All over the country, Maha Shivratri is observed on the 13th night of the new moon during the dark half of the month of Phalguna (February or March). This is the night, when Lord Shiva danced the 'Tandava'-his cosmic dance.
There is a Shivaratri in every luni-solar month of the Hindu calendar, on the month's 13th night and 14th day, but once a year in late winter February or March, or Phalguna, and before the arrival of spring, marks Maha Shivaratri. Out of the 12 Shivratris observed in any given year, Maha Shivratri is considered especially auspicious, as it is supposed to be the night of convergence of Shiva and Shakti, which in essence means the male and feminine energies that keep the world in balance. Shiva and Shakti are revered as the embodiment of love, power, and oneness.
There are different legends throughout history that describe the significance of Maha Shivratri. One of them is that Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati tied the knot on this day. Purusha (mindfulness) is embodied by Lord Shiva, whilst Prakriti (nature) is embodied by Maa Parvati. With the union of both consciousness and energy, it facilitates creation.
Another story says, during Samudra Manthan, a pot emerged from the ocean which consisted of poison. All the Gods and demons were terrified that this will destroy the entire world and so, Gods went to Lord Shiva for help. To protect the entire world from the evil effects, Shiva drank the entire poison and held it in his throat instead of swallowing it. Due to this, his throat became blue and hence he came to be known as 'Neelakantha'.
Pilgrims flock to the places where there are Shiva temples on Shivratri. Devotees of Shiva observe a strict fast on this day and maintain a long vigil during the night. Some devotees do not even take a drop of water. In temples, bells ring, sacred texts are chanted and traditional offerings of leaves and milk are made to the Shiv lingam, the phallic symbol of the god. Some observe fasts at home by having simple, sattvic foods. Get recipes
The Shiva Lingam is worshipped throughout the night by washing it every three hours with milk, clarified butter, curd, honey, rose water etc., and applying vermilion paste, whilst the chanting of the Mantra 'Om Namah Shivaya'. Offerings of bel leaves are made to the Lingam. Bel (wood apple) leaves are very sacred as, it is said, Lakshmi resides in them. Drinking a typical drink made with cannabis, almonds and milk, is held particularly auspicious by the devout. Hymns in praise of Lord Shiva, such as the 'Shiva Mahimna Stotra' of Pushpadanta or Ravana's 'Shiva Tandava Stotra' are sung with great fervour and devotion.
Besides remembering Lord Shiva, taking fasts and chanting prayers, Maha Shivratri is observed by meditating on ethics and virtues such as self-restraint, honesty, forgiveness, not hurting others, and the discovery of Shiva. It marks a remembrance of overcoming darkness and ignorance, in life and the world.
Festivals - All over India