hivaratri (literally meaning Shiva's night) is a festival of great significance for Hindus all over the world, especially for those of Kashmir. Esoterically, it is symbolic of the mystic union of Jiva (individual soul) with Paramatma (the Supreme Godhead) and it represents the high state of spiritual realization wherein the world of relativity fades away and perfect peace and calm prevails. On this phenomenal night, the seeker remains fully aware of his identity with Shiva, the source of perennial joy, and thus experiences eternal Truth, Bliss and Beauty. (Satyam, Shivam. Sundaram).
Close to heart
For centuries, Hindus of Kashmir have been observing Shivaratri with utmost zeal and devotion. And the age-old traditions with its elaborate rituals covering three-fourth of the dark half of the lunar month of Phalguna (Feb-March) are followed even to this day, modified, of course, to suit the changing times and circumstances.
The 21-day celebrations are marked by the same excitement, exultation and euphoria as in the days of yore. The way our displaced and uprooted brethren have been observing Shivaratri in tents and makeshift tenements for the last 20 years shows how close this festival is to our hearts. Keeping in view its length and religious-cum-social over-tones, it may be compared to Durga Puja and Ganapati festivals celebrated with equal devotion and enthusiasm by the Hindus of Bengal and Maharashtra respectively.
Also called Hayrath-Why?
In Kashmir, Shivaratri is also called Hayrath, which is the corrupt form of hairat, a Persian word meaning 'utter surprise'. The term, Hayrath, was coined during the Pathan rule in the valley.
As the story goes, the Pathan governor of Kashmir, Jabaar Khan by name, forbade Kashmiri Pandits from celebrating Shivaratri festival in winter in the lunar month of Phalgun (Feb-March). Instead, the tyrannical ruler forced them to celebrate it in the hottest month of Aashaadh (June-July).
The perverted ruler knew that heavy snowfall always marked the great event as is evident from the following refrain of a song usually sung at Shivaratri time: Suna sheen volun daari daare: Maharaza raaza kumaar hai aav (Flakes of gold snowed slow and steady when prince Shiva arrived to marry princess Uma!).
The helpless people obeyed, but Lo' and behold, snow did fall in July that year! The miracle startled everyone, the Pathan ruler, in particular, who expressed utter surprise, Hairat. Hence the new name for Shivaratri celebrations.
Since the untimely snowfall resulted in crop failure and famine, the people of the valley faced untold misery. The forced alteration in the timing of the festival, therefore, brought innumerable curses upon the ruler. The people cried out in despair: Wuchton Yi Jabbaar Jandah, Haaras Ti Kurun Wandah! (Look at this wretched Jabaar in rags; he turned summer into winter!).
As Hindus all over India and elsewhere in the world observe Shivaratri on the 14th day of the dark fortnight of the lunar month of Phalgun, a day after its observance by their counterparts in Kashmir, it is also known as Shiva Chaturdashi. It is believed that Lord Shiva, the 'King of Yogis' and the 'Destroyer-Renovator of the Holy Trinity', manifested on earth on this day to redeem his devotees. The Hindus of all castes and creeds observe fast, offer prayers and spend the whole night in worship of Lord Shiva in homes and temples.
However, Kashmiri Pandits too observe Shiva Chaturdashi, not in the lunar month of Phalgun like the Hindus elsewhere but a month earlier in the dark fortnight of the lunar month of Magha (Jan-Feb), when they keep, not just a day’s fast, but a 3-day fast, and worship Shiva with great devotion. They even avoid non-vegetarian preparations in their homes on these days.
Puja and its significance
The great Shaiva philosopher Utpaladeva describes Shivaratri thus: “When the sun, the moon and all the other stars set at the same time, there arises the radiant light of Shiva spreading a splendor of its own.”
Kashmiri Brahmins perform Shivaratri puja on the 13th (and not on the 14th) day of the dark half of Phalguna. For them, it signifies Lord Shiva's wedding with Uma, the beautiful daughter of the Himalayas. And in keeping with their hospitable nature, they offer non-vegetarian food in puja on this day, ostensibly to entertain Bhairavas who formed the major part of Shiva's baraat.
The divine marriage has a deeper, philosophic connotation. Shiva in His transcendental (para) aspect is inactive in creation. And His union with Shakti (energy or activating power) represented by His 'consorts', Uma, Parvati, Durga and Kali (variously named to signalize particular functions of the Divine Mother) make the infinite enfoldments in the cosmos possible.
According to Kashmir Saivism, Shiva represents the eternal process of creation and destruction, and His nature has primarily a two-fold aspect--immanent which pervades the universe and the transcendental that is beyond the universal manifestation of time, space and form.
Shivaratri puja is also called Vatuk Puja. Vatuk is a Kashmiri word meaning 'collection or an assemblage of different objects'. Since the main puja on Shivaratri day involves collection of a large number of articles, it is being called by the name Vatuk. The name could also be traced to the term Vatuk Dev, Lord Shiva's celibate form. In the fitness of things, Kashmiris worship Shiva in this form before solemnizing his union with Uma. They also worship Vatuk Bhairav, supposed to be Shiva's most trusted dwarpal (gate-keeper), in a bid to seek his favor for an audience with the Lord.
Year after year, the three-week celebrations begin on the first day of the dark fortnight of Phalguna (known in popular parlance as hurya ukdoh) and end on the 8th day of the bright half of Phalguna. Hur in Kashmiri stands for both singing and whitewashing and the word is used as a prefix to the first nine days of the festivities.
Traditionally, the first 6 days (hurya ukdoh to hurya shiyam) were normally reserved for cleaning the entire house to give it a festive look and for collecting the necessary articles like walnuts, utensils and vatuk samagri for main puja on Shivaratri day. In olden times, the houses used to be whitewashed with clay and fresh cow-dung.
The subsequent 3 days--hurya sattam, hurya atham and hurya navam (the birthday of goddess Sharika), were devoted to congregational nightlong prayers, preferably in temples at Ganpatyar, Chakreshwar, Pokhribal and Kshirbhawani.
On the 12th, a day before the main puja, a new earthenware, freshly baked and specially prepared by the potter for the occasion (now-a-days a pot of steel), is ceremoniously brought to the house and placed on a small circular seat (aasan) made of grass in the room traditionally reserved for daily worship (thokur kuth). Called Wagur, the pot represents the priest who, according to one prevalent belief, acted as Shiva's messenger to the Himalayas to seek his daughter's hand and also performed the auspicious wedding ceremony of Shiva with Parvati.
Prior to the start of puja on the main day, Trayodashi, several pots, representing various deities, including the two larger vessels signifying Shiva and Parvati, are embellished with flower garlands tied round their mouths and dried walnuts deposited in them nearly to the brim. The smaller vessels, representing other deities, are similarly readied for formal worship. A couple of more vessels are also kept ready for lesser deities like the Bhairavas.
The ritual worship begins with formal invocation of Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, followed by sanctification of various vessels representing different deities. Abhishek of the cone-shaped clay model called Saniputul is one of the main attractions. Being empty from inside, Saniputul represents the supreme Godhead that encompasses all the elements in the universe from prithvi tatwa (earth) to shunya tatwa (empty space). Saniputul appears to be the corrupt form of shunya putul (pot/idol).
The ritual worship continues till late into the night and concludes with the singing of devotional hymns in praise of Lord Shiva and finally aarti.
Ritualistic Puja of the sanctified vessels reaches its climax on the 15th day called Dunya Mavas (walnut amavas). On this day all the flower-decked vessels are taken to a stream or river for immersion just as the images of Durga and Ganesha are immersed at the close of Durga Puja and Ganapati festivals.
Before immersion, the vessels are emptied of the soaked walnuts and brought back home after symbolic Puja at the bank of the river. On reaching home, the ladies would shut the main entrance of the house and not allow the head of the family to enter till he promised certain blessings and boons for all members of the family.
The question-answer conversation would run as follows after the head of the family knocks at the door: Q: kus chuva? (Who is there?) ; A: Ram Bror (name of the person); Q: kya heth? (What have you brought?) ; A: anna heth, dhana heth (food, wealth etc).
How romantic and fascinating!
After the final and concluding puja on Dunya Mavas, the soaked walnuts and tumul chut (rice-cakes) are distributed as the main prasad among the family members, friends and close relatives.
The use of dried walnuts for both worship and prasad is something very unique in the observance of Shivaratri by the people of Kashmir. Possibly, it has some symbolic purpose inasmuch as dried seeds when soaked pave the way for renewal of life from objects that are supposed to be dead.
The process of distribution of prasad continues for a week till Teela Atham, the 8th day of the bright half of Phalguna when Hayrath celebratiions formally come to a close. In good old days back home, a lighted earthen lamp would be placed on ari (seat made of grass) and allowed to float in the river (reminiscent of a similar scene in the evenings at the holy Ganges in Haridwar).
On this day of glee and charm, the children used to have had the last laugh. They would burn unserviceable kangris (fire-pots) in the evenings, mostly on the banks of river Jehlum. Known as jatun tuun, in our native language, the festivity was symbolic of the end of severe winter in Kashmir, very much similar to the festival of Lohri in Punjab.
Shivaratri provides a wonderful and meaningful get-together for all members of the family. Every member of the household is normally in a festive mood. It is a day of prayer and meditation for the elders and one of fun and frolic for the youngsters, particularly children in their new colorful attires. During the entire period of the 3-week celebrations, all the family members, men, women and children would play with cowries (sea shells). One and all used to enjoy this fun-filled indoor sport, known as haara-baaz.
It is customary for the women-folk, the old and young alike, to visit their malyun (parental home) and return to their varyuv (in-laws) with atagat (money in token of love) and kangri (fire-pot), considered to be a good omen on this occasion. The newly-wed girls would normally return from their paternal homes on the eve of the main Shivaratri function, preferably on the 10th day (dhyara daham), bringing with them, what in Kashmiri we call, hayrach bhog (Shivaratri shagun) in kind and cash.
In the days gone by, it used to be a challenging time for some in the event of their Hayrach Bogh falling short of the expectations of their mothers-in-law. The proverbial mother-in-law (not uncommon, perhaps, even now) would heave cold sighs, beat their foreheads and curse their luck. Karma Khandit Asam, they would say.
The day after Maha Shivaratri Puja is called salaam, a Persian word for greeting. It is a day of fun and feasting, a sort of Thanksgiving Day when relations, friends and colleagues would exchange greetings. The singing bards and the poor would visit Hindu homes and take their share of Shivaratri presents in cash or kind or both as the case may be.
On Shivaratri day, the head of the family offers pocket money to children and other younger members in the family, including the new brides, sons-in-law and the newly wed daughters. Called hayrath kharch, it is also sent to nearest relations, including their newborns and newly married children.
Spirit Of Shivaratri
Though Kashmiri Pandits have now migrated en-masse, at the point of gun out of their homes and hearths in Kashmir, the spirit of Shivaratri continues to be still observed, celebrated and contemplated upon in many foreign lands today. This occasion keeps alive the very essence of Shiva and the eternal values He embodies, i.e. mutual love, togetherness, open mindedness, inclusiveness and respect for one and all.
No wonder, each year Shivaratri becomes the time for new beginnings ~ when old wounds are forgotten and new relationships fostered!
May the spirit of Shivaratri awaken the spirit of Shiva in each and every one of us!