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.


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



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



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.


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.

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.

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).

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)


It’s a Short Distance, but It Takes a Long Time to Get There

Posted by J Foster on Jun 27, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

I’ll be the first to admit that I am no fan of flying. While it might not rise to the level of phobia precisely, I have had my fair share of white-knuckle afternoons at the hands of an A320-Airbus (Have anxiety, will travel). Therefore, I am sure that it is with no small amount of irony that I chose a profession, and a field-site, which requires days of air travel and at least two small propeller plane jaunts through steep mountain valleys to reach. However, as fate would have it, the monsoon rains here in Nepal have been preventing all flights between Pokhara and Jomsom for days (stages 1 and 2 of my route to Muktinath respectively). Yesterday morning, I sat in the waiting area of the Pokhara Regional Airport, and not for the first time in a string of days at the crack of dawn, waiting to hear if the day’s flights would be able to leave. As it had been for nine days running, my flight was cancelled yet again.

Then I had the fortune of meeting two Hindu pilgrims, just a few seats down, anxiously awaiting the same news. They were originally from south India, they explained, but now resided in North Carolina. What is more, having encountered a box of Shaligram stones just recently in a shop in lake-side Pokhara, the husband (who, for the sake of this entry, I will call Raj), had been suddenly reminded of a number of fond childhood memories involving his father’s and grandfather’s Shaligrams. He had not inherited any Shaligrams, and at the shop-keeper’s behest was left to wonder where the ones in his family had gotten off to. Now, he and his wife Priya were taking a rather spontaneous journey to Muktinath to explore the inexplicable pull of these memories further. Sadly, it looked as though there would be no flights that day and they would not be able to reach Mustang in time for their departure home.

But serendipity works in mysterious ways, and as we chatted there from the discomfort of our molded, plastic, seats a new plan began to take shape. Rather than wait for the storm clouds to finally grant us the blessings of safe passage, we decided to split the cost of renting a Jeep and driver and road-trip our way across the Himalayan foothills to Jomsom. Nine hours and several very sore tailbones later (it is a profoundly rough ride through rocky, narrow, mountain roads!), we made it. Flight time from Pokhara to Jomsom is only about 15 minutes. Our 180km drive lasted from 9AM to 6PM and involved fewer than four total stops: 2 for brief bathroom breaks, 1 for lunch, and 1 to check our permits at the Tatopani police checkpoint overlooking the Mustang border. So while we remained cheerful in each others unexpected but welcome company, it was a long trip on a number of levels. Not to be discouraged though, as I was happy to take Raj and Priya Shaligram hunting on the Jomsom shores of the Kali-Gandaki that evening (wherein a particularly lovely Krishna-Gopala Shaligram was discovered!). A calming end to a challenging day.

Challenging indeed. I have been in the field now just 15 days, but only a week in, I lost my beloved grandmother whose funeral was only a few days ago. I sent a letter to be read at her memorial, but that was all I could do from here. Without a doubt, it has weighed on me heavily. But even as the end approached, she didn’t want me to come. She wanted me here, in the high Himalayas, doing the research I love and working towards the PhD she so proudly spoke about to anyone and everyone who stopped long enough to listen. She kept every article of mine, every academic paper, every mention she could find. And usually multiple copies, since she couldn’t risk lending out her own (it might never come back). Every time I visited, she always wanted to know how much longer until I was a doctor (professor would also do, she used to tell me), and then should would marvel at the years that ticked by faster and faster. 2 years of a Masters degree done. 5 years to the PhD, and then 4, and soon enough 3. Now, only 2 years left.

Such a short distance, but it takes a long time to get there.

Kali-Gandaki on the way to Jomsom

Kali-Gandaki on the way to Jomsom


Secular Stories Podcast — My Interview with Jonathan

Posted by J Foster on Jun 13, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, In the Media

A few days ago I had the wonderful honor of being interviewed for the “Secular Stories” podcast. We had a great conversation, ranging from feminism and social media, the anthropology of religion, my fieldwork, and my upcoming article publication about the use of sacred theater plays in the Hindu traditions of South Asia.

Tune in to this podcast and, of course, check out the rest of their podcasts at the link below.

Secular Stories — Interview with Holly Walters



The Yellow Wood

Posted by J Foster on May 17, 2016 in Fieldwork in Nepal

“Remember what Bilbo used to say: ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”” — J.R.R. Tolkien

In just a few short weeks I return to Nepal, although this time I will be doing so as a Fulbright scholar. The notification of my dissertation fellowship award came rather late in the term, and has therefore necessitated a bit of unexpected scrambling. Suffice to say, I have gone from planning just a few months in the field to planning for an entire year abroad, representing myself and my work through the support of the 2016-2017 Fulbright IIE Dissertation Fellowship. The logistics are boggling: from finding an apartment in Kathmandu to arranging for travel back and forth to Mustang over the course of months at a time, from finding a market and a laundromat to packing for the spring and summer season in the high Himalayas. There are now visas to obtain and medical clearances to secure, reams of paperwork to sign, people to contact, and long-term absences to prepare for. And, of course, just three weeks to do it.

Aside from going over my packing list again and again, I often find myself distracted with anxious little details. What can I get when I am there and what can’t I (toothpaste yes, contact solution no)? How much should I bring? How little do I really need? Remember, you’ll have to shoulder every bit of this with you into the mountains! There are no roller bags allowed where you’re going. There is also much to anticipate. Writing a book about Shaligram stones is no easy task. The stones (not to mention their human associates) are highly mobile, the mountain terrain as treacherous as it is beautiful, the sacred landscape awe-inspiring and unforgiving, the Kali-Gandaki river (from which each Shaligram is born) swift and wide. I will walk with the pilgrims who brave it and break bread with the people who live it and in the end, something will come of it. Hopefully a dissertation, but I suspect it will be much more than that.

I can’t escape the reality that this is what I have been preparing for now for the better part of the last five years. This will be the culmination of those hundreds of hours of coursework and language training, page after page of grant proposals and exploratory papers, of soul-searching and intellectual reflection; asking yourself over and over and over again if this is really what you want to be doing with yourself.

The answer, of course, is yes. The gate has been opened and now the road lays ahead. Time to be swept off.


Pilgrimage on the Package Tour

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

The grant process is finally over and the results are in. While I have not received a major grant (any one of the top 4 or 5 favored in the social sciences), I have successfully cobbled together enough smaller grant funding to carry out the remainder of my dissertation fieldwork in the high Himalayas of Nepal. In addition to this, I have also received the prestigious designation of alternate for the 2015-2016 Fulbright Dissertation Research grant. While this is little help to me in the practical sense (as it does not carry any monetary value) I am pleased that my research among Shaligram pilgrims warrants attention on that scale. It will likely come in handy later.

For those whose impetus is to offer consolation, I assure you there is no need. The nature of my fieldwork requires a high degree of mobility, flexibility, and the willingness to change one’s course at a moment’s notice. By leveraging multiple smaller sources of funding (rather than needing to adhere to the activity requirements of a major granting institution), my adaptability is preserved and I view my ability to maintain control over my movements as the ultimate silver-lining. By the looks of things, not only will my final monograph focus its analytical trajectory on the sovereignty of mobility but I as the ethnographer will embody it as well.

This also means that my final dissertation research plans are remain equally under my purview and I will be able to focus my attention on Shaligram pilgrimage over the course of two more full travel seasons; the first beginning this June when I return to Mustang District and the second beginning in April of 2017, to conclude sometime the following fall. Planning long-term fieldwork in this way has also been helpful in that it is far easier to disrupt one’s everyday life for four to five months at a time rather than twelve or more in a stretch. In the interim, my time will then be best used reviewing and collating fieldnotes, preparing for the last round of fieldwork with revised questions, beginning the introductory portion of the dissertation itself, grant writing, and transcribing.

The easiest way to accomplish all this, as my previous trips have taught me, will be to once again work through a Himalayan trekking agency, whose access to in-country travel resources and capacity to negotiate permits cannot be understated. Already I am looking forward to at least three government permissions, multiple domestic plane tickets, jeep and horse-back travel, and a fair degree of map-assisted walking. Though, this time, I do not plan on hiring a guide to take me around. My earlier experiences in doing so, though they were no doubt the smartest thing to do in an area I was completely unfamiliar with, have convinced me to break with the packaged tour in the strictest sense. Much of Mustang is reliant on trekking and pilgrimage for its economic livelihood and as such, most of the people involved in the travel and service industries take great pains to ensure that their guests’ “experiences” are up to par. I have a hard time convincing them that the “experience” is precisely what I am not after.

Moving from guesthouse to guesthouse in the high Himalayas is reasonably easy once you get a sense of things and I fear that my poor guide, stuck with me for several months on end, would find my repetitive returns to the same temple and pilgrimage sites rather boring as I sit in some out-of-the-way corner to observe ritual practices, chat with pilgrims, interview nuns or sadhus, or draw detailed sketches of sacred stones. Sadly for the pilgrimage economy, outside of food and lodging, the anthropologist makes for a meager consumer.

So now, as I begin to finalize my plans for returning to Nepal in just a few short weeks, I bid the relative stability of my academic life so far adieu. As I prepare to set-off back into the Himalayas to wander the ever-changing paths of the sacred river Kali-Gandaki, I know that I will be taking advantaging of the roads well-trod before me (by pilgrims, tourists, and trekkers alike), but I will always remember that no matter how many times this route has been taken and no matter how carefully others may attempt to manage how I might experience it, there is no telling what I will find. And that is the deepest mystery the spiral can hold.


Making Way

Posted by J Foster on Apr 13, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

While each pilgrimage is an individual affair, even such individual journeys and behavior occur and and are framed within social and group contexts. The Iwaki-kai pilgrims operated within a social framework and set of dynamics that allowed them to be individual and yet operate as an entity that gave them the scope for a highly personalized journey and experience within the comforting setting of an organized tour, in which each participant brought something special and individual to the group. The group was thus a combination of individuals with different views and aims and ideas existing in a temporary community that gave them a sense of identity and purpose and added to their pilgrimages, whose meanings were made within the framework of the social and group contexts in which they were carried out.” — Ian Reader, “Making Pilgrimages” pg.248

In the academic literature, pilgrimage is generally considered a transient phenomenon. For a relatively brief moment in time, disparate individuals from various backgrounds and walks-of-life come together with the aim of carrying out a singular shared goal: to complete the pilgrimage. The group then dissolves and each individual returns to their former place and previous situations. While I tend to agree with the concept of transient communities in spirit, I often find myself at odds with the definition of pilgrimage as a purely ephemeral state-of-being. This is because the fleeting nature of pilgrimage is often located in the identities of pilgrims themselves. In other words, because any one individual is only an actual pilgrim for a short time (while they are actively in motion) the phenomena of pilgrimage itself must be therefore equally fleeting.

The more and more I encounter Shaligram stones, either in the context of research in South Asia or enshrined in residence in temples and homes here in the U.S., the more it becomes clear that these stones are not just the ultimate end goal of pilgrimage to Muktinath temple or the Kali-Gandaki river, but themselves a kind of symbolic perpetual pilgrimage frozen in material form. To understand this, one must understand the link between a Shaligram stone and the life-cycle as it is understood in Hindu and Buddhist practice. Just as the stone is “born” from the womb of the mountain and “birthed” in the flow of the river, so too is a human being born and birthed from their mother’s womb. Just as the stone is picked up in pilgrimage and brought to a devotee’s home for daily care and puja (ritual worship and interaction), so too is a new human being incorporated into the every day life of the family. A Shaligram must be bathed and fed, cared for and often dressed, just as much as any other member of the family. Additionally, Shaligrams are often exchanged during weddings (as one might a bride or groom) and are also given to the dead prior to cremation such that they can then accompany the ashes back into the river in a symbolic death of their own. They will then, one day, presumably reappear within the river they began in and the karmic cycle continues.

If you were to encounter a Shaligram at any one point in this cycle one could certainly take note of its ritual and symbolic importance in the moment. You might also even be able to discuss at length its spiritual properties, social roles, and religious meanings, but without further perspective you will have missed the larger and grander significance of what was taking place. Only by following the entire course of a Shaligram’s “life history” do the multitudes of transient events that comprise its movement in space and time come together in a cohesive narrative; its role in pilgrimage included.

To say that pilgrimage is transient is to imply that other structures of life experience are not. While I take to heart that there are certainly differences between the regular continuities of daily life and the singular event of pilgrimage, what I am getting at here is that Shaligram pilgrimage both contextualizes the actions of pilgrims along the Kali-Gandaki and is contextualized by them in the broader cultural field of symbols and meanings that govern life, death, and rebirth. Pilgrimage, in essence, then goes beyond the actual moment of leaving and returning to form a momentary microcosm representative of the entire journey of life. In short, one is always on pilgrimage.

And this journey is not limited to humans alone. As direct manifestations of divinity (usually the god Vishnu), each Shaligram stone also takes along with it the deity manifested in its form. Additionally, the spiral markings of the ancient ammonite shell mirror religious understandings of the rotation of the cosmos; clockwise in Buddhism, counter-clockwise in Bonpo, and the continuous cycling of the ages in Hinduism. In this way, Shaligram stones concretize the divine movement of the cosmos and give it material form, they reify the proper hierarchical orders of material worlds and spiritual worlds, and cement the belief that movement within and among these things is a constant part of the karmic balance.

For these reasons, now as I prepare to return to the field again in just a few short weeks, I must consider the broader implications of the pilgrimage (in both a physical and research sense) that I am about to undertake for the second time. It will not be enough to distill the moment of pilgrimage down to the events of walking the proper routes, visiting the pre-determined temple sites, or wading into the river en masse in search of Shaligrams. The stage is set, I think, for a new kind of drama; one where the entire course of one’s lifespan can be symbolically reduced to the distances between mountains. Where what is narrated in mythological time becomes remade in geological space. And here it can be worked on, reforged and reimagined, and then carried away back into the “real” world in the form of a strange and mysterious stone always spiraling inward and further and further away.


Great Big Things

Posted by J Foster on Jan 25, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology

When I was a kid, I used to read the encyclopedia. Rather than attempting to identify myself with the characters of more typical teenage narratives (or, at least, let’s be honest, narratives by adults about teenagers. Which is what “young adult fiction” ultimately is), I habitually spent my quiet reading hours with the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica (an early 1980’s set in black pleather) and a rather brightly colored set of Funk and Wagnall’s Wildlife Encyclopedias. To this day, I credit the latter with my ability to identify, by sight, a hoopoe, an okapi, at least seven types of foxes, and nearly all members of the family Paradisaeidae (order Passeriformes). More than a decade before the internet, and even longer before the advent of Wikipedia, I was happily wiling away the hours with entries detailing everything from the early modern scientific revolution, to Medieval calligraphy, to dry commentaries on Isaac Newton’s 1687 Principia. Now, I don’t mention this to imply, in any sense, that reading an encyclopedia as a ten-year-old makes you smarter or more academically inclined (though I am sure it helped along the way somewhere), I mention it here because this is the earliest memories I have of being excited by a world full of Great Big Things.

Bug collecting and fossil collecting are part of seeing the world in this way; constructing one’s own Cabinet of Curiosities in order to categorize and make sense of a world that is complex, fascinating, and wholly beyond one’s limited experiences. But here it is that anthropology challenges us further, amid the desperate urge to classify and harmonize everything into orderly taxonomies; to see our categories, not as a kind of access to direct truths but as a kind of mythology in its own right. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that scientific classification is mere fable or fantasy, or that it isn’t useful in helping us to explain and predict natural processes, but that the choice to associate certain qualities over others or to group certain characteristics and strata for one reason over another comes with its own kind of partiality.

My thinking along these lines echoes the commentaries of British paleontologist Richard Fortey, who once remarked that “like pebbles on the beach of Hinlopenstretet, history, too, is a succession of endless details, and there is an infinite choice whether to pick this one or that (Life, 1997: 24).” Or more specifically, in this case, that “the history of life is filtered by the very processes that preserve it (18).” It is not accidentally that I choose to quote Fortey here, who, as a paleontologist fascinated by the earliest fossils of Precambrian and Cambrian life, also goes on at length to question how things are classified, how one type of creature becomes associated with another, and how such early taxonomies of space and time form their own kinds of “mythological units.” As an anthropologist who works primarily with Shaligram Stones, it is this issue of classification that weighs most heavily on my work at present.

In the discourse of science, Shaligram Stones are black shale fossil ammonites from the Early Oxfordian to the Late Tithonian age near the end of the Jurassic period some 165-140 million years ago (Geological Survey of India 1904: 46). In the discourse of Hinduism, Shaligram Stones are the direct, aniconic, manifestations of Vishnu, gifted to the sacred Kali-Gandaki River (or “cursed” to appear in the river, depending on which origin story you follow) as objects of veneration for worthy devotees. In terms of classification, both are “true” in that both sets of classification tell us something about the world these objects inhabit. In one sense, these fossils tell the story of a Himalayan region once covered by a shallow sea long before the shifting of tectonic plates pushed ragged peaks into the clouds. Before mammals had arrived on the scene, before humanity was even so much as a teleological consideration. In another sense, these sacred stones tell the story of human mobility and meaning-making, of the making of persons and cultures across time and space. They tell a story of a time of divine intervention, the musings of gods, and the creation of the world also long before humanity had much say in the way of things. The famous geologist’s metaphor is to describe the careful peeling back of stratigraphic layers of rock as reading the pages of a book. But what Shaligram Stones show us is that we are not so much “reading” this story, as equally as we are “writing” it.

All narratives require a scale. All stories need a chronology. And for this reason, like it or not, human motivations will always creep into descriptions of the natural world just as much as they dominate our understandings of ritual and religion, of ethnicity, race, and nation. These stories are paradoxical and difficult. The further we delve into the world around us, the more obscure are the events and the less certain the narrative. But we must start somewhere, and in a world of Great Big Things, let it begin with the thing itself (as Appadurai would say). If nothing else but to gain a new appreciation for the richness of life and our human place within it, where a fossil can be a deity and a deity can be a fossil, both millions of years old and imminently present, and have logic be all the better for it.

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