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Field and Distance

Posted by J Foster on Nov 26, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

In just a few short weeks I will be returning to the U.S. for Christmas break. Upon my return, however, I will be gearing up for my third and last pilgrimage into the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal for this research field project. It’s hard to believe that I have already spent nearly 6 months in Nepal and 12 months total in the field working on Shaligrams. With just 5 more months to go, I’ve begun planning, and in places drafting, the final ethnographic work that will result from more than 17 months of research.

For the past few weeks I have been engaged in textual translation in order to ensure that I include all possible primary Sanskrit, Hindi, and Nepali sources. I have also had the pleasure of working with early adventurer logs from the late 1800s and early 1900s, mainly in French and German, where local Shaligram practices were recorded (albeit briefly and not very well) and described. Combined with direct accounts by modern Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims as well as long conversations with Shaligram practitioners in their homes on and off since 2012, my hope is that the resulting monograph will be as useful to Shaligram devotees themselves as it is for social scientists and the lay public. But if this is going to be the case, now is the time for hard questions.

Part of my initial drafting of a book on Shaligrams is to see what I am missing. By plugging information into a tentative framework of chapters and sub-sections, I can get a better idea of where the overall work is heading, how the narrative is shaping up, and what inconsistencies I have yet to address. Needless to say, hunting your own work for flaws is not always the most pleasant exercise, but it is a vital one. And the least for which is because this research isn’t just about Shaligrams themselves but the people, places, and cultural ideals that make them unique.

Recently, a friend of mine here in Kathmandu mentioned that my research seems to be on par with a body of research called “fossil folklores.” While I had heard this term before, I was intrigued and asked her to explain more. Fossil folklores are, in fact, a fascinating thread of inquiry within the Humanities typically undertaken by literature specialists, historians of science, and the occasional intrepid paleontologist. Fossil folklores asks questions of the relationships between people and fossils and analyzes the ways in which various cultures have used the fossil record to explain cultural myths and legends, especially religious ones. This should come as no surprise to us really, as even today in the US, fossils remain a contentious topic between Young Earth Creationism and Science and Education.

But the difference between my own work and the typical perspective of fossil folklores that I see is one of ontology. By this I mean that I have chosen not to assume a stronger “truth” to the scientific discourse of evolution compared to Shaligrams as manifest deities. This does not mean that I am setting out to deny science in anyway here, but that I am holding two competing forms of knowledge on equal footing and at a distance from one another to better see how they interact in this specific context. In other words, I ask, Is Shaligram a Fossil?

In all likelihood it will take a lifetime of publications and hundreds of pages to answer that question. Even then, the answer may not be all that satisfactory. But here in the field still, all things are possible. The ritual world is close and the Shaligrams immediate. It won’t be until later, when I am far away from Nepal and a fair degree of time has passed, that distance will help me see the field yet again, in another way; as a whole composed of parts which is comprised of smaller workings and somehow still manages to transcend them. The emic and the etic at last. Such is the conundrum of Anthropology.

 
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Happy Diwali (Deepawali) to All!

Posted by J Foster on Oct 30, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

A bright and happy Diwali (Deepawali) to all! May the festival of lights chase away all darkness and usher in a new and grander time of peace, prosperity, and joy.

(Morning Shaligram puja to the Maha-Shakti Devi, the Goddess of life and prosperity)

Mahashakti Devi Shaligram Puja conducted on the morning of the third day of Diwali

Mahashakti Devi Shaligram Puja conducted on the morning of the third day of Diwali

 

Mahashakti Devi Shaligram Puja conducted on the morning of the third day of Diwali

Mahashakti Devi Shaligram Puja conducted on the morning of the third day of Diwali

 
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Om’s Home (Reflections on Life in Kathmandu)

Posted by J Foster on Oct 28, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

That Wooden House
Audience in public
From what today
And that whacked the entrance
I am the mansion thorn
I am that there are
The sense of master
You’re cole and left
Haven’t you got a rug
Not the hypocrisis to gateways
The sense of master
A Saxophone’s tones guillotined
Developed by an eye on Springfield
Movie Stars that you love and hate
To another home, that wooden kate
That wooden house and a lob
Bring the jewelry to the railway cops
Turtles, Busters in China
A refugee on angina
Donald Amy, Set Whinfield
The guards described, the guards that yield
Coconut, Tetris and raft
A hustler smokes what is left
The director has enough to read
Write miseries on sheet
That wooden house and a lob
Bring the jewelry to the railway cops
It’s the entering thief
That wooden house and a lob
Bring the jewelry to the railway cops

~The Wooden House, by Pierre Rausch

Kathmandu is a lot like an old house. These deep internal supports, centuries old or more, overlaid by the patchworks of time. New cement walls painted with bright pinks and yellows, jarringly brilliant blues, and all wrapped precariously around 18th century brick-work and 12th century woodcarvings. Intricate Naga snake-women and ancient Vedic, Tantric, Buddhist, and animist deities overlooking sliding glass windows, rooftop water tanks, and an accumulation of about eight decades of creative electrical engineering. Is it any surprise that there’s only about 6 hours of electricity per day? Kathmandu is a city that shows its wear and misuse, its wealth and its poverty; in short, its life, in so many ways. Finger-stained door jams, trash discarded in the streets, kumkum and sandalwood powder caked on roadside shrines, the constant bustle, screech, and hum of streets filled with taxis, buses, cars, people, stray dogs, meditating sadhus, and cows. People hanging out on balconies overhead, women attending to the washing beneath alleyway waterspouts, beggars crying out for alms, fruit sellers plying their trade from rickety carts and bicycles, children running after a toy or a pet bouncing down the road. It’s a city in perpetual decay, with the veneer of life constantly building on top of it. Kathmandu is rotting underneath, but as the people of Nepal will tell you; this is how the soil of life is made, from which the wildest flowers grow.

 
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Fighting with Fieldnotes

Posted by J Foster on Oct 18, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Today marks, roughly, the half-way point of my long-term fieldwork. I have been in Nepal now some five months (with three months previous to this a year ago, and another three months previously in India) and will remain in Kathmandu until the spring, when I leave once again for the Kali Gandaki River valley of Mustang. This is the point of ethnographic fieldwork where one is generally advised to take stock, review everything collected so far, and consider what gaps might remain outstanding that can be addressed in the coming months. It seemed like such a simple task at first.

My fieldnotes are already, and some might say miraculously, somewhat organized. My primary notebook, which is sadly starting to show its mileage at this point (thanks Duct Tape!), is replete with colorful tape flags and Post-Its marking areas of specific interest or categorizing certain discussions for certain chapters. I also have a sense of an overall framework already in the works and have been plugging in information to relevant sections as I go along. This drafting stage for the final book isn’t specifically to just “get it all done,” so to speak, but to help me see what might be missing or what might not be as clear as it first appeared. This way, when I conduct more interviews or sit-in on a few more pujas and festival celebrations, I’ll know what it is I need to ask. But this still leaves me with something of a conundrum. A large portion of my fieldnotes are in drawings.

As I discussed earlier, many of these drawings (which are mainly drawings of specific Shaligrams) will be incorporated into the final piece of the larger work as a kind of “field guide.” But this still leaves out many other drawings that don’t quite fit the needs of such a chapter nor does it address the countless jottings and annotations covering almost every inch of two additional notebooks, two sketchbooks, some pilgrimage pamphlets, and a quick-access field book. I am certainly not the first ethnographer to encounter these problems. As such, there are even books and classes on just this problem; each with their own perspectives. How to fight with fieldnotes, and win.

There is never more poignant a day when you have to sit down with everything you’ve collected and try make some sense out of it. In my case, the metaphor of the museum collection is rather apt. I have a pile of objects in front of me (both notebooks and literal fossil stones) and now I need to arrange them in such a way as to tell the right kind of story. To construct some kind of coherent narrative out of the bits and pieces of encounters and conversations and observations made over more than a year of research. It’s at this point that the academic truly begins to struggle: how do I craft a narrative out of this that will both do it justice and be readable? How am I supposed to decide what is what, when half the time my research participants couldn’t even decide that!? Am I doomed to failure no matter what I do?

In the end, I have decided that the best route is to combine drawing and writing, photography and textual references, so that this research can focus more on the process of drawing out analytical connections from my informants’ multiple threads of narrative and experience. This is because Shaligrams truly do evolve over time (double-meaning intended). As I start now to sit down and write out these narratives, I will continue to try to preserve the numerous voices and perspectives of Shaligram practitioners themselves as the core of my ethnographic and theoretical discussions. As one Shaiva sādhu explained, sitting outside the gates of Muktinath as he had off-and-on for some twenty years or so: “The beauty of Shaligram is that it can be many things to many people. This doesn’t mean that you should not learn to read them properly, but that whatever Shaligram is to you may not be what Shaligram is to me. And that is ok, because Shaligram always is what it must be.”

While at the time I took him to mean that the nuances of Shaligram interpretation may sometimes be left to individual perceptions or insight, I later began to understand that what he was really referring to was a far-reaching sense of the formlessness of the divine: where the superficial nature of the material object and of the narrative was meant only to lead one to deeper understanding, not to be that understanding in and of itself. He contentedly assured me a few moments later that because of this, whatever it was that I would write couldn’t be completely correct no matter what I did, but that it would be enough, for the right person who could read it properly.

Having already experienced some of the challenges of the academic peer review process, I take a strange comfort in that.

 
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Spotlight – Shiva Linga Shaligram

Posted by J Foster on Sep 26, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

The last “Spotlight” post in our current series of three “non-Vishnu” Shaligrams, this post will focus on the Shiva Linga Shaligram. Given that Shaligrams are generally assumed to be direct manifestations of Vishnu, it occasionally comes as a surprise to many people that Shiva Linga Shaligrams have some measure of Vedic precedent, particularly in the Harihara category of śīlas (Praanatoshani Tantra pg. 348, Skanda Purana, Nagarekhanda, 244: 3-9). Harihara is the fused representation of Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Hara). Also known as Shankaranarayana (“Shankara” is Shiva, and “Narayana” is Vishnu), Harihara is thus revered by both Vaishnavas and Shaivas as a form of the Supreme God.

Harihara is also sometimes used as a philosophical term to denote the unity of Vishnu and Shiva as different aspects of the same Ultimate Reality which is called Brahman. This concept of equivalence of various gods as one principle and “oneness of all existence” is discussed as Harihara in the texts of the Advaita Vedanta school in Hindu philosophy. Additionally, some of the earliest sculptures of Harihara, with one half of the image as Shiva and other half as Vishnu, are found in the surviving cave temples of India, such as in the cave 1 and cave 3 of the 6th-century Badami cave temples.

(See also: David Leeming (2001), A Dictionary of Asian Mythology, Oxford University Press, page 67 and TA Gopinatha Rao (1993), Elements of Hindu iconography, Vol 2, Motilal Banarsidass, pages 334-335)

Description:

The Shiva Linga Shaligram is one of the most distinctive Shaligrams and typically appears as a round, smooth śīla containing a central conical spiral, which can be black, gold, or with white markings (see photo 1).

The variant of this Shaligram also appears as a columnar formation of black shale with a slightly segmented conical shape emerging wholly or partially from the top of the śīla (see photo 2).

This Shaligram is primarily associated with Shiva Linga worship and is therefore mainly sought after by Shaiva devotees. However, many Vaishnavas (such as Smartas) include the Shiva Linga Shaligram in their home practices in order to bestow blessings for meditation, protection, strength, and for normalizing a troubled family life.

Vedic References: Shivling Shaligrams are part of many local and regional Shaligram practices. While they are not mentioned by name in the Vedas, many devotees consider Shivling Shaligrams to be a part of the Harihara category of Shaligrams.

Vedic Description: Because this Shaligram represents Lord Shiva (The One who is Eternally Pure) the life of the devotee is considered free from contaminations of Rajas and Tamas; where the non-apprehension of Reality is Tamas and the misapprehension of Reality is Rajas. However, in Reality Itself there can be neither of them. In the Upanishads, for example, Brahman and Shiva are declared as part of the Absolute Oneness, which is Vishnu.

Golden Shiva Linga Shaligram

Golden Shiva Linga Shaligram

 

Shiva Linga Shaligram

Shiva Linga Shaligram

 
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Spotlight – Anirudda Shaligram

Posted by J Foster on Sep 4, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Keeping in the spirit of my previous post, I thought I might continue for a time spotlighting and highlighting some of the beautiful and amazing Shaligrams I find during my field research and travels here in Nepal. I figured this might be both fun and informative given the wide variety of Shaligrams pilgrims and devotees might encounter in their lifetimes and the difficulties many face in finding literature and texts that describe Shilas. On that note…

Description:

Anirudda (The one who cannot be obstructed or resisted by anyone), is a form of Bhagavan Vishnu (the Supreme God), a son of Pradyumna, and the grandson of Krishna. Along with Pradyumna, Sankarshan, and Vasudev, Anirudda is considered one of Vishnu’s four vyuha avatars who received specific attributes or functions of Vishnu but not his entire incarnation. (See also Pradyumna Shaligram) Anirudda’s eternal consort, Usha, once captured and sequestered him in the palace of her father, Bana. He was then rescued by Krishna, Balaram, and the Yadav army as a prelude to the story of Krishna and Shiva’s battle at Banasura in the Bhagavata Purana.

The Anirudda Shaligram is distinctive in that it appears as a teardrop shaped Shila with a series of curved parallel striations marking the majority of the surface. In many cases, the presence of Anirudda is also noted in other Shaligrams where the unique shape of the Anirudda Shaligram can be discerned emerging from somewhere along another Shaligram’s surface. In the second image, a drawing of a temple Shaligram in Kathmandu for example, this Kurma Shaligram (note the turtle-like shape) has also been interpreted as bearing the influences of Anirudda in the characteristic concentric markings across the top portion of the Shila.

Anirudda Shaligrams are typically associated with the comforting of householders, with blessings of wisdom, wit, and conviction, and with providing a “Vaikuntha” like atmosphere conducive to students, architects, administrators, and politicians.

Vedic References: Praanatoshani Tantra pg. 347, Praanatoshani Tantra pg. 361, Brahmavaivartta (Prakritikhanda, Ch. 21), Garuda Purana (Panchanan Tarkaratna, Part 1, Ch. 45)

Vedic Descriptions: Round in shape, glaced and charming to look at, yellowish color (B).

Blue color, round shape, and hole at top side (G).

 

Anirudda Shaligram

Anirudda Shaligram

 

Kurma-Anirudda Shaligram, drawn from a temple Shaligram in Kathmandu

Kurma-Anirudda Shaligram, drawn from a temple Shaligram in Kathmandu

 
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Spotlight – Hiranyagarbha Shaligram

Posted by J Foster on Aug 11, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Depending on which of the Puranas you read, there are variably 18 names of Shaligram and 13 chakra distinctions (Skanda Purana), 24 types (also Skanda Purana, though referencing an unknown earlier text), 19 types (Brahmavaivartta Purana), or 21 types (Garuda Purana). While there remains a fair degree of overlap between the types listed in each Purana, they are not precisely the same. This isn’t necessarily surprising, however, as different texts reflect practices from different times and different places and subsequent Vedic commentaries are included or revised in an effort to add clarity. By and large, in any case, the discussions found in both Skanda Purana and Garuda Purana remain the most often referenced religious texts in Shaligram practice throughout both India and Nepal.

As is typical among the majority of Shaligram devotees, the most commonly sought after Shaligrams are representative of Vishnu (or one of his ten avatars). These Shaligrams include a wide variety of Krishna Shaligrams (such as Govinda, Gopala, and Damodara), Laksmi-Narayan and Narasimha Shaligrams, as well as Dasavatara and Mahavishnu Shaligrams. But aside from these types (which are well represented in my research) I have recently taken an interest in some of the less well known Shaligram forms. Some of these forms are also mentioned in the Puranas (though not as extensively) and others not at all, instead reflecting more regional or local traditions of Shaligram worship. My interest today is to discuss some of these less attended to types, particularly the ones which are not detailed in the Puranas but may be referenced elsewhere in the Vedas.

Two in particular have caught my attention for the past few weeks: the Hiranyagarbha Shaligram and the Ganesh Shaligram. Today, I’ll discuss Hiranyagarbha and I will save my commentary on the Ganesh Shaligram for another post.

Description:

Hiranyagarbha, literally “Golden Womb” or “Golden Egg,” (and often poetically rendered as “universal gem”) is the source of creation for the universal or manifested cosmos in Hindu theology. It is mentioned in one hymn of the Rig Veda (RV 10.121), known as Hiranyagarbha Sukta, which suggests a single creator deity identified in the hymn as Prajapati.

In many interpretations of this Shaligram, it is said to express the creative urge of Narayana. The “Golden Egg” here is often interpreted as that from which all of the objective world emerges. The term thereby suggests that the entire creative power of the divine is but an expression of The Self, Narayana. This Shaligram is therefore often linked with transcendental consciousness, meditation, and Bhakti yoga practices.

What is more, in some Himalayan Hindu traditions, this Shaligram is also identified as Chandra (The Moon) or as an expression of Shiva appearing as the full moon (note its similarities with Shiva Linga). In fact, among many Hindus of the Himalayan regions, this Shaligram was more often associated with Shiva worship than any other Shaligram (save possibly Shiva Linga and Ananta Sesha Shaligrams) and is highly prized due to its golden color and rarity.

Vedic References: Rig Veda 10.121, Vishvakarman Sūkta (RV 10.82), Manu Smrti 1.9, The Mahābhārata, Book 12: Santi Parva. Kisari Mohan Ganguli, tr. Section CCCIII.

Vedic Descriptions: The Upanishads call Hiranyagarbha “The Soul of the Universe” or Brahman, which floated in emptiness and the darkness of non-existence for a year before breaking into two halves which formed the Svarga and the Prthvi.

In classical Puranic Hinduism, Hiranyagarbha is the term used in Vedanta for the “creator.” It is also Brahma because he was born from a golden egg (Manu Smrti 1.9). The Mahabharata calls it “The Manifest.”

Hiranyagarbha/Chandra Shiva Shaligram

Hiranyagarbha/Chandra Shiva Shaligram

Hiranyagarbha/Chandra Shiva Shaligrams

Hiranyagarbha/Chandra Shiva Shaligrams

 
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Off-Script

Posted by J Foster on Jul 30, 2016 in Ask An Anthropologist, Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

I was recently asked (and not for the first time), what I do with all the Shaligrams I accumulate over the course of my research. It’s a great question, and I think, a particularly important one because it speaks to concerns many pilgrims and devotees have about how these sacred stones are treated in the hands of someone (meaning me) who may not necessarily use them for their more ubiquitous ritual purposes. Additionally, I am often in possession of quite a fair number of Shaligrams, many of which have been collected directly from Kali-Gandaki River, where the bulk of my research takes place.

In the interests of the ethical practice of anthropology, the majority of these Shaligrams are given away. In many cases, the Shaligrams I collect in Mustang are gifted to pilgrims I encounter during my travels, especially if I have a Shaligram specific to their needs or desires (for example, a Mahavishnu Shaligram the person in question has been looking for but unable to find). In other cases, I am able to answer direct requests from Vaishnavas in the United States who are otherwise unable to undertake Shaligram pilgrimage (though I am not able to do this very often). In just a few days however, I will be able to send a group of Shaligrams I collected in June to a new temple being built in the UK.

I am especially pleased that I am able to do this because it provides opportunities not only to experience a wide variety of the Shaligrams themselves (without also needing to accept the substantial responsibilities of caring for so many stones) but also to follow the stones outwards and meet the people most involved in Shaligram practice. In that way, I am not just a researcher of Shaligrams but I am also a direct participant in their mobility. And for those of you who have been following along for awhile, this theme of mobility will have special resonance.

Lastly, this is not to say that I do not have any Shaligrams at all myself. I have decided, once again in the interests of research, to keep one in particular that I have developed a rather special fondness for. This Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram (pictured below) came to me as part of a group of Shaligrams I was bringing to a Vaishnava specialist in Kathmandu for identification. The rest of the group have since gone on to better practitioners, but this one was so unusual and so striking to my eye that I decided to keep it and, under certain circumstances, use it for teaching and demonstrations. Today, it lives in a small puja mandir in my office at home in Boston and, should I ever bring it out to the benefit of my students and colleagues, I am careful to observe the necessary ritual hand-washing procedures (I do not allow others attending the class or presentation to touch it), abstain from meat prior to handling, and ensure that the Shaligram never comes into contact with the floor, feet, or mouths.

It has been a privilege to conduct this work and I look forward to a great many more wonderful experiences in the world of Shaligram. As such, it is equally important that I continue to regard the objects of my inquiry with the respect they are due. This is true for the humans in question, just as much as it is for the Shaligrams.

Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram at home in Boston

Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram at home in Boston

 

 
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Yak Sandwich

Posted by J Foster on Jul 10, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Outside of the annals of the Anthropology of Food, I find it interesting that anthropologists don’t often discuss their diets in the field. This may be partially because their daily food intake is likely to be relatively unrelated to their actual fieldwork or, it may be partially because we often don’t think about it. Until we have to, anyway.

I have written previously on my decision not to wear traditional clothing in the field (in short, because my informants would find it extremely odd and it would create more problems than it would solve) but I have yet to discuss the culinary flip-side for partial cultural assimilation in my particular section of the world. I may be off the hook sartorially, but I am hardly off the hook when it comes to food. In short, the people I work with may not care what I am wearing (within reason) but they care quite a bit about what I am eating (or, as in some cases, not eating).

Vaishnava Hindus typically adhere to a strict diet on religious grounds. This diet is, for the most part, vegan, in that it doesn’t allow for any animal products (of which meat is the obvious, but also includes eggs, fish, honey, insects, and bone meal). However, it does allow for dairy products; as cows are kept and cared for as sacred beings and their milk is “given in love.” This means butter, milk, yogurt, and cheese are common staples. It is vital that I keep to this diet as well, given that the objects I primarily work with (Shaligram stones) are deeply holy and the people I work with are in active pursuit of them. To handle a Shaligram with hands or body contaminated by blood or death is to disrespect the deity and to disrespect the deity is to disrespect the devotees.

As ethnographic dues-paying goes, it isn’t so bad and I quite enjoy many of the elaborate curries and other local dishes (potato burgers are spectacular!) designed to appeal to pilgrims’ dietary requirements. I also consider it one of the many ways in which anthropologists in general endeavor to “take seriously” the practices they study. Contrary to popular belief, to “take seriously” a particular cultural practice doesn’t necessarily mean to adopt it wholly for oneself. Or as Westerners would say, to “believe in it.” Rather, it refers to the many ways in which anthropologists in the field attempt to participate as fully as possible in the daily lives and meanings of the people they work with. For me, this means retaining my usual Western clothes (a short-list ensemble of jeans and long-sleeve shirt) but shifting the ways in which I perceive food as well as how others perceive me preparing at eating it.

However, I only wish this was as uncomplicated as it might first appear. Vaishnava Hindus and practicing Buddhists (whose diet is very similar) are only two of the cultures endemic to this region. Among the local Thakali (many of whom practice an indigenous animistic religion), eating meat is simply par for the course. For most of them, as it typical in high Himalayan regions where cultivation is next to impossible, this means a lifestyle rich in herding and husbandry practices and a diet similarly rich in goat, sheep, and yak meat. As ‘mobility’ and ‘sovereignty’ are the main themes of my current fieldwork, I have often found myself in one ethno-religious context in the morning and quite another by dinner-time. For example, this might involve taking a carefully prepared meal of dal bhat (cooked lentils and rice) and vegetables with Buddhist nuns in the morning and then sitting down for a meal of chicken and dumplings with a Thakali family at night. Needless to say, this has made navigating my shifting dietary requirements something of an unexpectedly complicated undertaking. The good news is that, for the time being, I have been rather successful in modifying my diet based on the day’s expected activities or, if necessary, participating in the washing and cleansing rituals that ensure I do not accidentally disrespect the focus of my research. In other words, I am never quite sure exactly what is going on until I see what I am eating.

I have to say though; the yak sandwich I had a few days ago was delicious.

 
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By Any Other Name

Posted by J Foster on Jul 4, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

A few days ago, despite the monsoon rains, I was able to visit one of the ammonite fossil beds located a few hundred meters above the Muktinath Valley. The layer of fossils, the remnants of an ancient sea floor, sits up around 5000 meters and is slowly eroding out of the mountain to form a large wash of broken stones and fossil shells that extends some 300 meters down the mountain, slowly tumbling en masse towards the Thorong La river (which joins up with the Kali-Gandaki at Kagbeni a few kilometers to the south west). My purpose for visiting this particular fossil bed was two-fold: one, it allows me to observe the earliest geological processes that will eventually result in some of these ammonites becoming Shaligram and two, it gives me a chance to see unmodified structures in the stones that, given an additional few thousand years rolling through river silts, will become the characteristics of deities as read in the stones’ final manifestations. For example, one of my favorite Shaligrams is called Krishna Govinda (Krishna the Cowherder). It’s a typically palm-sized, smooth, and perfectly round black Shaligram which bears a white “cow hoof” impression on one side (an effect created by the breakage of a concentric quartz ring). As luck would have it, I was able to find just such a structure in one of the “raw” ammonites in this particular fossil wash-out as well. Naturally, many photos and comparisons followed.

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At first glance, it may appear that my approach in this particular case is largely a scientific one; replacing religious interpretation with geological analysis; or “cow hoof” for “quartz erosion” to look at it another way. But my intent is not to replace one method of analysis with the other necessarily. Rather, one of the things I find most fascinating about Shaligram stones in general is their capacity to join scientific discourses with religious narratives, as opposed to assuming these interpretations to be mutually exclusive. Shaligram stones are ammonites and their geological history spans roughly 175 million years, through dozens of evolutionary taxonomies, and they provide us with a tremendous amount of information about the early ocean environments of ancient Earth. Shaligram stones are also the direct manifestations of divine movement in the form of deities of the Hindu pantheon, joining a physical landscape to a sacred landscape and linking individuals and families to profound cultural histories and ritual practices that have been in use for at least 4000 years. In other words, not only have Shaligrams passed down through eons of wind, river currents, and tectonic uplift but they have also equally passed down through inheritance, births, deaths, marriages, and pilgrimage. A Shaligram is not a Shaligram absent either one of these threads. In short, Shaligram stones exist at a juncture wherein Science and Religion are having a very fascinating conversation with one another, in particular, a conversation about what it means “to be” something. This is how Shaligrams can be both ammonite fossil and divine manifestations, just as rivers can be both vital economic and social waterways emerging out of the glacial melt and tirthas (bridges) into the sacred world of gods and goddesses.

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Shaligrams are largely venerated by Vaishnava Hindus (devotees of the god Vishnu) and one of the defining characteristics of Vishnu’s story is the theology of the Dasavatara, or the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. In this particular aspect of Vishnu’s lengthy mythological history, is it said that he has appeared on Earth in some form on 10 separate occasions (or will, given that we are currently only up to 9 in the 10 avatar stretch). This does not mean, however, that each avatar was human (or even human-looking); rather each avatar took on a specific form and function designed to accomplish some particular set of tasks necessary for the given time in which the avatar appeared. Given the circumstances of his appearance, Vishnu has manifested as a fish (Matsya), a tortoise (Kurma), a boar (Varaha), a half-man half-lion (Narasimha), a dwarf-man (Vamana), a warrior bearing an axe (Parashurama), Sri Ram the god-king of Ayodhya, Krishna the divine lover and hero of the Mahabharata, the Buddha (depending on what tradition you come from, there is some contention on this one. As some traditions place other famous gurus or teachers in this position), and finally Kalki, the destroyer of the current age who is yet to come. Given all this, one might imagine that becoming a stone can’t really be all that difficult in the grand scheme of omnipotence (though I must save discussion of the many Shaligram origin stories for another post).

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Unsurprisingly, the Dasavatara are also represented in Shaligrams. There are Matsya Shaligrams and Kurma Shaligrams, Ram Shaligrams and Krishna Shaligrams, each appearing according to the characteristics laid out in the Puranas and in the Epic stories of the exploits of the Dasavatara. But what is more, I can’t help but notice that we live in a time where the narratives of religion and science are increasingly at odds, and they are certainly fighting about much more than ammonites. Both religion and science have become a part of the political project, in service to various agendas seeking national or geo-political power. As such, they are pitted against one another as two presumptive sides to the same Almighty Dollar coin. Religion is poised to reject Science, and Science employed to tear down Religion. So the more I think on it, perhaps Shaligrams, just as all the rest of the incarnations of Vishnu, have arrived both as fossil and as deity, in just the right form for what this time needs most.

Another ammonite fossil emerging out of the erosion wash.

Another ammonite fossil emerging out of the erosion wash.

 

A quartz structure in a "raw" ammonite fossil resembling a "cow hoof"

A quartz structure in a “raw” ammonite fossil resembling a “cow hoof”

 

Fossil wash-out near Jhong village.

Fossil wash-out near Jhong village.

 

Hard at Work

Hard at Work

 

Ammonite fossils -- Kshetra Shaligram (Mountain-born Shaligram)

Ammonite fossils — Kshetra Shaligram (Mountain-born Shaligram)

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