Maha Shivratri is a Hindu festival celebrated every year in reverence of Lord Shiva. This day is celebrated to commemorate Lord Shiva’s marriage with Parvati. The Maha Shivaratri festival, also popularly known as ‘Shivaratri’ or ‘Great Night of Lord Shiva’, is observed on the 13th night/14th day in the Krishna Paksha every year in the month of Falgun according to the Hindu calendar. Shivaratri (literally meaning Shiva’s night) is a festival of great significance for Hindus all over the world. Esoterically, it is symbolic of the mystic union of Jiva (individual soul) with Paramatma (the Supreme Godhead) and it represents the high state of spiritual realization wherein the seeker remains fully aware of his identity with Shiva, the source of perennial joy, and thus experiences eternal Truth, Bliss and Beauty. (Satyam, Shivam. Sundaram).
Generally this festival is celebrated by offerings of Bael or golden apple or Bilva/Vilvam leaves to Lord Shiva, all-day fasting and an all-night-(jagarana). But Shivaratri among the Kashmiri Hindus is very different from the usual tradition.
An interesting fact about Shivaratri in Kashmir is that here it is celebrated a day ahead of the celebration by Hindus in other parts of the country. Shiestival of the community, is celebrated by them on trayodashi or the thirteenth of the dark half of the month of Phalguna (February–March) and not on chaturdashi or the fourteenth as in the rest of the country.
Called ‘Herath’ in Kashmiri, a word derived from the Sanskrit ‘Hararatri’ the ‘Night of Hara’ (another name of Shiva), it has been described as Bhairavotsava in Tantric texts as on this occasion Bhairava and Bhairavi, are propitiated through Tantric worship. According to the legend associated with the origin of the worship, the linga appeared at pradoshakala or the dusk of early night as a blazing column of fire and dazzled Vatuka Bhairava and Rama Bhairava, Mahadevi’s mind-born sons, who approached it to discover its beginning or end but miserably failed. Exasperated and terrified they began to sing its praises and went to Mahadevi, who herself merged with the awe-inspiring jwala-linga. The Goddess blessed both Vatuka and Ramana that they would be worshipped by human beings and would receive their share of sacrificial offerings on that day and those who would worship them would have all their wishes fulfilled.
The three-week celebrations of Shivaratri among the Kashmiri Hindus begin on the first day of the dark fortnight of Phalguna (hurya ukdoh) and end on the 8th day of the bright half of Phalguna. Hur in Kashmiri stands for both singing and whitewashing and the word is used as a prefix to the first nine days of the festivities. Traditionally, the first 6 days (hurya ukdoh to hurya shiyam) are normally reserved for cleaning the entire house to give it a festive look and for collecting the necessary articles like walnuts, utensils and ‘vatuk’ samagri for main puja.
THE VATUK ARRANGMENT (Pots)
The subsequent 3 days–hurya sattam, hurya atham and hurya navam are devoted to congregational nightlong prayers, now preferably in temples. On the 12th, a day before the main puja, new earthenwares, freshly baked and specially prepared by the potter for the occasion (now-a-days many people use pots of steel), are ceremoniously brought to the house and placed on a small circular seat (aasan) made of grass in a room. These pots representing various deities, including the two larger vessels signifying Shiva and Parvati, are embellished with flower garlands tied round their mouths and dried walnuts deposited in them nearly to the brim. The smaller vessels, representing other deities, are similarly readied for formal worship. A couple of more vessels are also kept ready for lesser deities like the Bhairavas. The pots are filled with water in which walnuts are kept. This ceremony is called ‘vatuk barun’ in Kashmiri.
The Puja on the main day comprises of elaborate Tantric rituals that involve observance of a fast during the day and performance of a yaga or fire sacrifice at night that actually involves conducting the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. Dishes comprise of meat or vegetarian delicacies like ‘dam aalo’ and ‘nadru ki yakhni’ are cooked as sacrificial food and partaken of by the worshipper and his family after being symbolically offered to the whole host of deities.
Ritualistic Puja of the sanctified vessels reaches its climax on the 15th day called Dunn Mavas . On this day all the flower-decked vessels are taken to a stream or river for immersion just as the images of Durga and Ganesha are immersed at the close of Durga Puja and Ganapati festivals.
Before immersion, the vessels are emptied of the soaked walnuts and brought back home after symbolic Puja at the bank of the river. These soaked walnuts, along with tumul chut (rotis made out of rice) are distributed as the main prasad among the family members, friends and close relatives.
The use of walnuts for both worship and prasad is something very unique in the observance of Shivaratri by the people of Kashmir. Possibly, it has some symbolic purpose inasmuch as dried seeds when soaked pave the way for renewal of life from objects that are supposed to be dead.
It is customary for the women-folk, the old and young alike, to visit their malyun (parental home) and return to their varyuv (in-laws) with atagat (money in token of love) and kangri (kahsmiri fire-pot), considered to be a good omen on this occasion. The newly-wed girls would normally return from their paternal homes on the eve of the main Shivaratri function, preferably on the 10th day, hayrach bhog (Shivaratri shagun) in kind and cash.
THE TRADITIONAL KANGRI
Shivaratri provides a wonderful and meaningful get-together for all members of the family. Every member of the household gets into a festive mood. It is a day of prayer and meditation for the elders and one of fun and frolic for the youngsters, particularly children as they get a lot of pocket money from their elder as ‘herath kharch’ (just like ‘eidi’ among Muslims). In the older times, during the entire period of the 3-week celebrations, all the family members, men, women and children would play with cowries (sea shells). Despite the fact that the Kashmiri Hindus have faced displacement and hardships in the bygone days, ‘Herath’ remains their most important festival, ensuring their intactness with their roots and the rich heritage.