We have this body due to our parents and the forefathers before them. Mahalaya Paksha (or Pitr Paksha) is an occasion to express our gratitude for it and the many subtleties that get bequeathed to us.
It is the time when our ancestors leave the Pitr loka and visit us to receive our offerings. This happens for a Paksha from Poornima to Amavasya in the Chaandramaana month of Bhaadrapada (in the South) or Aashvina (in the North). (It is the same Paksha, but different month names. This difference is due to the variation in defining the month start).
Pitr (ancestors) leave their loka (world) to come to us. So, Pitr loka is empty and looks as if it is destroyed (Mahalaya). Hence the name.
We worship Deva and Pitr on a daily basis. Deva Yagna and Pitr Yagna are part of the daily Pancha Maha-yagna.
Similarly there is a Tithi dedicated to both. For example Ashtami Tithi is considered special for Devi worship. And Amavasya is dedicated to Pitr.
That was the daily and tithi worship cycles. We have an annual routine too.
And the Mahalaya Paksha is the annual cycle of worshiping our forefathers. And the corresponding annual worship of Devi is Navaratri. And that follows immediately after this Pitr Paksha.
Nirnaya Sindhu talks about practices during this Paksha. It says Shraaddha could be performed, following one of these routines :
Among my relatives, many do a Shraaddha on one day of the Paksha and do Tarpanam everyday of the Paksha. Also, people follow diet rules. They are usually rules that are to be followed everyday. Unable to follow them on a daily basis, they follow it at least on such special days.
A family I know loves their onions and garlics. However, they exclude them from their cooking during this Pitr Pakshna. The kids of the family used to crib about the torture of onion-less, garlic-less food they had to eat during these times !!
All this time, we have been talking about Pitr as a non-personal entity. Nirnaya Sindhu quotes various texts to define whom to worship as Pitr during this time (the dead among them) :
Mahalaya Paksha is the time of the year when we remember our dead relatives and express our gratitude to them.
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