• Four Australians tells us how they celebrated Shivarathri.
We talked to four Indian Australians about how they celebrated Maha Shivarathri, the annual Hindu festival that commemorates the marriage of Lord Shiva with his wife Parvathi.
Shami Sivasubramanian

8 Mar 2016 - 8:44 AM  UPDATED 8 Mar 2016 - 11:33 AM
The best way to describe the festival is like "a religious all-nighter".

Maha Shivarathri (MAH - HAH  SHIVER -RAH - THREE) , which appeared on March 7 this year, will be celebrated by Hindus the world over.

The festival, which literally translates to "Big Shiva Night", commemorates the wedding anniversary of Lord Shiva, the destroyer of evil, and his wife Parvathi, the goddess of prosperity.

But Shivarathri is different to other Hindu festivals, (or Hindu wedding celebrations for that matter) in that isn't associated with any colourful fanfare. Also, it's typically celebrated throughout the night.

Who's this Shiva? And what his Rathri all about?

According to Hindu scriptures, Lord Shiva represents the aguna, or formless. In his physical form however (a form brought about more for the convenience of worship), Lord Shiva is represented as a drab esoteric, wearing the ash from cremation ground on his body, wrapping himself in animal skins, having knotted locks of hair or jada, and adorning himself in garlands made of skulls.

It's all to show that the physical and aesthetic doesn't matter; it's what's inside that counts. Lord Shiva embodies that notion entirely, and Shivarathri is an opportunity to celebrate that.

Though there are no rules or strict rituals for this particular festival, the usual customs associated with Shivarathri include doing japam or chanting of "Om Nama Shivaaya" and offering abhishekam or holy bathing of a statue of Lord Shiva with milk.

We spoke to four Hindu Australian, of different ages and backgrounds, about their experiences with Shivarathi and how they celebrated the festival this year.

Pooja, 30: working professional, lives at home with her parents

"Okay. so mum who is the champion Shivanator has taken it upon her to do it this year," says Pooja, a girl of Marathi central Indian background. 

She describes the day as cumbersome to her, but partakes in the festival to appease her more religious parents.

"It's something that makes Mum happy, and because I live with them, I have to do this," she says.

Her family celebrates by "semi-fasting" for the day, preparing prasad or dishes to offers as Hindu Communion, and performing some japa or chanting to Lord Shiva.

"We broke down the prep into a few categories: 1. Food related- for us and for prasad, 2. Decorations- the shiva leaves, flowers 3. Prayer related stuff- that milk prasad to bathe the Shiva lingum," she says.

Fortunately, preparation for the festivities won't be too hard to juggle for Pooja's family, especially since Shivarathri falls on a work day in Australia.

"Because Mum is at home, it makes it easier but she allocated stuff for us to do. For example, we got the fruits yesterday. This morning I lit the lamp, put some leaves and flowers out, and washed the idols," says Pooja.

Siva, 57: executive professional, married with two children

Who better to ask than my own father, Siva (who's names is coincidentally pronounced Shiva). He comes from an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family and for him, the festival is about penance and inculcating all the values Lord Shiva embodies.

"This is one of the intensely spiritual functions bereft of any celebratory fanfares," he says. "The day calls for invoking your internal spirituality and connecting with the Whole. There are no rigid prescriptions to observe the day, one is at liberty to choose his own method of connecting with the Whole."

Siva also shared when he is in India, he celebrates Shivarathri by performing parikrama of circumambulation of a certain holy hills that represent Lord Shiva, or visits 108 Shiva temples within his vicinity.

However, living here in Australia, visiting 108 temples can be a struggle. Instead Siva performs his penance from home, taking advantages of the freedom Hindus have to choose how they workship on this day.

"I pray and meditate to Vedic scriptures. Some people stay awake the whole night singing bhajans a la Pentecostals. I pray, meditate, and sleep. I leverage the latitude one has on Shivarathri to freely choose how they celebrate this festival. I draw no attention to me in any country I live but fail not focus my attention on the Whole," says Siva.

Asha, 26: child-care worker, married with no kids

Asha's parents are very involved in the Indian Australian community, however Asha, a Gujarati girl who was born and raised in Australia, calls herself a "black sheep" as she isn't committed to Hinduism in the same breadth.

"I believe in a few things, like God and things, because of my folks. But otherwise I don't do much," says Asha.

She does however defend the right for others to celebrate Shivarathri in whatever way they feels is best, including by performing milk baths for deities. 

Some Hindus have faced backlash for wasting good milk on bathing statuettes of Lord Shiva, especially when parts of India suffer from widespread poverty.

Asha has spoken out against this backlash and has defended the ritual on social media.

"Though I might only celebrate bits of it, I do get very defensive when people say stuff about our culture," she says.

Kashyap, 17: high school student

Kashyap is busy with his HSC studies this year, but still partakes in his family's celebration of Shivarathri.

"I believe in it. I think it’s great. But it’s hard to stay up all night, especially when I have school the next morning," he says.

His mother and father, however, do stay up all night chanting softly so as not to wake their son, which Kashyap find to be "really sweet".

Before nightfall, however, he does celebrate the festivities just after school, before starting his homework.

"We just celebrate at home and with a quick Shiva prayer, make an offering of something simple like nuts and fruit. Maybe visit the temple, and just keep the teaching of Shiva in our hearts," says Kashyap.