Just as it is said that the darkest hour is before the dawn, so also the light of consciousness shines brightest on the ‘Great Night of Shiva’ or Mahashivaratri, the moonless night at the end of the dark fortnight in the month of Phalgun, which this year falls on February 20th. What is apparently paradoxical is, in fact, a straightforward truth that is outwardly visible in the intensity and scale of human devotions on this most auspicious of occasions, one of India’s most significant and widely celebrated religious festivals.
Lord Shiva is symbolized as linga, and worshipped as this phallic form in any or each of the five natural elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. The preeminent tejolinga, or linga of fire, is none other than Annamalai or Arunachala, the sacred hill that gives the pilgrim town of Tiruvannamalai its name. Tens of thousands of devout worshippers converge upon Mt Arunachala on this moonless night of Mahashivaratri to fast, to pray, to circumambulate the holy hill, to listen to discourses or sacred music, to chant mantras, or simply meditate. It is a night-long affair during which each devotee freely follows his or her own preferred path while gaining support from the shared presence of other pilgrims and the lineage of local saints and sages.
It has been recorded that Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879 – 1950), when perusing the Shiva Purana on June 30th, 1936, made this observation: “Shiva has the transcendental and immanent aspects as represented by his invisible, transcendental being and the linga aspect respectively. The linga manifested as Arunachala originally stands even to this day. This manifestation was when the moon was in the constellation of Orion (Ardra) in December. However, it was first worshipped on Shivaratri day which is held sacred even now.” (Talks With Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Ramanasramam, Talk No. 218).
In the centre of Tiruvannamalai, as the darkness begins to gather at dusk, the spacious flag-stoned courtyards of the Arunachaleshwarar Temple are awash with countless clay oil lamps, all laid out in vast sweeping designs, outlining various motifs characteristic of Lord Shiva: lingams, Nandi the bull, the sacred syllable ‘Om’ or Mt Arunachala. Hordes of devotees, young and old, continuously replenish the lamps with more oil, or light fresh ones.
Elsewhere, gigantic, brightly-coloured sand murals larger than a badminton court depict scenes of divinity and devotion: Shiva as Nataraja, lord of dance, or a devotee worshipping a linga at the foot of Mt Arunachala. In the inner sanctum of the 25-acre temple, a dense stream of pilgrims continuously circumambulates the garba griha, or sanctum sanctorum, throughout the night. For the less energetic, or frail of limb, classical music and dance performances within the temple premises help to keep one’s attention alive and focussed.
And, of course, there’s the perennially fulfilling 13-km circumambulation of Mt Arunachala. As recently as twenty years ago, it was so silent that a visiting filmmaker could record the soft susurrations of unshod footfalls upon the ground. Today, those delicate sounds have given way to an explosion of public piety, enthusiastic chants of “Om Namah Shivaya” and groups of devotional singers. With the imminent dawn of a new day, the supreme lord must surely be listening.