About Maha Shivaratri:
Every deity in the Hindu pantheon has a particular day dedicated to Him and that day is considered most sacred and auspicious to worship and propitiate. Maha Shivaratri or Jagar, the night of Shiva is a festival held in honour of the God. In Shiva Purana, Shiva says to Her consort Parvati that no festival other than Maha Shivaratri observed by his devotees gives Him so much pleasure and satisfaction.
This festival is, therefore, observed with great sanctity by the people on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight of Phalguna (February-March). In times of yore, Orissa was a great seat of Shaivism. It was the state religion for over four centuries and as a result, innumerable temples were built and dedicated to Shiva throughout the length and breadth of the State by the pious rulers.
Bhubaneswar alone has about five hundred shrines for Shiva, both big and small. The earliest temlpes date back to 6th-7th century A.D. Since then Shaivism is a great religious force among the people of Orissa.
Most of the prosperous villages have a temple for Shiva. Therefore, the festival is held with great religious fervor in the State. According to a legend it signifies the day on which Lord Shiva swallowed the deadly poison that emanated from the churning of the ocean of milk which would have killed the Gods. Not knowing that it would not cause any harm to Him, all the Gods and Goddesses kept vigil throughout the night praying for His life.
The prayer that was offered to Him that night is repeated since then on Maha Shivaratri. Yet another story tells that at the time of the deluge [Pralaya] the whole world was covered with utter darkness and the Divine Mother restored light to the world by offering prayer to Shiva. It is said that the rituals that are observed in the festival are the same as observed by the Mother Goddess.
The devotees observe strict religious discipline by abstaining from food for the day and keep themselves awake the whole night. Shiva linga is worshipped with vilwa leaves throughout the night with chanting of the Panchakshyara mantra ‘Om ! Namah Shivay !’. The next morning, they take their bath and after worshipping Shiva again break their fasts. Many are the stories narrated in the Puranas about the efficacy of the observance of this festival. The story of the king Chitrabhanu of Ikshvaku dynasty is one.
It is stated that during his previous birth the king was a hunter by name Suswara and was eking out his livelihood by hunting birds and animals and selling them. On a Maha Shivaratri day, he was roaming about in the forest and then shot a deer, but couldn’t take his spoil home as he was overtaken by the darkness of the night. He got upon a vilwa tree and kept awake the whole night stricken with hunger and thirst.
He had starved for the day and so couldn’t sleep in the night due to hunger. While keeping himself awake for the whole night, he plucked leaves from the vilwa tree and dropped them one by one to the ground. He never knew that there was a Shiva Linga beneath the tree and the leaves he dropped fell on the Linga. When the day dawned he went home, sold the deer and purchased food for the family.
He fed a stranger who begged him for food ,because of this virtuous deed that he performed, even if unknowingly, two messengers of Shiva came to him at the hour of his death and conducted his soul to the abode of Shiva. After enjoying divine bliss for long, he was again reborn as king Chitrabhanu of Jambudwipa i.e. India. According to another legend that finds mention in the Puranas, Brahma and Vishnu, the two supreme Gods had a difference as regards their supremacy.
The matter was referred to Shiva for a verdict. Shiva, then asked both the Gods to gauge the depth and measure the height of his Linga. Vishnu took the form of a boar and dived below to ascertain the depth and Brahma on his swan vehicle scaled high to ascertain the height. High above in the void Brahma came across a petal of Ketaki flower drifting downwards. As it was falling from the top of the Linga, He asked the petal about the further distance upward. The petal couldn’t answer since how many ages that it was drifting downwards.
Brahma refrained from going up and went to the nether world to meet Vishnu. Showing the petal He claimed to have ascertained the height of the Linga. At this false pretext, the petal objected. As Brahma was exposed because of the disclosure of the petal, He, in wrath, cursed – “From this day you would be unworthy for the worship of Shiv”. Vishnu, being pleased with her truthfulness blessed saying, ‘On shiva chaturdaphi you will be worthy for Shiva’s worship.
Therefore only on this day Ketaki flower has the right to be offered to the deity. On no other occasion the flower is ever used for worship. Almost all the important shrines for Shiva bear festive look during the festival. Thousands of people flock to the temples from the early rooming to offer worship to the deity. In some places big fairs are arranged where large varieties of goods and implements are bought and sold.
Also read about Harishankar Temple.