Shivratri is considered especially auspicious for women. Married women pray for the well being of their husbands and sons, while unmarried women pray for an ideal husband like Shiva, who is the spouse of Kali, Parvati and Durga.
On the day of Shivratri, a three-tiered platform is built around a fire. The topmost plank represents 'swargaloka' (heaven), the middle one 'antarikshaloka' (space) and the bottom one 'bhuloka' (earth). Eleven 'kalash' or urns, are kept on the 'swargaloka' plank symbolizing the 11 manifestations of the 'Rudra' or destructive Shiva. These are decorated with the leaves of bilva or bael and mango atop with a coconut, representing the head of Shiva, is kept. The uncut shank of the coconut symbolizes his tangled hair and the three dents on the fruit are believed to be his three eyes.
On Mahashivratri, devotees wake up early in the morning and take a bath, if possible in river Ganga. They then offer prayers to Surya, Vishnu and Shiva as a purificatory rite. After wearing fresh clothes, they visit the nearest Shiva temple. Hindu temples across the country are decorated with lights and colorful decorations and people can be seen offering night long prayers to Shiva Lingam. Bael leaves, cold water and milk are offered to the Shiva Lingam as they are believed to be Lord Shiva’s favourites. With reverberating sounds of Shankarji ki Jai, the devotees circumambulate the Lingam, three or seven times and then pour water over it. Some also pour milk and honey. It is then anointed with sandalwood paste and offered wood apple or bael leaves, fruit, milk, sandalwood and jujube fruit (bér). Since Shiva is believed to be very hot tempered, things that have a cooling effect are offered to him.
The worship continues through the whole day and whole night. Jaagran (nightlong vigil) night is also observed, where a large number of devotees sing hymns and devotional songs, in praise of Lord Shiva. In the morning, devotees break their fast with the prasad that was offered to Lord Shiva the night before, after the aarti.
Hindu mythology suggests that by observing vrat on Mahashivratri, one can attain control over the two great forces that afflict man – rajas guna (the quality of passionate activity) and tamas guna (the quality of ignorance). When a devotee observes fast with discipline and spends the entire day at the feet of Lord Shiva, his/her mind is controlled. Moreover, evil feelings like lust, anger and greed are subdued, thereby acquiring control over rajas guna. When he/she stays awake through the night of Mahashivaratri, he/she develops the ability to conquer the evils of tamas guna too.
The most popular Mahashivratri celebrations take place in Ujjain, which is believed to be the place of residence of Lord Shiva. Large processions, carrying the idol of Lord Shiva, weave through the streets, with people thronging to catch a glimpse of the revered Lord. In Kashmir, the festival is held for 15 days. The 13th day is observed as a day of fast followed by a family feast.