The earliest evidence of the worship of Rudra-Siva, Pasupati has been discovered in the Indus valley. The worship of Mother Goddess and of Rudra-Siva was the distinctive feature of the religion followed by the Indus valley people. In Mohanjodaro, Siva worship seems to have remained a prevailing folk cult. In the Yajurveda the cult of Rudra-Siva is given a philosophical meaning. Thus the two processes continued side by side. In the first process Siva worship has continued as folk cult without interruption and at the other level the metaphysical and symbolical interpretations have found successive statements in Vedic and Pauranic literature. The continuity of Siva worship in folk traditions can be witnessed in hundreds and thousands of Siva lingas installed in every part of the country.
Mahashivaratri is one of the most important festivals associated with Siva worship. In different parts of the country, various myths are ascribed to the observance of the day. Kashmir has the most distinct celebration. According to one legend, Lord Siva performs the ritualistic dance of Creation, Preservation and Dissolution on this night and so devotees also spend the night fully awake while reciting the praises of Siva. In some parts of the country Shivaratri is believed to have been the night when Siva consumed the poison to save the world. Siva was in pain and agony. The whole night, water, milk and other cooling material are poured on the Siva linga to relieve Siva of the heat. Saiva tradition of Kashmir has been very strong at both levels – the metaphysical and as ritualistic practice. The celebration of Shivaratri is unique in Kashmir. It is celebrated with the same zest and grandeur as Diwali is celebrated in North India. The earliest available text (6th/7th Cen. A.D.) from Kashmir the Nilamatapurana, lists the festivals and rituals of Kashmir. It describes Shivaratri festival as: “Shivalinga from which the blanket like plaster of purified butter has been removed is to be worshiped on the dark 14th of Phalguna… Shivalinga is to be worshiped with perfumes, garlands, unguents and naivedya consisting of animals made of flour. The worshippers are enjoined to observe fast during the day and vigil at night listening to the Sivadharmas and the stories of Siva incarnations. On the 15th day, the worship of Siva is prescribed and worshippers have to take meals consisting of Kulmasa and sweetmeats” ( NP : 527-533).
Acharya Utpaladeva an erudite Saiva philosopher of Kashmir (8th Cen. A.D.) has referred to Sivaratri in his beautiful Sivastotravali as the highest state of sadhana :“Victory unto the Sivaratri (inscrutable and hence inexplicable) which majestically shines in unlimited expanse of inherent brilliance when the subjective, the objective and the cognitive faculties of a sadhaka stand totally withdrawn (as the fruition of consummated sadhana).” The recitation of Acharya Abhinavagupta’s Bhairavastuti forms an important part of Shivaratri puja in Kashmir even today. Among the Kashmiris Shivaratri is known as ‘Herath’ often interpreted as ‘Hara ratri.’
In Kashmir, Shivaratri is a fortnight long festival. It commences on the first day of dark fortnight of Phalguna, with the washing and cleaning of the house. This can continue up to the 7th day of the fortnight. The 8th day is considered very auspicious and on that day, early in the morning devotees walk to the temple of Goddess Sharika situated on a hillock known as Hari Parbat, to the northeast of Srinagar. Many devotees would stay there for the night to participate in bhajan-kirtan. On the 9th and 10th day, it is customary for every woman to return to the in-law’s house with gifts in cash and kind. For the newly wedded daughters, it is a very special festival. The traditional gifts of kangri (fire pot) and a pair of khadau (wooden footwear/ or simple footwear) are still prevalent.
On the 11th day fish is prepared for dinner. It is partaken only after the puja. The place selected for performing shivaratri puja is usually the prayer room. It is specially decorated for the occasion. It is on the 12th day that the essential items for the puja are purchased at an auspicious hour of the day. This consists of earthenware, herbs, camphor, dhoop, flowers etc. On the 13th morning, the earthenware consisting of utensils of different shapes and sizes are decorated and placed in a prescribed design. Now a days earthen utensils have been replaced by the utensils of brassware or stainless steel. The main deity that is worshipped on this occasion is Vatukanatha Bhairava. Bairava is synonymous with Lord Siva. Hence the replicas representing Vatukandtha Bhairava and other deities of Siva pantheon are worshipped in the form of these utensils of different shapes and sizes, decorated with flowers, garlands and mauli is tied around these pots. Tilakam is also applied. Then they are filled with walnuts and water.
the evening, the head of the family who has observed fast the whole day performs
the puja to Sanyapotul resembling Siva linga (Partheshvara). Vatukanatha Bhairava is represented by two
types of pots – one is a big pitcher filled with walnuts (usually 101) and
water, another one is a large and deep
bowl-shaped vessel known in Kashmiri
as Dul. In this pot cooked
dishes are offered to satisfy the Bhairava.
These dishes usually consist of various non-vegetarian items of fish and
mutton. After the puja a small yajna
is also performed to propitiate all gods and also in the memory of the
deceased. It is after this yajna that delicious dishes prepared for
the occasion are offered to the Bhairava.
After the conclusion of the puja, the eldest lady in the house,
just before retiring to bed empties the bowl in which the offerings are made in
a far off corner of the compound.
The next day of Shivaratri is the day of feasting. People exchange greetings and gifts. There is merriment all around. On the Amavasya day ritualistic puja is performed to the consecrated walnuts with rice cakes. From the next day, starts the distribution of the naivedya of soaked walnuts along with bread to all relations, neighbours and friends irrespective of caste and creed. The exercise concludes on the 8th day of the next fortnight. On the evening of this day women of the house clean the place where puja was done. They collect the left over grass and flowers in a plate on which earthen lamps are lit. Women from all houses would conduct procession to the river side (Vitasta) and put it in the water to flow with the currents. This would present an enchanting sight. Children, especially boys enjoyed the occasion by collecting old fire pots. They tied them with a rope to the wrist rotating around themselves. This symbolizes the end of winter and thus this merry making. Now a days though Shivaratri is celebrated by Kashmiri pandits with the same reverence, the festivity is lacking in spirit because of their dislocation from their homes in the valley. (with courtesy from Vihangama – The IGNCA Newsletter February – March 2001 Vol II )