Mandi: The week-long Mahashivratri festivities, unique to this Himachal Pradesh town, began Monday, the day when celebrations ended in other northern states.
The festival is celebrated with a difference in this historical town, popularly known as Chhoti Kashi, as it sees the assembly of over 200 hill "gods and goddesses".
Statues that are venerated in temples in the vicinity are brought in beautifully decorated palanquins, to the sound of trumpets and the beating of drums.
The festival dates back to 1526, when this town, known for its ancient temples, was founded during the rule of Ajbar Sen.
Ajbar Sen "invited" local deities to mark the founding of the new town, also setting a precedent that is still followed.
"More than 200 deities were invited to participate in the festival this year. Most of them have arrived. They will stay here till the festival ends (March 17)," Deputy Commissioner Devesh Kumar, chief organiser of the festival, said.
Like the week-long Kullu Dussehra festivities, Mandi`s Mahashivratri also sees a congregation, in which there are both divine and temporal aspects.
Mandi, on the Chandigarh-Manali national highway, is dotted with more than 80 temples built in typical hill architecture.
The prominent temples here are those of Bhutnath, Triloki Nath, Jagannath, Tarna Devi and Jalpa Devi.
The rulers of Mandi state were devotees of Lord Shiva.
Legend has it that ruler Sen (1499-1534) saw in his dreams a cow offering milk to an idol of Lord Shiva. His dream became reality, because, according to legend, he actually once saw a cow make a milk offering to an idol.
That was when the ruler constructed a temple in 1526 -- the Bhutnath temple -- dedicated to Lord Shiva.
The foundation of Mandi town was laid at the same time, and Sen later shifted his capital here.
The administration has since been inviting deities to the Shivratri festivities here, ever since the rule of princely states came to an end. The administration also offers an honorarium to the "kardars" (attendants of deities) for participating in the festival.
During the first day of the fair, Lord Madho Rai, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and the chief deity, leads the procession.
The assembled deities follow him in beautifully decorated palanquins, as per protocol, and assemble at the Bhutnath temple.
Three such processions, locally called Jaleb, would be taken out on the opening, middle and concluding days of the fair, said an organiser.
Every year the festival attracts scores of tourists, especially foreigners. Many researchers studying local gods and goddesses also arrive at this time.
"It`s really a divine gathering. Like Kullu Dussehra, it`s another occasion to witness a congregation of hill god and goddess," said Steven Fletcher, a researcher from the US.
During the festival, transactions worth millions of rupees take place, besides cultural events and rural sports.