by Nibedita Saha
The Maha Shivratri fair in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh is well-known amongst travelers and devotees. The seven-day fair begins on the day of Maha Shivratri and continues for seven consecutive days.
The celebration goes in two parts; one at the fair, which becomes a joyous escape for the locals to enjoy, and the second one is the gathering of local deities from Mandi district, alongside many other activities including songs and dance.
Devotees from the remotest villages of Mandi district travel on foot for four-five days (depending on the distance of their respective towns/villages), carrying their local deities on their shoulders in decorated palanquins, which are the most colorful and yet visually calming. Jumping in joy and happiness, devotees take out the royal procession of deities, which is led by the principal deity, Lord Madho Rai (believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu). The procession starts from the Madhav Rai temple and ends at the Paddal Ground.
Mandi, which is also known as ‘Choti Kashi’, since the town has a temple located at every corner and lane, celebrates Maha Shivratri with a great sense of jubilation. The history of gaiety dates back to 1526, when Raja Ajbar Sen (1499-1534) founded the town and to celebrate the funding, Raja first invited all the local deities (Devi/Devtas) to Maha Shivratri. However, with time the festival has adapted to numerous changes, especially the abolition of the princely state in 1947, which merged Mandi into the Indian Union and the 1950s land reforms.
During Raja’s time, a small group of privileged deities was only invited for the royal procession, which is also called ‘Jaleb’ in the local language. After the merger, the Government of India replaced the king as the host, and since 1951 Lord Madho Rai started taking part in all the processions. Among other changes to the Maha Shivratri festival was the ban on ritualistic goat sacrifices.
Interestingly, one of the major changes was the fall of the traditional hierarchy of deities as the fair became open to all local devatas rather than to the small, privileged group. During the 1960s, the Raja and many reputable (the top class in the hierarchy system) stopped participating in the royal processions, despite the Raja being reinstated for all festive functions.
Witnessing Maha Shivratri in Mandi can be a mystical and metaphysical experience for one. With all the local instruments in action and people singing folk songs dedicated to the god and goddesses will be enough for your spiritual awakening.