paid to his symbol and though the
consecration was not pre-meditated, he decreed that the hunter should be
When the hunter died shortly after, Yama the Lord of Hell claimed his
soul as he had committed many sins by taking away the lives of creatures
but Lord Siva intervened and insisted that even though the hunter had
sinned, since before his death he had fasted, kept vigil and offered
pooja to the lingam during the night consecrated to Lord Siva, he had
obtained absolution from his sins and deserved an honourable place in
All stories have as the central and common theme, a sleepless and
hungry hunter consecrating a holy night.
The ancient and historical temple at Thiruketheeswaran in the Mannar
district becomes a centre of high activity on Mahasivarathri day.
Pilgrims from all parts of the country, men and women, young and old
visit this kovil to participate in the religious observances on that
The 'Madams' accommodate the crowds but on the eve of Sivarathri
night, the number of pilgrims is so formidable that it becomes a
herculean task to provide shelter to all.
Volunteers from all walks of life from the YMHA branches in Colombo,
Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trinco and Matale work round the clock from dawn to
dusk assisting the devotees, cooking and serving meals as well as
performing other tasks. Throughout the night, poojas are held and
devotional songs are sung.
In the morning the images of Siva and Parvathi are taken in
procession to the Palavi tank nearby, for the water cutting ceremony. On
reaching the Palavi tank, to the beating of drums, pealing of bells and
blowing of conch shells, and amidst cries of 'Haro Hara', all men and
women dip themselves in the holy water and show their religious devotion
by prostrating on the ground. A dip in the holy waters is believed to
wash away the sins and purify the souls of the devotees.
Sivarathri night is divided into four Yamas (quarters) and four
poojas are customarily performed during the four yamas which signify the
Mind, Intelligence, Heart and Ego.
In each quarter the ceremonies of Abishekam Pooja and Siva Archanam
are performed. In the first quarter, the lingam is bathed in milk, in
the second quarter in curd, in butter in the third quarter and in honey
in the fourth.
Next morning the feet of the Brahmins are bathed first in butter then
in ghee and rose water. Hindus believe that if one observes the
Mahasivarathri rituals for a minimum of twelve years consecutively, it
would bring the absolution of one's sins and karma, a reunion with the
god himself in Kailasa, and further spiritually benefit man's progeny.
Lord Siva is represented as wearing the crescent moon on his head and
is also depicted in the pose of a 'Panchakritaya' dancer with five
The first rhythm of his dance is said to represent creation, the
second maintenance, and the third destruction and involution.
On one Mahasivarathri, night Siva and hisconsort Parvathi assuming
the form of an old couple were moving around watching devotees absorbed
Moved by the sight of the devotees Parvathi asked Lord Siva, "who
among these are most devoted to you ?" with an enigmatic smile Lord Siva
replied. "It is an interesting question. Let's hold a test and see who
is the most devoted". Saying so he waded into the river, and when
neck-deep in water signalled Parvathi to shout for help.
Her call had no favourable response from the crowd of devotees
present at the scene. They sympathized with the old lady but none would
jump into the river to save the old man from drowning.
At this time, a half-drunk came on the scene. Seeing the old man
struggling for life, he jumped into the water with his clothes on and
rescued him from the surging waves and brought him back to safety.
This man who dissipated the whole night in fun and merriment, proved
to be a true devotees of Siva, for he had a love for humanity.
Irrespective of his other weaknesses he had courage and compassion and