Maha Shivratri in Varanasi
I’m a big fan of Shiv! For me, Shiv is the epitome of how to play the game of life–always plugged in, but never too attached. Shiv is innocent and non-judgemental. He’s also a little clumsy by normative standards, which helps me identify with him personally. And Maha Shivratri is my favourite festival! In the last 5 years, I’ve had some of my most memorable travel experiences on this day. So I decided to pen down whatever little I know about Maha Shivratri, including my own experiences.
A celebration of the esoteric
Shiv is perhaps one of the most enigmatic deities in Hindu mythology and religion. He is the Supreme being, the Destroyer who can bring apocalypse by opening his third eye and yet at the same time, is also the god of music, dance and yoga! Shaivism, a sect within Hinduism based on the worship of Shiv, has followers all across the Indian subcontinent. That is perhaps why Maha Shivratri, a festival dedicated to Lord Shiv is celebrated with a lot of fervour in several cities.
Maha Shivratri falls on the no moon night of the month of Falgun (Feb/March) and is said to mark the marriage of Shiv and Paarvati. It is said that the energy is particularly high on this night because of the relative positions of the sun, moon, and the earth. This is probably why people want to make the most of this day (and night!), often not sleeping at all for celebrations that can go on for as many as five nights! This festival is especially about exploring different ways of being in a non-judgemental way.
Colour and pomp: The Banarasi way!
Varanasi models itself around Shiv and his carefree, all-accepting & forever plugged-in nature. And on Maha Shivratri, this city goes bonkers! Music, dance, high-spirited pilgrimages, bhaang, and Baraat are just some of the Banarsi ways to rejuvenate the soul and replenish one’s energy for the coming year.
One of the exciting events is ‘Baraat’, which celebrates Shiv and Paarvati’s wedding. It’s almost as if the whole city comes out to dance. People dress up as different mythical creatures from Shiv’s wedding entourage–rakshasas, demons, other deities like Ganesh, and Shiv himself. It is said that Shiv particularly welcomed the people who were rejected by society to join his party. The Baraat is sort of like Varanasi’s version of Halloween. People dress up, dance like crazy, and when they get tired, there is Bhaang thandai available on tap to replenish one’s energy!
Another way to celebrate Shiv’s power and knowledge is through an exciting pilgrimage called the ‘Panchkoshi Yatra’. It is an 84 km pilgrimage around Varanasi. Although this journey is undertaken all year round, on Maha Shivratri, thousands of people make the resolve to complete it in 24 hours–on foot, and barefoot at that! As soon as the clock strikes at midnight, devotees begin by taking a dip at the Manikarnika Ghat, the starting point of the pilgrimage. Then they visit all the shrines on the way, all night long. Most of these are young men and it is said that the man that does this pilgrimage on Maha Shivratri gets a wife like the goddess Paarvati herself.
When the ghats come alive with music
Maha Shivratri is also an occasion for the coming together of various artists. Damaru-bearer Shiv is associated with music and dance (he has often become the face of contemporary hipster music!), so it is only fair to have a legendary music festival dedicated to him. The Dhrupad Mela is a 5-day-long music festival that begins 4 days before Maha Shivratri and culminates on this festival. One of the things that make it uniquely charming is that it occurs at night-time, from 8 pm to 8 am. The ghats come alive with beautiful Dhrupad music performed by various artists, including the stalwarts of Indian classical music. In addition to this, yajnas happen on all the ghats and chants of the ‘mahamrityunjay jaap’ can be heard.
My own adventures!
I have been participating in the Maha Shivratri festivities for 5 years now. At my first time, I danced in the Baraat and felt the infectious energy first-hand!
In my second year, I went for the Panchkoshi Yatra. It was curiosity that drove me, rather than know-how, so I showed up wearing regular clothes and shoes. However, I noticed that everyone else was barefoot. Thinking that they were probably the more hardcore kind of devotees, I went on. But I was subsequently persuaded by some acquaintances to remove my shoes too! The whole journey was super lively, people were cheerful, and some were serving water and food. There was song, dance and energy with the beautiful countryside as the backdrop.
On the way, there were some really old temples–as old as the 3-4th century AD from the Gupta period! After about 10-12 km, the road gave way to gravel and I started limping (because the little stones hurt), not being able to keep up. Having crossed 32 km, I sat at a temple to rest but dozed off and the next thing I knew, four hours elapsed! Realising that everyone had gone on ahead, I started too–but this time wearing my shoes. I eventually got too tired to walk further though, and hitchhiked the rest of the way. On reaching the finish line, I was so exhausted that I asked a boatman to take me home and simply collapsed into a deep sleep.
I later found out that all the people who had been smoothly walking barefoot had been practising for 2-3 weeks by walking on gravel and sand to build calluses. Quite impressed, I resolved to do the pilgrimage again next time with better preparation. Though next year found me occupied with work, and so I did the yatra on a scooty, stopping for the shrines, yummy food and dancing along the way!
Last year, I had just come back from the Kumbh Mela when Maha Shivratri began. Although I was already spent from that trip, I decided to stay up and join the festivities once again. This time, I played smart and did a bit of everything–danced in the Baraat, did a stretch of the Panchkoshi Yatra, went for the Dhrupad Mela and just enjoyed the city in general. I stayed awake for 24 hours and then slept for the next 24!
It’s true what they say, the human body definitely gets infused with extraordinary amounts of energy and zeal during Maha Shivratri!