This is what she taught me:
Mahashivratri is one of the most important Hindu festivals and takes place on the fourteenth night of the waning moon in the Hindu month of Phalgun (like Easter, it doesn't always fall on the same date).
According to Hindu folklore (and this is the bit I love, I always do a lot of reading up on folklore before I travel to a country as I think it is a great insight into what the people believe in and what is important to them), it is the wedding anniversary of the god Shiva and his wife Parvati.
|Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati - Isn't she pretty?|
The most common explanation of the origin of Mahashivratri is that the other two gods of the trinity (Brahma and Vishnu) had a fight to decide who was the most powerful. The fight became so intense that the existence of the whole world was at stake and Shiva had to intervene. He took on the form of a Lingam (the Lingam represents the Stambha pillar with no beginning and no end, symbolising the infinite nature of Shiva) which shone a huge column of bright light in both directions.
Shiva challenged Brahma and Vishnu to find the end of the column and promised that whoever found it would be declared the most powerful. Brahma went up, and Vishnu went down. They travelled for a thousand years, up and up and up, down and down and down but neither ever reached the end.
Brahma eventually saw a Ketaki flower falling down in the light. He asked the flower if it had seen the end of the column. The flower replied that it had been put at the top of the column as an offering of worship. Brahma took the flower in order to claim that he had found the end of the column.
|The Ketaki flower|
Brahma and Vishnu returned to Shiva - Vishnu admitted that he was unable to reach the end of the column, however, Brahma said that he had and presented the little flower as proof. Shiva did not believe him - he said that light travelled forever so it was impossible to find the end of the column. He was furious with Brahma for lying to him and put a curse on him so that no one would ever worship him. Even today, there is only one temple in the world which is devoted to Brahma and that is in Pushkar in Northern India.
The Ketaki flower was also punished - never again to be used as any kind of offering in any form of worship.
The day Shiva became the Lingam was the fourteenth night of the waning moon in the month of Phalgun, so Mahashivratri acknowledges the greatness of Shiva.
|Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva|
On the day of Mahashivratri, devotees pray to statues of Shiva and bathe him with milk, honey and water in temples which will have been decorated in celebration, and fast all day. When the prayer is over in the evening, fast is broken and everyone will eat something. The evening prayer is in the form of religious songs called 'Bhajan' and in some temples, the whole legend is re-enacted in a play.
All images from Google image search: Mahashivratri