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Celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi

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Vinayaka Chaturthi or Ganesha Chaturthi marks a big occasion on the Hindu calendar-the birthday of the adorable elephant headed god Ganesha.

The festival is observed in the month of Bhaadrapada, starting on the shukla chaturthi (fourth day of the waxing moon). The date usually falls between 19 August and 20 September. The festival lasts for 10 or 12 days, ending on Ananta Chaturdashi.

All across India and indeed around the world Hindus celebrate this occasion with great pomp and piety. However the biggest and the grandest party takes place in Maharashtra where the preparations for the day begin months in advance.
                                                                                                        

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Thousands of skilled artisans spend months sculpting elaborate and beautiful clay idols of the god which people then buy to bring home or place them is specially erected tents (pandas) in the streets and squares.

These idols which could be anything from a few inches to nearly 100 feet tall and are a joy to behold. Often interpreted in the artist’s own vision, Ganesha takes on various avatars from the traditional to the contemporary and each one is unique.  

                                             

Image taking a taxi home or a van!

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Once home, Ganesha is placed on a beautifully decorated altar and worshipped    with love and devotion. Every morning and evening a pooja is performed with incence and flowers and he is offered his favourite foods like the sweet modak. Friends and neighbours come calling to see him and pay their respects.

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On the streets, people go around town with their families from pandal to pandal checking out the colourful lights and decorations and of course the various Ganeshas.

It is a time of coming together and rejoicing in the company of this Lord of the People. The god of wisdom and compassion, the remover of obstacles.

During the independence struggle Lokmanya Tilak started the practice of communal celebrations of Ganesh Chaturthi to bring the masses together. To this day the legacy lives on. Although the celebrations seem commercialised like everything else in our times, it is still an occasion for festivities and joy.

After ten days of festivities it is time to bid farewell. Ganesha is carried through the streets in a procession accompanied by dancing and singing, to be immersed in a river or the sea. A symbolic ritual see-off of the Lord as he sets back on his journey towards his abode on Mt Kailash while taking away with him all the misfortunes of man.

ImageAll join in this final procession shouting “Ganapathi Bappa Morya, Purchya Varshi Laukariya” (O Ganesha, come back soon next year). After the final offering of coconuts, flowers and camphor the idol is immersed in the water

It is a sombre event and people return to their homes quietly looking forward to next year when Ganesha will be back again.

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The Birth of Krishna

It was a dark and stormy night.  Deep in the prison cells of Mathura, Vasudev and Devaki waited anxiously for the birth of their eight child. Outside, the winds wailed and the rain fell in torrents.  Inside the prison walls a terrible foreboding filled the hearts of the expectant parents.

The moment of truth was upon them. Although Devaki had no reason to doubt the divine prophecy, her heart trembled with fear. King Kamsa, her brother, had already killed her seven children with his bare hands. What was to say he would not do the same again? A great sadness enveloped her.

Soon the auspicious hour drew close. The storm quitened and the night stilled.The star Rohini shone brightly. And as was foretold, at the stroke of mid-night, Devaki bound in chains, gave birth to her eight child, a baby boy.Image

Instantly a soft light filled the dark cell. In the glow Devaki and Vasudev saw Vishnu in his divine form with lotus eyes and four arms bearing the conch, disc, mace and lotus.

They recognised at once the Supreme Lord and bowed before him. But soon the moment passed; the veil of Maya descended upon them once more and Vishnu appeared to them as their newborn baby. Vasudeva and Devaki were overcome with joy. They called him Krishna for he was dark as the night and shone with the tejas of a thousand full moons.

Presently they heard a voice, “Vasudeva take the young child and leave him in the house of Nanda the chief of the cowherds of Gokul and bring back with you the girl–child who has been born there.”

How could he, who was bound in chains and behind bars, take his boy to Gokul?  Vasudev’s heart sank. But willed by a power beyond him Vasudev stood up and took the boy from Devaki. And lo and behold the chains slipped away and the prisons doors opened. The guards were fast asleep. Vasudeva hurried out.

Outside the rain continued to fall and the river Yamuna was flooded. Vasudeva lifted Krishna over his head and stepped into the river. The waters were steadily rising but Vasudeva pushed on. He had to reach the other bank. Soon the swollen river threatened to drown both father and son. But as soon as the river had touched the baby’s foot, the waters began to recede. Yamuna having touched the Lord’s feet now made way for Vasudeva.

At last Vasudeva came to the village of cowherds. A burning lamp guided him to a house where a mother slept with her newborn babe. Quietly Vasudeva swapped the babies and rushed back to the prison with the little girl before the guards woke up.

In the morning when Kamsa learnt that his sister had given birth to her eight child, his nemesis, he rushed to the prison to see it for himself. Sure enough there she was, a helpless little girl. A great thunderous laugh escaped Kamsa. Was this the child who was to be his end? Without a second thought he rushed forth, grabbed the child and flung it against the wall.

But the girl rose above their heads and assumed the form of the goddess. “The child you wish to slay lives,” She laughed as she disappeared.

For the next twelve years Kamsa tried his best to harm Krishna but was eventually killed by him in a battle.

And so Krishna, the eight incarnation of Vishnu, was born to restore the balance between good and evil and to reveal the true nature of the Supreme Being to men.

Krishna is believed to be the highest incarnation of Vishnu. He was the Purna Avatar. And whether he is worshipped as the adorable baby Krishna who had all of Gokul enthralled, or the cosmic love of Radha or as the Lord who revealed himself to Arjuna on the battlefield and gave him the Gita, his enchanting form with flute in hand, holds the heart of India captive even today. Image

Today across India Janmasthami, Krishna’s birthday will be celebrated with great devotion and awe. Many will observe a fast through the day and break it at mid-night after the Lord is born. Mathura his place of birth and Vrindavan where he grew up will see the biggest festivities

 

Raksha Bandhan

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Last week I sent a small coloured thread, a rakhi, in the post to my brother in India which I hope he will receive today and wear it on his wrist as most Indian men will; a token of the quiet but sacred bond between a brother and sister.

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Raksha bandhan is celebrated widely across India in the bright fortnight of the month of Shraavan. Sisters tie a rakhi on their brother’s wrist and pray for his wellbeing. In turn the brother pledges to protect her and look after her till the end of his days. It’s a simple act based on love and trust and celebrates a very special relationship. It is this simplicity that makes this festival  so special. And it’s a joy to see women flock to the markets to select the best rakhis  for their brothers and then the men sporting these colourful bands of various sizes and designs for days afterwards.

This tradition of tying a thread as a talisman to protect the wearer, dates back to ancient times and goes beyond the brother-sister relationship.

The Puranas refer to a battle between devas and asuras. The King of devas, Indra was losing. So his wife Sachi took a thread, charged it with sacred verses for protection and tied it on Indra’s wrist. Through the strength of this thread Indra conquered his enemies.

In Rajasthan when the men went to battle, the women tied a thread around their wrist after applying a tilak or vermilion powder on their foreheads. They believed this would protect their men and bring them victory.

Over time raksha bandhan turned into a scared festival for brothers and sisters.

In one famous instance, the queen of Mewar Mharani Krmavati was under threat from the Muslim governor, Bahadur Shah who had laid siege to her kingdom. Desperate for help she sent a rakhi to the Mughal king Humayun. Touched by the trust placed in him Humayun came to her rescue and freed her from Bahadur Shah and his men.

In Maharashtra, this is also the day when the fisher folk celebrate Narali Purnima. With the sea raging and the rivers swollen from the Monsoon rains, the fishermen go out to sea with offerings of coconuts to propitiate the sea god Varuna, to seek his protection and blessing for the year to come. It is believed that this brings the Monsoons to the their end making it safe for the fishermen to resume work again.

On a personal note as I have only daughters, we have our own tradition at home. They tie each other rakhis and I tell them this means they vow to be stand by each other all their lives. They think it’s cool. They call them Indian friendship bands. That will do just fine I think.

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Ramnavmi

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Ramnavmi celebrates the birth of Rama, hero of the epic Ramayana, who was born on the ninth day (navami) of the waxing moon in the month of Chaitra.

Lord Rama was the King of Ayodhya. He was the ideal son, the perfect King, the best of men. So virtuous that he became god. In him people witnessed the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, born on earth to destroy the demon Ravana.

Swami Sivananda writes, ‘He was the Lord of the mind and the senses.  He was a sage in counsel, kind and sweet in speech, and most courteous and handsome in appearance. He was master of all the divine weapons, and a great warrior. He was brave and valiant, yet gentle and modest. Ever devoted to the good of his kingdom and his subjects, he was a defender of the weak and protector of the righteous. Endowed with numerous wondrous powers of the mind, he was well versed in all sciences–in military science as well as the science of the Self.

Deep and unfathomed like the ocean, firm and steadfast like the Himalayas, valiant like Lord Vishnu, he was the joy of Kaushalya. Though fierce like fire on the battlefield, he was calm like the cool breeze of the Mandara Hills, patient like Mother Earth, bounteous like the god of wealth and righteous like the lord of justice himself.  Such a great person was the Lord Rama!’

When Rama was King, his subjects enjoyed heaven on earth. Ramrajya, the rule of Rama is now synonymous with an ideal state.

As loved today as he was in Ayodhya, Ram remains one of the most popular Hindu deities.

ImageAt mid-day, the time Rama’s birth, all Ram temples across India, will begin special poojas with chantings from the Vedas and readings from the Ramayana. But the largest celebrations will be in Ayodhya, the birthplace of Ram. A rath yatra is the highlight of the celebrations here. A procession with a chariot, rath, moves through the city carrying actors dressed as Ram, Sita, Laxman and Hanuman who enact parts of the Ramayan while crowds line the streets to watch.

In the south of India, the day is also celebrated as the wedding anniversary of Sri Rama and his consort Sita. Sitarama Kalyanam, the ceremonial wedding ceremony of the celestial couple is held at temples throughout region.

It is interesting to note that Ramnavmi has many elements of Sun Worship.

Ram was a Raghuvamshi, a descendant of the Sun Dynasty. Ramnavami is celebrated at the beginning of summer when the sun is moving higher up in the skies( of the Norhern Hemisphere).

Ram was born at noon, the time when the sun shines most brilliantly .On Ramnavami the prayers start not with an invocation to Rama but to Surya, the sun.

Rama is also known as Raghunatha, Raghupati, and has other names which begin with the prefix Raghu meaning sun.

The syllable Ra is used to describe the sun and brilliance in many languages. In Sanskrit, Ravi and Ravindra mean Sun.

The ancient Egyptians termed the sun as Amon Ra or simply ‘Ra’. And in Latin the syllable Ra is used to connote light as in radiance.

Could it be that Valmiki modelled his Rama on the mighty Sun? Was Ram a personification of the Sun? Or, did Ram simply embody the qualities of the Sun? I wonder.

Happy New Year !!!

Today, as the sun moves into the Aries constellation and both day and night find themselves equally balanced on the vernal equinox *, Hindus will wake up to an auspicious morning- the first day of the month of Chaitra and of the Hindu New Year.

It is a day full of astrological, mythical and historical significance.

According to the Brahma Purana, this was the day Brahma created the Universe. The River Ganges is said to have first descended onto Earth on this day( one can imagine the snow melting in the Himalayas with the coming of spring and flowing down as the Ganges).

On this day Prince Rama was crowned King after his return to Ayodhya following a fourteen year exile.

And, towards the end of the Fifth Century A.D, King Shailvahan of the Satvahana dynasty defeated the invading Huns on this very day and changed the course of Indian history.

The New Year is known by different names and is celebrated in different ways across the various states of India.

In Marathi it is called Gudhi Padwa. Maharashtrians will welcome the New Year today by decorating the entrances to their houses with rangolis and by hanging garlands of mango leaves and marigold flowers over their doorways. Image

They will pray to Brahma, the Creator before propping up a gudhi( a wooden stick topped with a metal pot, a new piece of fabric and a garland of flowers) in their balconies and windows. The gudhi is a symbol of victory and represents the flag of Brahma, the flag of Rama and of Shivaji Maharaj, its most famous king.

In the Deccan regions of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh it is called Ugadi, translated as ‘Beginning of a New Era’.
It is a custom here to start the new year by eating a mixture of neem Imageflowers,jaggery,pepper,salt, tamarind juice and unripened mango. The bitter, sweet, salty, spicy, sour and tangy flavours represent the six experiences of sadness, happiness,anger,fear, disgust and surprise. A sombre reminder to accept with equanimity everything the year brings.  

Known as  Vishu in Kerala it means ‘equal’ denoting the vernal equinox. The highlight of Vishu is the Vishukani, a spread of fruits, vegetables, coconuts, flowers and money to be viewed first thing on waking up, before setting eyes on anything else. The oldest person in the family guides the rest of the members to the kani before dawn and here in the light of a lamp they see themselves in a mirror and then look at the spread before them to ensure a fruitful and happy new year.

In Tamil Nadu they call it Puthandu and is celebrated similarly by  preparing feasts and visiting temples.

baisakhi with creditIn the Nothern India it is Baisakhi for the Punjabis, Poila Boisakh for Bengalis and Bohaag Bihu for the Asameese. It is marked by thanksgiving for a bountiful spring time harvest and by praying for prosperity. In Assam the celebrations go on for days with a lot of merrymaking. Young girls sing and dance to attract suitors and choose their companions during these celebrations.

This is also an important day for the Sikhs of Punjab. In 1699, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh laid down the foundation of the Panth Khalsa on this day.

* according to the Hindu Calendar this date is generally the 13th or 14th of April but can range over three to four days .

Gangaur Festival -Rajasthan

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Every state of India has one festival, more than any other, that truly captures its spirit.

For Rajasthan it is Gangaur- the Spring Festival dedicated to Gauri, the loving wife of Shiva and the Goddess of Fertility.

When Parvati married Shiva she accepted all his followers (gana) as her own and became Gana Gauri, goddess of the people. Hence the name Gangaur.

For eighteen days from the day of Holi which signals the start of Spring, the women of Rajasthan lose themselves in the legend of the Goddess.Image

Beautiful clay or wooden idols of Gauri and Shiva are made in every home and lovingly dressed in fine clothes and jewelry.  As the women prepare the goddess for her wedding to Shiva, they honour her by fasting as she had once done to win his heart. The days are marked by pujas and evenings by colourful processions.

At sunset the women dressed in their colourful ghagras walk down the streets, carrying earthen pots with the lamps on their heads, singing songs of Gauri and collecting gifts and sweets from elders.

After a fortnight of celebrations the festival ends on the first day of the month of Chaitra, the first day of the Hindu New Year. On this day the beautifully decorated idols of Gauri are carried around the towns and villages before being taken to a lake to be immersed. Gauri is thus bid farewell as she leaves for her husband’s home in the Himalayas. Image

While Gangaur fairs are held in many towns and villages, those in Jaipur and Udaipur are most well known and hundreds of locals and tourists gather to watch the final processions.

This year Gangaur will be celebrated on the 13th of April.

Holi-The Colours of Joy

Red, blue, green, yellow….. bring on the colours, aaj Holi hai !!!

It’s time to welcome Spring and drench the world in colours of joy and laughter, love and romance! Today we let go of old grudges and embrace our neighbours and friends. Today we let love spring in our hearts.

Many a colourful tales of Krishna and the milkmaids playing Holi in Vrindavan have inspired poets and artists for centuries. And Bollywood movies!

There isn’t a festival to rival Holi for its sheer abandon. It’s the one day when a rather conservative society lets its hair down and men and women, girls and boys together join in the revelry.

And because a picture is worth a thousand words…..

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It’s Holi !!!

When the full moon rises tonight, bonfires will be lit in every square and street in India, signaling the end of winter.

As the dead wood and odd scraps of old furniture and other household bits go up in flames, it will be time to say goodbye to the old and hello to the new.

Darkness will give way to light and the cold will be replaced by warmth. Everywhere you look you will find faces lit up with a sense joy and wellbeing.

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Grains and coconuts will be offered to the Holi, the bonflre, as thanks for a plentiful harvest.

In some parts of India, especially in the North, this will be followed by singing into the night to the beating of the dhol.

And all little children will be told the story of a brave young boy who cheated death. When good once again triumphed over evil.

The Story of Holi

 Once upon a time there lived an evil King Hiranyakashyap. He proclaimed he was the only God and that his people worship him alone and no one else. But there was one little boy Prahlad, the king’s own son, who refused to do so. Prahlad told his father that he would pray to no one but the Supreme Lord Vishnu.

Hiranyakashyap threatened and tortured Prahlad but nothing would shake Prahlad’s faith. So his father decided to kill him. However, every plot to kill the boy would fail as Vishnu would intervene.

Exasperated the King asked his sister Holika to kill Prahlad. Hollika had a boon. She could not be touched by fire. Knowing this Holika sat Prahlad on her lap and set fire to herself.Image

She had forgotten though, that the boon held true only if she entered the fire alone. So it was Holika who burnt to ashes and Prahlad escaped unscathed.

In Indian myths good always triumphs over evil but this story has another important moral. That which you use to destroy others will eventually destroy you. 

Tomorrow morning we welcome Spring by painting the town red and green and blue and every other colour.

Happy Holi !!!

A Story for the Day

On the occasion of Shivratri I have to share with you a story so beautifully told,  it moves me every time I read it-The Great God Shiva from The Cradle Tales of Hinduism.

I was planning to read it with my nine year old today and thought all you readers would enjoy it too.  Read it today or bookmark it for another day .It’s a delightful little gem.

Written by Sister Nivedita, in her inimitable style, it captures the essence of Mahadev, The Great God Shiva, like no other story. Her style reminds me of my grandmother’s stories. For both Sister Nivedita and my grandmother spoke of the gods as if they knew them personally. And there in lies the charm.

THE STORY OF THE GREAT GOD, SHIVA

by Sister Nivedita, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda.

In wild and lonely places, at any time, one may chance on the Great God, for such are His most favored haunts. Once seen, there is no mistaking Him. Yet he has no look of being rich or powerful. His skin is covered with white wood-ashes. His clothing is but the religious wanderer’s yellow cloth. The coils of matted hair are piled high on the top of His head. In one hand He carries the begging bowl, and in the other his tall staff, crowned with the trident. And sometimes he goes from door to door at midday, asking alms.

High amongst the Himalayas tower the great snow mountains, and here, on the still, cold heights, is Shiva’s throne. Silent-nay, rapt in silence-does He sits there, absorbed and lost in one eternal meditation.

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When the new moon shines over the mountain-tops, standing above the brow of the Great God, it appears to worshipping souls as if the light shone through, instead of all about Him. For He is full of radiance, and can cast no shadow. Wrapped thus into hushed intensity lies KaiIas, above Lake Manasarovara, the mountain home of Mahadeva, and there, with mind hidden deep under fold upon fold of thought, rests He.

With each breath of His, outward and in, worlds, it is said, are created and destroyed. Yet He, the Great God, has nothing of His own; for in all these that He has created there is nothing-not kingship, nor fatherhood, nor wealth, nor power-that could for one moment tempt Him to claim it. One desire, and one alone, has He, to destroy the ignorance of souls, and let light come.

Once, it is said, His meditation grew so deep, that when He awoke He was standing alone, poised on the heart’s centre of all things, and the universe had vanished. Then, knowing that all darkness was dispelled, that nowhere more, in all the worlds, was there blindness or sin, He danced forward with uplifted hands, into the nothingness of that uttermost withdrawnness, singing, in His joy, “Bom! Bom!”And this dance of the Great God is the Indian Dance of Death, and for its sake is He worshipped with the words “Bom! Bom! Hara! Hara!”

It is, however, by the face of the Great God that we may know Him once for all, beyond the possibility of doubt. One look is enough, out of that radiance of knowledge, one glance from the pity and tenderness in His benign eyes, and never more are we able to forget that this whom we saw was Shiva Himself.

It is impossible to think of the Great God as being angry. He “whose form is like unto a silver mountain” sees only two things, insight and want of insight, amongst men. Whatever be our sin arid error, He longs only to reveal to us its cause, that we may not be left to wander in the dark. His is the infinite compassion, without one shadow or stain upon it.

In matters of the world, He is but simple, asking almost nothing in worship, and strangely easy to mislead. His offerings are only bael-leaves and water, and far less than a handful of rice. And He will accept these in any form. The tears of the sorrowful, for instance, have often seemed to Him like the’ pure water of His offering.

Once He was guarding a royal camp at night, when the enemy fell upon Him, and tried to kill Him. But these wicked men were armed with sticks of bael-wood, and as they beat Him again and again with these, He, smiling and taking the blows for worship, put out His hand, and blessed them on their heads!

He keeps for Himself only those who would otherwise wander unclaimed and masterless. He has but one servant, the devoted Nandi. He rides, not on horse or elephant, but on a shabby old bull. Because the serpents were rejected by all others, did He allow them to twine about His neck. And amongst human beings, all the crooked and hunchbacked, and lame and squint-eyed, He regards as His very own.

For loneliness and deformity and poverty are passwords sufficient to the heart of the Great God, and He, who asks nothing from anyone, who bestows all, and takes nothing in return, He, the Lord of the Animals, who refuses none that come to Him sincerely, He will give His very Self, with all its sweetness and illumination, ‘merely on the plea of our longing or our need!

Yet, this is not the only form in which Shiva may come to the soul of man. Sometimes the thing that stands between us and knowledge is unspeakably dear.The Great God is ever the Destroyer of Ignorance, and for this, when our hour comes, He will arise, as it were, sword in hand, and slay before our eyes our best beloved.

In the middle of His brow shines forth the great Third Eye of spiritual vision, with which He pierces to the heart of all hypocrisy and shams. And with the light that flashes from this eye, He can burn to ashes at a glance that which is untrue.

Two things there are which we see as God. One is knowledge, insight- Jnana, as it is called in India , and this, carried to its utmost height, is Shiva or Mahadeva.

But some see God rather in power, energy, beauty, the universe about us. Indeed, without both of these, either becomes unthinkable. Hence Shiva has ever a consort in Maha Shakti, the Primal Force.

Amongst the pictures made, and the tales told, of Her, are those of Sati, and Vma, and the Great Death. She is Gauri, the Golden One, the fair, the light of the sunrise shining on the mountain snows. And she dwells ever in Kailas , as the wife and devoted worshipper of that Mahadeva, or Spiritual Insight, who goes amongst men by the name of Shiva, the Great God.

Celebrating Shivratri

Tomorrow is an important day in the Hindu calendar. It is Maha-Shivratri- the Great Night of Shiva.Image

Shivratri is celebrated with great fervour across India, Nepal, Mauritius and parts of Indonesia every year, on the Fourteenth day of the month of Phalgun. It is the moonless night, in dark fortnight of the waning moon.

Millions of  Shiva devotees will wake up today before dawn and make their way to the nearest Shiva temple, carrying with them offerings of water, milk,honey, bael leaves, fruits, flowers and incense.

According to the ancient text, the Shiva Purana, Mahashivratri worship must include six items.

  • Bathing the Linga with water, milk and honey followed by bael leaves, representing purification of the soul
  • The vermilion paste applied on the linga after bathing it, representing virtue
  • Offering of fruits, for long life and gratification of desires
  • Burning incense, yielding wealth
  • The lighting of the lamp which is conducive to the attainment of knowledge
  • And betel leaves marking satisfaction with worldly pleasures.
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Many will fast through the day and prepare themselves to keep vigil all night. This is the night to lose one’s self in thoughts of Shiva. Chants of Om Namah Shivaya will be heard in temples and ashrams all through the night.

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The story goes that it was on this day, that Shiva swallowed the deadly poison Halahal which rose from the Churning of the Ocean. The poison was so strong that Shiva had to be kept awake all night to stop him from losing consciousness. Hence tonight all his devotees will keep awake and remember the night Shiva chose to bear the intense agony of the poison in order to save the world.

It is believed that the Great God Shiva( Mahadeva) will bless any devotee who seeks his blessing today and grant them their heart’s desire. Unmarried girls will pray to get husband as devoted as Shiva, married women will ask Shiva to bless their husbands with long lives, those seeking children will ask to be blessed with them, men will pray for Shiva’s strength and seek his protection.

But, the spiritual aspirant will seek Shiva himself.  For it is said, that tonight Shiva will make himself known to those who lose themselves in his thoughts  and will enlighten them like the crescent moon that appears at dawn after the dark New Moon night. ( In India no moon is visible on the new moon night)

The twelve Jyotirlinga temples situated around India will see the biggest crowds.

These stone lingas are said to be Swayambhu( appearing naturally,not man made) and belong to the pre-historic times. They are mentioned in ancient texts like the Puranas and are said to embody the Jyoti, the flame of Shiva. The temples were built around them much later.

For more information on the Jyotirlingas you can check this link

http://www.shaivam.org/siddhanta/sp/spjyoti.htm

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