I always had this fascination to go to a place and see a celebration. India is a land of festivals. So I was very keen to know how these are celebrated. Having been brought up in Kolkata, I knew most of the culture there. Being a South Indian, I knew the culture and tradition of South India mostly. Being in Mumbai after marriage has given me the chance to know about Maharashtrian culture. But I never had this opportunity to know about North India. So I was quite curious to know how things are celebrated there. I had many friends from Uttar Pradesh who have told me how they do things there. I have seen it on television, read about it in books, newspapers, and have seen it on the Internet. But I guess there is nothing like watching it live in front of your own eyes. Years passed and this desire of mine remained dormant within me. My duties and responsibilities added to the commitments took over my desire and I just had to shelve it. As if sensing my urge, my friend Manoj just happened to drop by in Mumbai once on some personal work. After a long time, it was nostalgic to catch up on past friends, college life and it really is wonderful to see how old friendships last long. Manoj, now a journalist with a leading television channel was very much settled in life with Nirupama his wife and his two kids Anvesha and Ankit. When they dropped by for dinner and casually asked me if I was interested to be a part of the documentary that Nirupama was making on Indian Festivals, I was first taken aback and later thought it was a joke. But things unfolded and when they said they were serious, I got really interested. Nirupama, documentary film maker was already the winner of many awards for documentaries and this time she aimed to get yet one more by making a good one on Indian Festivals. As Shivratri was nearing, she was going to make one on Shivratri. For this she wanted a few characters who would give the lead introduction in the movie. I was more than interested. For this, I had to visit a city in Uttar Pradesh, see the celebrations of Shivratri and come back and give her an account of the visit. She would then make the film based on my opinions and impressions. Quite impressive. And they had the faith apparently on me as they felt I was intelligent to find the nuances of the celebrations on a different note. Wow!

Very soon, I found myself on board the Mumbai Varanasi Special Express. It was fun to go somewhere with an allotted target. The travel was even more enjoyable as I was on my own, away from the responsibilities of being a parent. Yes, it is sometimes nice to be yourself sans any kind of commitments. So Varanasi here I come, I felt as the train sped past. As the various stations passed by, I was quite excited and thrilled to be a part of a documentary film. The travel and the journey was becoming very meaningful for me. I had booked myself in Banaras Lodge, lodge in Varanasi through the Internet. I was curious to know if it was authentic and if the booking was certain. As Varanasi station came into my view I saw the time was 4 in the evening. The train was on time. I went by taxi to the lodge. Sure enough the lodge very much existed. Such lodges are good for a person coming to Varanasi for a short time. Refreshed and relaxed, I took a shower and went around the city in the evening. Shivratri was next day. So I got ready for the day to follow.

The air totally spoke of the month of Phalgun and Varanasi was decked in full beauty to celebrate the marriage of Lord Shiva with goddess Parvati. There was lot of religious significance to the entire festival. Shivratri denotes the ultimate love between the two Gods and the festival is very important in the Hindu calendar. The celebrations take place during the time the moon wanes. It is called the Krishna Paksha in the Hindu calendar.

Obviously if I had to part of the function, I had to observe the traditional fast that people normally observe for the festival. I had to spend the whole day without food or water. Oh my god! I wondered how I would do it. I had never had a Shivratri fast before. The day thus started with my reaching out for my cup of tea and then remembering I couldn’t have it. Dressed in traditional costumes, I blended into the city festivities and moved ahead trying to understand the city, its culture and the festival so that I could give Nirupama a good feedback.

As I walked through the city, the story of Shivratri came back to my memories. Granny had told it so many times. Bhishma, the main hero in the Indian epic Mahabharata was once lying on a bed made of arrows. He at that time told the story of Chitrabanu. This ruler of the Ishvaku dynasty had had a fast on Shivratri. When a saint who was visiting his court asked him why he fasting, then Chitrabanu said that it was because of events of his past birth which he remembered. Chitrabanu went to say that in his past birth he was a hunter and earned his living by killing animals. Once, in of his pursuits he lost his way and rested on a bael tree. He had a killed deer with him, and when he rested he tied it to the branch of a tree. In tiredness and remembering his family he plucked the tree leaves and threw them on the ground. There was a saint who came along and Chitrabanu who was on a fast fed the sage with the food he had with him. Apparently this was the Lord himself and he had earned the Lord’s blessings by feeding him. When Chitrabanu died, the messengers of Shiva told him that he would always blessed. They said that underneath that tree which he rested upon, lay a lingam and he had washed away his sins with his tears which fell on the lingam.  The leaves that he had plucked unknowingly were considered as a lingam. And when he fed God in the form of the saint, he had actually made offerings to God.

Thus during Shivratri, the devotees are seen to observe a fast the entire day with no food or water. The celebrations are held in the night.

Relating the story to myself, within myself, I realized that I had already covered most of the temples in the city and I was walking by to the Tilbandheshwar temple when I saw a lovely parade here.  Varanasi people consider the festival of Shivratri to be very important and so everyone participates in the parade. People were dressed as many characters. Some were dressed as Gods, some as Goddesses, some as ghosts, and some as demons. The atmosphere was crazy and the feeling was crazier. This parade was in commemoration of the followers of Shiva who were said to be in plenty. Even ghosts and demons were his followers. More than the festival, it is the excitement that was palpable.

As I walked along, I saw the makeup artists actually sitting on the road and dressing up people as they came. There was a huge queue for the makeup. I too went and joined the line and came out dressed up as Parvati. I spoke to the characters on the road and recorded them on video. I even spoke to them and interviewed them. I guess my video in itself made a good documentary! There was this one guy who was dressed as Parshuram and I interviewed him asking him he felt to be Parshuram. He told me he loved his character and people actually called him Parshuram as he was playing the same character for the past seven years! This fellow was quite an interesting guy and all the more when I saw his daughter playing the role of Baby Shiva. The parade started when the guy dressed up as Lord Shiva went to the temple and invoked god into him. The parade went on the streets to the neighborhood and there was a crowd which was uncontrollable. The sweat, the grime, the crowd was so unbearable yet the people seemed to be rejoicing and enjoying. With the music in full volume and people dancing to its tunes, the snake charmers added to the intrigue and sheer madness. The fire crackers went occasionally and the corresponding melee that followed just increased the craziness.

I was quite amused to see myself dressed up as a goddess, and was even more amused when I saw the people halting at the roadside Bhang stalls. This is a drink which is considered to be a blessing of Lord Shiva. The parade went on and it was almost three and a half hours that I was walking. AT around 6 in the evening, the parade stopped at the Tilbandheswar temple.

I was completely exhausted and tired and just sat on the ground. The guy who was dressed as Lord Shiva symbolically married the lady dressed up as Parvati. The marriage was performed amidst the cries and feverish chants of the people around. Everyone literally went berserk touching “Shiva’s “feet. I was tired, but relieved and excited that I had been part of such a great event. I had filmed it and also taken a lot of photos. Now I am writing on it. Soon it will be a documentary. After the parade, I went around, washed my feet and reached the main temple where the festivities were on. There lay the sacred phallus or lingam in full glory. The lingam was washed with rose water. After three hours it was washed with honey, then milk, then curd, then ghee and then sugar. These five substances together were known as the Panchamrut. All of us had vibhuti on our foreheads. This is the holy ash. The three lines of vibhuti indicate the three eyes of Lord Shiva. The three eyes stand for penance, purity and wisdom.

I had my rosary. My mother had given it to me, when I embarked on the journey to Varanasi. It came of use here. The rudraksha seed rosary was covered with turmeric, sandalwood and kumkum. All of us then offered the leaves of bael and also decorated the lingam with vermillion. The whole surrounding was full of devotional songs of Lord Shiva and the city was agog with respect and reverence all over. The chants of Om Namah Shivay was a normal thing in the atmosphere and the Panchaaksahara Stotra was also being recited everywhere. The atmosphere was electric and no one would believe that it was the middle of the night. Everyone was fervently reciting the hymns as the belief is that the people would be absolved of all sins if these are recited. I was completely struck by the atmosphere and the ambience just grew into me. Documentary or no documentary, I sure was enjoying my visit to this place. If it had not been for Nirupama, I would never have reached this place and would never have ventured to be on a fast.

The chanting over and bathing the lingam over, then a special drink was prepared. Very commonly known as the Bhang, this drink was actually a mixture of milk and cannabis. Apparently Lord Shiva loved this and this drink was his favorite. The atmosphere was replete with the faith that people had in their God. India the land of festivals was certainly a great treasure house. Varanasi being one of the oldest cities has another story to celebrated Mahashivratri. Apparently, when the ocean was churned by the devas and asuras, to get Amrita, lot of poison came out. Anyone who touched the poison was getting burnt. So everyone approached Lord Brahma and Vishnu who were helpless. So when they went to Lord Shiva, he solved their problem by drinking the entire poison .Thus Shiva turned blue.

Thinking of all these stories, I was quite in a different land, and when I suddenly heard all the roar and shout of Om Namah Shivay I was jolted out of my reverie. I saw a huge procession being taken out. This procession started from the Maha Mritunjaya temple and ended at the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

Shivratri in Varanasi was certainly an affair to remember. This is believed to be the residence of Lord Shiva and Parvati. The mirth and the enthusiasm to celebrate the festival here was contagious. The feverish pitch with which devotees were offering Dhatura, milk, coconut, flowers, fruits etc is seen to be believed.

With chants of Jai RamBhole and Bam Bam Bholey filling the air with piety, I walked back to my lodge in the wee hours of the morning. After the entire night was spent in singing songs of Lord Shiva, I was happy to be here in Varanasi, one of the 12 Jyotirlingas. I think at least there would have been more than two lakhs devotees here. I was scared of the crowd. It could have led to a stampede and thanked my stars it didn’t.

When I set out from Varanasi the next morning, I called Nirupama and told her that my trip was more successful than I had imagined. I wrote this blog as a memory of the entire trip. The documentary would be released as soon as Nirupama finishes with it.

A word to the diary: Never miss anything religious.