Shaligram Interpretive Practice (Secondary Markings)

One of the most complicated aspects of Shaligram interpretation, and the one that often takes the longest to learn, is reading the various small markings that indicate the nuances of a specific manifestation. While I have already posted extensively on the major aspects of interpretation (i.e., set, color, chakra, vadana, vanamala, and so on), I haven’t yet truly tackled a discussion of secondary markings. To be honest, it’s an intimidating topic; not just because it’s complicated in practice but also because there really is no overarching standard to reference in terms of how this kind of Shaligram reading is done. That being said, there are some typical features that appear in the Puranic texts that make for a reasonably easy introduction to the basics. As such, my caveat here is one I’ve made before. I will cover the broad strokes of this kind of Shaligram interpretation while also continually noting that this is by no means comprehensive and you will likely encounter even more detail and variable techniques depending on the specific Shaligram tradition you consult.

The issue of small or minute markings is one that appears commonly in scriptural Shaligram descriptions. Usually referred to as “circular marks,” “linear marks,” “marks of a conch,” or “weapon marks,” these surface details that may or may not appear on a particular Shaligram act as guides to the specific mood (bhava) of the deity present or as indications of a unique manifestation (such as the difference between a Krishna Govinda Shaligram and a Krishna Gopala Shaligram). For this reason, any given Shaligram may have one, many, or no markings at all that can add varying levels of complexity to its interpretation. For example, the typical Sri Ram Shaligram is described as having a single outer chakra with a white vanamala that goes all the way around the shila. But Sri Ram also appears in secondary markings. Specifically, the “arrow” marking (the long white line shown below).

Sri Ram Shaligram with white arrow marking

The “arrow” marking can also appear like this:

Sri Ram Shaligram with black “arrow” marking

In both cases, the “arrow” is described as a long line, raised or depressed into the stone, with a corresponding round “heel” mark somewhere next to it.

Other common markings include the icons of various weapons, such as the Gada (mace) or Shiva’s Trishula (trident).

Shaligram with trishula marking
Shaligram with gada marking

The appearance of weapons on a Shaligram tends to denote that the bhava (mood) of the deity present is highly protective or, in some cases, even hostile (depending on the deity). These Shaligrams tend to be viewed with a measure of caution then, until the exact nature of the manifestation can be determined. They are not uncommon in households though and many devotees seek them out in times of hardship or when misfortune has befallen them or their loved ones.

There is also, of course, the popular Padma or lotus marking, which is almost the exact polar opposite of the weapon marking because it indicates a Shaligram in a state of calm or meditation. Here it is on a Madhusudana Shaligram that also contains a white vanamala (garland) marking around the base.

Madhusudana Shaligram with padma marking and vanamala

Lotus markings, however, can appear in a few different ways. In the four Mahavishnu Shaligrams pictured below, the lotus appears on the front of the top right shila.

These four Shaligrams then comprise a puja set (from top left: Sudarshan Shaligram, Padma Shaligram, Shankha Shaligram, Gada Shaligram).

Secondary markings can also be far more subtle than this. The Mahavishnu Multi-Chakra Shaligram that follows after here has a deep elongated depression on its underside. The presence of this flattened “bowl” shape indicates that this Shaligram is a Yagnamurti and can be used for community rites.

Top of Mahavishnu
Bottom of Mahavishnu

Yagnamurti Shaligrams also commonly have the markings of sruk and sruva, the two spoons or “sticks” used in fire rituals. In all, these characteristics can appear alone or together and can be found on all manner of Shaligrams.

Sruk and Sruva on a Krishna Shaligram

One of the most challenging aspects for me, in learning Shaligram interpretation, has always been the difference between “linear marks” and vanamala. While vanamala markings are almost always white and therefore differentiated on the basis of size and color, linear marks can still look very similar. This Parashurama Shaligram, for example, has one such ambiguous marking.

Parashurama Shaligram

As you can see, the linear mark is quite deep and readily observable in the stone. It even goes all the way around the top of the Shaligram, again, in much the same way as a vanamala would. So, which is it then? A vanamala or a “linear mark?” Ultimately, in this case, the final determination is made using the Shaligram’s other characteristics. The shape of this stone is called “axe-like,” with a longer chakra ridge on one side of the shila and a shorter ridge opposite it. The rounded central body and smooth features then indicate that this is Parashurama and since it is Parashurama (Sanskrit: “Rama with an axe,” the sixth incarnation of the Dasavatara), the marking is that of his sacred thread. This variation of Parashurama is then that of the warrior who has surrendered his weapons and taken up his role as Guru.

And finally, there is similar complexity between chakras (the spiral discus formation) and “circular marks.” This one is slightly easier to determine though. Chakras are pretty distinctive in that they are spiral formations with ridges along their surface.

Sudarshan Shaligram

Circular marks are much smaller and don’t have much in the way of identifiable features.

Vishvarupa Shaligram

The presence of linear and circular marks must then be taken into consideration when reading the overall Shaligram since linear marks tends to indicate a more passive, instructive, or contemplative deity while circular marks tend to indicate a larger, more cosmic, form of the deity.

Ultimately, reading Shaligrams is a lengthy and complicated process that involves extensive knowledge of ritual traditions, stories, and histories. Etched on the face of every Shaligram is an entire text, only available to those who know how to speak its language and understand its script. But this is also how Shaligram connects the past, the present, and the future: by carrying within itself the entirety of a world that stretches backwards and forwards into indeterminate eons. This is how every Shaligram tells a story. Unfortunately, there are, without a doubt, volumes I could write on each and every specific manifestation and all of the possible markings that might appear on a given Shaligram, but alas, I only have so much time myself.