On the occasion of Maha Shivratri millions of Shiva devotees keep a fast all day and pray through the night. The festival, which falls on March 4 this year, is one of the holiest days in the Hindu calendar and the most important among the 12 Shivratris celebrated throughout the year. Some say this was the day when Shiva manifested himself in the form of a linga, and the Puranas mention that Shiva wed Parvati on this day. But why do Hindus celebrate this birthday or even the marriage, which was as tempestuous and interesting as most human marriages?

It is said that the planetary positions in the northern hemisphere are in such a conjunction on the day of Maha Shivratri that it is a potent catalyst, which can help a person improve their spiritual and other energies. Shiva himself is said to have declared to his wife Uma that if this date is observed, it could destroy the consequences of all sins and confer final liberation. Some actually believe that Sanskrit mantras like Maha-Mrityunjaya enhance their powers on this very night.

The rituals of Shivratri – literally Shiva’s night – have also been documented in several Kalpadrumas (hymns or incantations usually of Tantric origin) and Tithi Tattwas (Smriti texts the most famous ones ascribed to Raghunandan Bhattacharya of Bengal), and some appear quite Tantric in character.

In this small piece, however, we will not focus on rites, rituals or mantras of Shivratri but try to understand when this festival assumed importance among the masses of Bengal. The wedding of Shiva and Parvati is mentioned in the Puranas and in Sanskrit literature as in the writings of Kalidasa, but our concern is to trace when Shiva’s night began to be observed in Bengal at the level of the common man, not just the thin layer that represented the Brahmanical elite.

Shiva’s secure seat

Shiva remains a fascinating Hindu deity as he combines several contradictions –love and war; affection and vengeance; monogamy and sexual deviation; generosity and vindictiveness. Even the English educated urban youth, who usually keep a safe distance from what they view as “native” culture and religion, have now become his ardent fans thanks to authors like Amish Tripathi, who is famous for his Shiva Trilogy.

Let us also remember that Brahma lost his position in the original Hindu triumvirate – Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar (Shiva) – and manages with just one temple at Pushkar dedicated to him, among the millions of temples that dot the country.

Vishnu formed a grand alliance by absorbing nine deities through his Dashavatara (ten avatars) legend. But Shiva had no such problems as his seat in the great triad is quite secure. Shiva outlived even Indra, who exists now only as a suffix in names like Narendra and Dharmendra, and actually expanded his kingdom rather extensively. It stretches all the way from Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet to the tip of southern India, in Kanyakumari. There are a dozen jyotirlingas across India – from Kedarnath in Uttarakhand to Somnath in Gujarat; from Baidyanath in Jharkhand to Kashi Vishwanath in Uttar Pradesh, and in Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

Shiva was not originally a great Vedic deity like Varuna or Indra, though he did appropriate some of the qualities of Rudra, a Rigvedic deity. Yet Shivratri is said to have been worshipped for ages. The story of Raja Chitrabhanu of the Ikshvaku dynasty, who observed Shivratri, and the Ishana Samhita are quoted to prove its antiquity. Puranas, like the Shiva, Padma, Skanda, Matsya and Vayu are also cited. But they refer to Shiva’s mahatmya in general, not necessarily to this ratri or night.

A labourer snoozes in the shade of a handcart decorated with an idol of Shiva during in Kolkata, in 2008. (Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP)

Shiva in Bengal

Then Bengal has its special problems and Shiva had to go through major humiliation in the medieval period. Bengal’s Mangal Kavyas – a group of Bengali Hindu religious texts, composed more or less between the 13th century and 18th century – celebrated the defeat of the great Puranic deities of North India such as Shiva of Kailash and even Durga at the hands of the gods and goddesses of the lowest strata like Chandi, Dharma and Manasa. For instance, in the texts, Shiva, the king of Kailash, was defeated repeatedly by the local snake goddess Manasa.

We also need to recall a story of Kalketu, the hunter, who came out of the forests in the Middle Ages to set up a kingdom, where agriculture would be the mainstay not hunting.

In simple terms, Bengal crafted its own narrative between the 15th century and 17th century, when more and more persons moved from their earlier professions of hunting, gathering, fishing and herding cattle to agriculture and settled life.

The Shiva model that finally succeeded in Bengal was actually the humble peasant of Shivayana literature. He is a potbellied peasant, who smokes ganja and goes around dancing with his ganas or companions, and is chased around the village by an angry Parvati, broom in hand. The peasant Shiva became an instant hit among the newly-emerging farmers of medieval Bengal. It is this democratisation of worship that distinguishes Bengal from other provinces.

But the pre-agricultural past of Bengal was not forgotten. The primary tale of Shivratri still focuses on a hunter, who climbed the branch of a bael tree on Shivratri. He happened to throw leaves throughout the night, quite inadvertently, upon a Shiv linga that was at the foot of the tree. When he died, Shiva’s hordes fought with Yama’s messengers for the body, which was taken directly to heaven, as Shiva wanted to reward him for his act of piety on the night of Shivratri.

It was later in the 18th century that Shiva cults from North India managed to establish the pan Indian Shiva in Bengal once again. Among them were the Naths such as Gorakshanath and Minanath, and Dashnamis, who set up the Tarakeshwar temple in West Bengal along with other temples. Rajas and zamindars like the Punjabi family of Burdwan Raj patronised Shiva and established many temples in Bengal too.

Shivratri celebrations

Then how old is the celebration of Shivratri in Bengal? The fact is that while many of our deities are quite ancient, many of their present festivals like Shivratri, could be fairly recent. We found that the worship of both Saraswati and Vishwakarma can be traced to just a century-and-a-half, once all classes of Bengalis realised that education ensured a decent livelihood and that the factory system brought jobs and economic prosperity. The problem is that Indians use the word pracheen or ancient quite vaguely. A hundred-year-old temple is ancient and so is Harappa of 5,000 years ago.

But we can still safely presume that in Bengal Shivratri must have been celebrated as a mass-level festival for more than 200 years. This is fairly old when we compare it to many others such as the community worship of Durga or Ganesh Chaturthi that were begun to be celebrated only a little more than a century ago.

John Murdoch, who complied the earliest serious and detailed studies of Indian festivals wrote in 1904 that “notwithstanding its reputed sanctity, it is evidently quite modern”. In Bengal, Shivratri seems to have been adopted only in the late 18th or early 19th centuries when Bengali well-educated gentlefolk started reinforcing male patriarchy as soon as they became prosperous under British rule.

This is the age when Sati increased and widows were treated cruelly or banished to Kashi Vrindavan. Jamai Sasthi – a festival dedicated to the son-in-law – was the rage and all socio-religious energies were directed at husbands – praying for a good one was just part of this trend.

Thus we have two Shiva traditions that run parallel to each other in Bengal – one that loves the poor but jolly peasant Shiva or Bholanath, and the other that prays to the King of Kailash.

One more issue is that Bengalis often wonder how this God of the cold Himalayas could manage to survive with just a single piece of tiger skin around his waist. As is well known, Bengalis are terrified of the cold and they quickly put on mufflers and monkey caps as soon as the temperature drops below 25 degrees Celsius.