Shivratri is observed as a festival as well as a vow. It means the 'Night of Shiva' and is observed on Shiva Chaturdashi of Phalgun, that is, on the fourteenth day of the dark half of Phalgun (February-March). The Hindus of all faiths and castes celebrate it all over the country. The devotees remain awake the whole night either indulging in meditation, japa, kirtan or reading and recitation of Shiva Mahima Stotra and Shiva Tandava Stotra. The 'Lingam' symbol of Shiva is worshipped with Gangajal, milk, curd, honey and clarified ssbutter. Bel leaves, dhatura fruit, aak flowers, etc, are also offered to Lord Shiva. Bel leaves are considered very sacred and dear to Shiva.
Devotees in hundreds and thousands collect at the Shiva shrines and spend the whole night practicing devotion and piety. Special puja and prayers are held at Varanasi, Tarakeshwar, Baidyanath, Balkeshwar, Rameshwaram and Ujjain. At Pashupatinath, in Nepal, a grand celebration is held on this occasion. The devotees keep strict fast and do not take even a drop of water. Being known as Mahadeva, various gods, including Brahma and Vishnu worship him.
He is a deity who can be easily pleased to earn a desired boon. He is a great and powerful god and one of the Hindu Trinity. He is Mahakal and destroys and dissolves every thing into nothingness, but at the same time as Shankar, he restores and reproduces that which has been destroyed and dissolved.
His symbol of phallus represents this reproductive power. As a Mahayogi or the great ascetic, he combines in himself the highest perfection of austerity, penance and abstract meditation. In this form he is a naked ascetic or a Digambar, 'clothed with the elements'. He is also called Chandrashekhara, 'moon- crested'; Gangadhara, 'bearer of Ganga'; Girisha, 'mountain lord'; Kala, 'time'; Maha-kala, 'great time'; Pashupati, 'Lord of the beasts'; Vishwanath 'Lord of the Universe'; etc.
A very interesting story is told by the devotees on this occasion to underline the significance of the vow observed on this day. Once, named a hunter named Suswar lived near Varanasi. He earned his livelihood by killing and selling birds and beasts. One day he went on a hunting expedition, and he was late. It being dark he could not return home. The forest was dense and full of terrible beasts of prey. To protect himself from wild beasts he climbed up a bel tree to spend the night. At night, he suffered pangs of hunger and thirst on the one hand and on the other he was very much worried about his dear wife, children and old mother at home, who had been waiting anxiously for his return.
He was feeling anxious and out of restlessness he kept on plucking the bel leaves and dropping them down on the ground. Under the tree there was a Shiva-linga, and that night was the Shivratri night. The hunter's worship, though performed unwittingly, highly pleased Shiva. Therefore, the hunter after his death, got a place in the blissful abode of Lord Shiva, and after ages was reborn as a king, named Chitrabhanu. The King observed Shivratri and did great penance on that day.