Maha Shivaratri is one of the most important festivals celebrated by Hindus and especially by Shaivites in particular.
This auspicious occasion falls every year on the fourteenth day or chaturdashi day of new moon fortnight during the Hindu month of Magha (Phalguna for north Indians) which generally falls at the end of February or the beginning of March month as per English calendar.
The Stories Behind Maha Shivaratri
It is believed that Lord Shiva is very much fond of this night and He appeared in his linga form on Earth (just like pillar with no form) during this auspicious night. So people began worshipping him in this form from that day every year to celebrate this great occasion.
Another story is that when the milky ocean was being churned to obtain nectar by the angels and devils so as to attain immortality, poison got produced from the ocean before nectar, and Lord Shiva came to the rescue by swallowing the poison on this night and saved the people of earth from poison. So to celebrate this occasion, they started celebrating this Maha Shivaratri on this day.
There are many more stories regarding the reasons for observing this festival on this day like Goddess Parvati observing penance on this day to please and cool Lord Shiva who was performing pralaya tandava for destruction of the world and another story narrating that marriage of Lord Shiva and Parvati took place on this day, so on.
Whatever, the story behind this, this Shivaratri is considered as an auspicious day and whoever keeps penance or performs puja on this night with true devotion to God is said to attain moksha by getting relieved from all sins and with no further birth.
How it is observed
On this day, people get up early and bathe in holy waters before sunrise wherever they are in reach of holy rivers like Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswati, Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, etc. and other holy lakes and ponds of temples. A dip in holy waters is regarded as most important on all Hindu festivals for purifying the body and soul. When there is no reach to such places, they bathe in their homes and purify themselves.
After bathing, they wear clean clothes and most of the devotees flock to the temples taking holy water, milk or green coconuts and apply the holy ash or vermillion to their foreheads before going to temples or on reaching the temples. In the temple the devotees perform abhisheka (bathing the God) to the Shiva Linga by pouring the water, milk and coconut water.
Abhisheka is done with curd and ghee also. After bathing the Shiva Linga with all these holy waters, vermillion, sandal wood powder, turmeric and kumkum are applied to the Shiva Linga and worshipped with flowers and bel leaves. Then fruits and honey are also offered to God as naivedya.
Most devotees keep fast on this whole day. They may take fruits and milk,etc. But some keep severe fast taking only water. Worship is done by chanting the panchakshara mantra " namah shivaya" throughout the day and during night they perform abhishek either one time or four times with equal gaps. Throughout the whole night they keep awaking and listening to or chanting the Shiva Purana and other hymns in praise of Lord Shiva. They may watch movies also made on the stories of Lord Shiva.
The panchakshara mantra and slokas
The Shiva Panchakshara mantra is made up of five sanskrit vernaculars of 'na' ma' shi' va' ya'. When it is pronounced in a combined form it is spelled as "namahshivayah" by adding 'h' in spelling ma with shi and adding another h at the end. Because it is believed to increase the effect of the panchakshara mantra by adding "om" in the beginning and "namaha" at the end, so the full mantra is chanted as follows:
"Om Namah Shivaya Namah" adding the 'omkarnada' as the essence of creation and 'namah' as reverence.
For Hindi and Telugu versions of Shiva panchakshari lyrics and their meaning in English text, view at this link please.
The panchakshara slokas are based on each of the five letters in the mantra "namahshivaya"
Shiva Panchakshara Stotram ( slokas)
1) nagendra haraya trilochanaya
nityaya suddhaya digambaraya
tasmai nakaraya namah shivaya
2) mandakini salila chandana charchitaya
nandishwara pramatha natha maheshwaraya
mandara mukhya bahu pushpa supujitaya
tasmai makaraya namah shivaya
3) Shivaya gauri vadan aravindaya
suryaya dakshadhwara nashakaya
shri neelakantaya vrishdhwajaya
tasmai shikaraya namah shivaya
4) vashishta kumbha udbhava gautam adi
munindra dev archita shekharaya
chandra arka vaishvanara lochanaya
tasmai vakaraya namah shivaya
5) yaksha swaroopaya jata dharaya
pinaka hastaya sanaatanaya
sudivya dehaya digambaraya
tasmai yakaraya namah shivaya
It is the belief and confidence of devotees that chanting the Shiva Panchakshara mantra and slokas with full faith and devotion leads them to self realisation and moksha.
The sound "om" is considered as the original sound vibrating all over the universe controlling the creation, protection and destruction of whole universe. "Namaha" means 'not me' or 'not I'. It tells the fact that ' I ' or 'WE' are not the performers of actions or the enjoyers of results. It signifies that God is the performer and enjoyer of each act and its result.
For more details regarding stories of Shivratri and celebrations in various places of India and other countries, you may refer to other website clicking this link