History & Legend: Hindu mythology has several popular stories about the origin of Mahashivaratri. According to one legend, when the gods and demons churned the ocean to get nectar (elixir), they came across many substances, including some lethal poison (‘halaahal’). When they touched, it exploded into poisonous fumes that threatened to destroy the whole world. Seeing this, the gods appealed to Brahma and Vishnu for help. Lastly, they turned to Lord Shiva, who used his powers to condense the fumes using his trident. To prevent any destruction of the universe, Lord Shiva swallowed the poison which, ever since, left a dark blue mark on His throat. Due to this, he was called the Blue Throated One or Nilkantha. The festival of Mahashivratri is celebrated to mark this occasion.
The Mahashivratri in Varanasi is of great significance to all Hindus. During this festival, devotees try to please the Lord to fulfil their desires. It is also of great significance for women. At this time, single and married women fast for the whole day and perform Shiva Linga Puja in order to please Goddess Parvati so that she may grant them marital bliss.
According to legend, on the day of Mahashivaratri, Lord Shiva married Mata Parvati. So, every year on this day, their devotees perform the same ceremony. In Varanasi, this celebration begins at the Mahamrityunjaya Temple of Daranagar and culminates at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi.
How it is celebrated: In Varanasi, people pray at Shiva temples and offer prayers. Their prayers often go on till late at night. On this day, devotees perform Rudrabhishek, Jalabhishek & Bhasma Aarti and offer bhang, milk, dhatura, fruits, flowers and coconut to Shiva idols and lingams and sing hymns in His honour. They also recite verses from the Holy Scriptures and remain on fast for the whole day. Devotees of Lord Shiva throng in large numbers at the Kashi Vishvanath temple. Devotees prepare all kinds of sweets made with coconut to offer Lord Shiva. They stay up all night, often without food, and pray to God to shower His blessings on them. Early next morning, they break their fast.
On this occasion, a special drink is prepared, called Thandai. It is a mix of almonds and cannabis. It is taken by all the devotees who believe that Lord Shiva has a great liking for cannabis. After a day of fasting, this drink is a great refresher. The day after the festival is usually marked as a Maha Shivaratri holiday as people are tired of fast and continuous worship with related rituals during the festivities of the previous day, and the fact that they stayed up all night. This day, is therefore, a welcome holiday after the build-up to this important festival in Varanasi.