Literally 'the great night of Shiva', Shivaratri, also called Mahashivaratri, is a grand occasion celebrated on the moonless night of the month of Phalguna, which is fourteenth day in the dark half, and is dedicated to Shiva, the destroyer. This is an important day for the devotees of Shiva, who stay awake throughout the night, praying to him.

From early morning, Shiva temples are flocked by devotees, mostly women, who come to perform the traditional 'Shivling' worship and hope for favors from the god. All through the day, devotees abstain from eating food and break their fast only the next morning, after the night long worship. The day is considered to be specially auspicious for women.

According to one legend, the Goddess Parvati performed tapas, and prayed and meditated on this day to ward off any evil that may befall her husband on the Moonless night. Since then, Mahashivaratri is also believed to be an auspicious occasion for women to pray for the well-being of their husbands and sons. An unmarried woman prays for a husband like Shiva, who is considered to be the ideal husband. Worshipping Shiva on this day is believed to bestow one with happiness and prosperity. Phalguna is a peculiar month. Immediately after Mahashivaratri, almost like a miracle, the trees are full of flowers as if to announce that after winter, the fertility of the earth has been rejuvenated. And this perhaps is the reason why the linga is worshipped throughout India as a symbol of fertility.

According to the Shiva Purana, the Mahashivaratri worship must incorporate six items: the ceremony of people offer the cooling wood-apple 'bel' leaves to the hot-blooded deity - representing purification of the soul; the vermilion paste applied on the linga after bathing it - representing virtue; food offering which is conducive to longevity and gratification of desires; incense, yielding wealth; the lighting of the lamp symbolizing the attainment of knowledge; and betel leaves marking satisfaction with worldly pleasures. These six items, till today, form an indispensable part of Mahashivaratri, be it a simple ceremony at home or a grand temple worship. By offering water, hugging the linga, lighting the diya and incense, and ringing the temple bells, devotees call into focus all their senses, making them acutely aware of themselves and the universe to which they belong.

Devotees bathe at sunrise, preferably in the Ganga, or any other holy water source (like the Shiva Sagar tank at Khajuraho). They offer prayers to the Sun, Vishnu and Shiva. This is a purification rite, an important part of all Hindu festivals. Wearing a clean piece of clothing after the holy bath, worshippers carry pots of water to the temple to bathe the Shiva ling. The temple reverberates with the sound of bells and shouts of 'Shankerji ki Jai' or 'Hail Shiva'. Devotees circum-ambulate the linga, three or seven times, and then pour water or milk over it. The linga is bathed with milk, water and honey. It is then anointed with sandalwood paste. People offer wood apple or bel leaves and fruit, milk, sandalwood and jujube fruit or 'ber' to the linga. Shiva is believed to be very hot tempered, and hence things, which have a cooling effect, are offered to him. People decorate the linga with flowers and garlands and also offer incense sticks and fruit.

According to a legend in the Ramayana, once King Bhagiratha left his kingdom to mediate for the salvation of the souls of his ancestors. He observed a penance to Brahma for a thousand years, requesting Ganga to come down to earth from heaven. He wanted her to wash over his ancestor's ashes to release them from a curse and allow them to go to heaven. Brahma granted his wish but told him to pray to Shiva, who alone could sustain the weight of her descent. Accordingly, Ganga descended on Shiva's head, and after meandering through his thick matted locks, reached the earth. According to a modified version, what reached the earth was just sprinkles from his hair. This story is believed to be reenacted by bathing the linga. The love of water, the primary element of life, is also remembered in this ritualistic action.

A legend explains the benefits of the all-night worship of Shiva. There was once a poor tribal man who was a great devotee of Shiva. One day he went deep into the forest to collect firewood. However he lost his way and could not return home before nightfall. As darkness fell, he heard the growls of wild animals. Terrified, he climbed onto the nearest tree for shelter till day- break. Perched amongst the branches, he was afraid he would doze and fall off the tree. To stay awake, he decided to pluck a leaf at a time from the tree and drop it, while chanting the name of Shiva. At dawn, he realized that he had dropped a thousand leaves onto a linga below which he had not seen in the dark. The tree happened to be a wood-apple or 'bel' tree. This unwitting all-night worship pleased Shiva, by whose grace the tribal was rewarded with divine bliss. There is another possible reason for the origin of the all-night worship. Being a moonless night, people worshipped the god who wears the crescent moon as an adornment in his hair. This was probably to ensure that the moon rose the next night.

According to another, during the 'Samudra Manthan' a pot of poison emerged from the ocean. This terrified the gods and demons as the poison was capable of destroying the entire world, and they ran to Shiva for help. To protect the world from its evil effects, Shiva drank the deathly poison but held it in his throat instead of swallowing it. Because of it, his throat turned blue, and he was given the name Neelakantha, the blue-throated one. Shivaratri is the celebration of this event by which Shiva saved the world.

According to another legend in the Shiva Purana, once Brahma and Vishnu were fighting over who was the superior of the two. Horrified at the intensity of the battle, the other gods asked Shiva to intervene. To make them realize the futility of their fight, Shiva assumed the form of a huge column of fire in between Brahma and Vishnu. Awestruck by its magnitude, they decided to find one end each to establish supremacy over the other. Brahma assumed the form of a swan and went upwards and Vishnu as Varaha went into the earth. But light has no limit and though they searched for thousands of miles, neither could find the end.

On his journey upwards, Brahma came across a Ketaki flower wafting down slowly. When asked where she had come from, the Ketaki replied that she had been placed at the top of the fiery column as an offering. Unable to find the uppermost limit, Brahma decided to end his search and take the flower as a witness. At this, the angry Shiva revealed his true form. He punished Brahma for telling a lie, and cursed him that no one would ever pray to him. The Ketaki flower too was banned from being used as an offering for any worship, as she had testified falsely. Since it was on the 14th day in the dark half of the month of Phalguna that Shiva first manifested himself in the form of a linga, the day is specially auspicious and is celebrated as Mahashivaratri.