Our mandir celebrated mahashivratri last Friday. It was a wonderful event, just being with so many people worshipping Lord Shiva filled my heart with gladness. We could feel the shakti (holiness) in the temple tangibly. In the temple we were given some small silver foil leaves.
Each silver foil piece takes the form of three leaves, and each leaf is embossed with the Panchakshara (“ॐ नमः शिवाय” or “Aum Namah Shivaya”). At the time I did not know the significance of these silver leaves. I asked a friend who said that he thought they were to take home and put on your home shrine, which I did. I then asked about the significance of the leaves on an online group for people following the Himalayan Academy Master Course.
I soon got the answer, these represent bilva leaves. I knew that fresh bilva leaves are used in part of the mahshivratri ceremony, but it had not clicked that these small silver leaves symbolised them.
There are many stories involving the bilva tree. One is of a hunter, who had been unsuccessful in hunting that day. He decided to hide in a tree and wait for animals to approach a nearby water hole. Soon a deer approached and as he prepared to shoot an arrow he dislodged some leaves from the tree and some water spilled from his canteen. He did not know it at the time but the tree he had been waiting in was a sacred bilva tree, under which nearby villagers had placed a shivalingam. The leaves and water fell on this lingam, so the hunter was worshipping Shiva without realising it! This impromptu worship softened his heart and he took pity on the deer and did not release the arrow. The hunter spent the night without food, thereby fasting through the night, which was mahashivratri. After this experience the hunter was a changed man, whereas before he was unkind and profane, he now became kind and holy. He was later reborn as King Chitrabhanu, a wise and good king.