Shivaratri (Sivaratri)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: February-March; thirteenth and fourteenth day of the waning half of the Hindu month of Phalguna
Where Celebrated: India, Mauritius, Nepal
Symbols and Customs: Bel Tree, Lingam


Shivaratri is a festival in the tradition of Hinduisim, which many scholars regard as the oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day to day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

Shivaratri is the main festival held in honor of Shiva (or Siva), the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration. According to Hindu teaching, this is the night on Shivaratri

which Shiva danced the Tandav, his celestial dance of Creation, Preservation, and Destruction. Throughout India and in other countries where he is venerated, Hindus eat only once on the thirteenth day of Phalguna; after this, they fast in preparation for the Great Night of Shiva, as the festival is also known. It is the sacred duty of every worshipper to keep a vigil throughout the night and to worship him at midnight by offering leaves from the wood-apple or BEL TREE . There is an old Hindu saying that even an intelligent dog will not touch its food on this day.

Huge gatherings take place in temples all over India on Shivaratri-even in rural areas, where the bells ring all night and people stay awake by chanting Shiva's name, singing songs about his glory, and recounting his legends. Special celebrations are held at the Shiva shrines in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh, and hundreds of thousands of Hindus make the pilgrimage to Pashupatinath Temple in Katmandu, Nepal, for worship, feasting, and ritual bathing in the holy Bagmati River. In Port Louis, Mauritius, wooden arches covered with flowers are carried to the holy lake known as Grand Bassin, to get water with which the images of Shiva can be washed. A large number of fairs are also held on Shivaratri, and bathing in holy tanks or sacred rivers is a common activity.

Members of all castes or divisions of Hindu society are allowed to participate in the worship of Shiva. While the wealthy perform elaborate rites that include expensive offerings to Shiva and substantial gifts to the poor, members of the lower castes must content themselves with pouring water on the ShivaLINGAM . The ceremonies surrounding Shivaratri are particularly popular with Hindu women, especially those wishing to become pregnant.


Bel Tree

The bel tree-also known as the bilwa or bilva tree-is sacred to Lord Shiva. According to legend, a disreputable hunter was going out to hunt one day (which happened to be the day of the festival) when he passed one of Shiva's temples and saw a number of people worshipping the LINGAM and calling out Shiva's name. Mockingly, he imitated their cries; without realizing it, uttering the god's name on that holy day removed some of his sins. His hunting was unsuccessful, which meant that he had to fast. Then, as night approached, he climbed up into a bel tree to escape the wild animals and wait for morning. Unable to sleep, he kept an involuntary vigil; and shivering from the cold, he accidentally shook down some of the bel leaves, which fell onto a stone LINGAM beneath the tree. Although none of these acts was deliberate, the hunter ended up performing exactly those rites that the worshippers of Shiva perform on Shivaratri, and he was instantly released from his past sins and made a saint.

The message here is that anyone who consciously observes the rituals associated with Shivaratri will be granted prosperity in life and salvation thereafter.


According to Hindu legend, Shiva manifested himself in the form of a huge, flaming linga or phallic symbol in order to get the better of both Brahma and Vishnu, who were busy arguing over which among the three was the most powerful god. To settle the matter, Brahma and Vishnu agreed that whoever was the first to find the end of the blazing column of fire that appeared before them would be considered the greatest of the Hindu gods. Vishnu, in the form of a boar, started looking for the bottom of the lingam, while Brahma, in the form of a swan, started looking for the top. After years of searching, neither was successful, and they were both forced to acknowledge Shiva's superiority.

The use of the lingam (also known as the linga or Shiva-linga) as a symbol for Shiva was introduced after the Aryan immigration into India, having been taken from aboriginal worship. Gradually it was adopted by the lower Hindu castes, who were in closer touch with the aboriginal tribes, and finally it was accepted by all castes as the emblem of Shiva.

The lingam-whose name is Sanskrit for "sign" or "distinguishing symbol"-represents Shiva's generative powers. It is usually a short, cylindrical pillar with a rounded top, made out of stone or wood and decorated with carvings of the god along its sides. The lingam is worshipped with offerings of fresh flowers, pure water, young sprouts of grass, fruit, leaves from the BEL TREE , and sun-dried rice.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Crim, Keith R. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Sanon, Arun. Festive India. New Delhi: Frank Bros., 1986. Sharma, Brijendra Nath. Festivals of India. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1978. Thomas, Paul. Hindu Religion, Customs, and Manners. 6th ed. New York: APT Books, 1981. Shivaratri

Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000. Underhill, Muriel M. The Hindu Religious Year. London: Oxford University Press, 1921. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986. Welbon, Guy Richard, and Glenn E. Yocum. Religious Festivals in South India and Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1982.


Kashmir News Network


February-March; 14th day of waning half of Hindu month of Phalguna
A Hindu holiday observed throughout India and Nepal. Legend says that on this night Lord Shiva, the great god of destruction (who is also the restorer), danced the Tandav, his celestial dance of Creation, Preservation, and Destruction. Hindu devotees of Shiva eat only once on the day before this "Night of Shiva," and then fast and tell stories about him. In India, pilgrims throng the Shiva shrines in Chidambaram (Tamil Nadu), Kalahasti (Andhra Pradesh), and Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), where special celebrations are held. Mandi in Himachal Pradesh becomes one big party. Devotees carry deities on temple chariots, and there are folk dances and folk music.
Hundreds of thousands make the pilgrimage to Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, for worship, feasting, and ritual bathing in the holy Bagmati River.
In Port Louis, Mauritius, wooden arches covered with flowers are carried to Grand Bassin, to get water from the holy lake to wash the symbols of Shiva.
Ministry of Tourism, Government of India
Rm. No 123, Transport Bhawan, No. 1, Parliament St.
New Delhi, Delhi 110 001 India
91-11-23715084; fax: 91-11-23715084
Nepal Tourism Board, Tourist Service Center
Bhrikuti Mandap
P.O. Box 11018
Kathmandu, Nepal
977-1-4256909; fax: 977-1-4256910
BkHolWrld-1986, Mar 10
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 190
RelHolCal-2004, p. 184
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