Mahashivaratri finds me in Varanasi this year. Varanasi is Shiva’s city, so this a particularly auspicious place to celebrate. Shiva riding on a rickshaw ahead of Shivaratri is a perfectly normal thing to see in Varanasi. I have no idea where this was heading, though.

This photo was taken after the peak number of people, but you can get a really good idea of the crowds. It was a lot like the Kumbha Mela, where you have millions of people trying to bathe at the same place at the same time. Here there were not nearly so many people, but they were crammed into a much more confined space.

Manikarnika Kund is the place where the men bathe before heading out on the Panch Kroshi Yatri, which is about 75 km–and it’s done barefoot! (This is a men’s tradition. there is a different tradition for women.) Since it’s a vrata or vow, giving up halfway is really not an option. It’s also traditional to fast on Shivaratri, and some people take it to the extreme of not even taking water between sunrise and sunset. This photo was taken in the morning after a huge number of people had bathed in it. The water is red because of the henna that people put on their feet. There was also an incredible amount of abandoned towels and underwear. Since this is near the start of the yatra, they change into something dry and abandon the wet undies, etc. because it’s to heavy to carry.

Mahashivaratri is one of the most important festivals of the many festivals in the Vedic Calendar.  There is a night of Shiva once each month but the one in February is considered the most important.  According to the Puranas, it’s the night that celebrates Shiva drinking the poison that issued forth from the churning of the milk ocean of consciousness.  Shiva was the only one deemed strong enough to protect the world which was at risk of being destroyed by the poison. He held it in his throat and neutralized it. Since that time he has been called Neela Kanta Raj.  The Blue Throated King.

Mahashivaratri is traditionally celebrated on the 13th/14th night of the dark half of the lunar months of Magha and Phalguna.  It is celebrated for a day and a night, though the dates vary throughout India due to different traditions and different calendars used by those traditions.  The most agreed upon date is the 14th night of Phalguna, which this year is today, 20 February.

Here is a link to a video of the Chamakam, which is traditionally performed on Shivaratri.

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