About H. W.

J Foster can be found somewhat left of center and is currently living and working in Nepal.

A Visit to the Damodar Kund

Recently, a friend and devotee I’ve been blessed to know for a while now was finally able to make his yatra (pilgrimage) to the Damodar Kund. For those of you unfamiliar with the landscape of the Kali Gandaki region of Mustang, Nepal, the Damodar Kund is a glacial lake that lies high in the Himalayas in Upper Mustang (near the Southern Tibetan border). At 4890 meters, the Damodar Kund is extremely difficult to reach both because of rough terrain, high winds, and altitude but also because it lies in Upper Mustang, which typically requires extremely costly permits to enter.

Rumored to be the original source of the Kali Gandaki river, however, many Shaligram practitioners dream of the opportunity to see it and to potentially find rare and beautiful Shaligrams in its waters. But few will ever get the chance and fewer still write about their first-hand experiences.

So, with that, I invite you to read Ambarisa Dasa’s account of his recent pilgrimage and take the time to view his wonderful photos of Damodar Kund taken this past June.

https://damodarkundyatra.wordpress.com/2019/07/07/posted-by-ambarisa-dasa/

Shaligram Paleontology

In honor of Cephalopod Week, I’ve put together a short discussion on the types of ammonites typically found in Shaligrams. So, here we go!

The Nepal Himalayas contain a wide variety of ammonite species owning to a number of different time periods, from M. bifurcatus and M. apertusmantataranus in the Ferruginous Oolite Formation,[i] to Kimmeridgian[ii] Paraboliceras assemblages, to late Tithonian-Berriasian Blanfordiceras and Proniceras assemblages. Shaligrams, however, are generally comprised of four particular species of Jurassic ammonites: Blandifordiceras, Haplophylloceras, and Perisphinctids (both Aulacosphinctus of the Upper Kimmeridgian/Lower Tithonian and Aulacosphinctoides of the Upper Tithonian). Other Shaligram formations include belemnites (such as the Ram Shaligram) and the bivalve Retroceramus (such as the Anirudda Shaligram) but for the most part, “classic” Shaligram manifestations are, by and large, comprised of various black shale ammonites at assorted levels of erosion and wear.[iii]

Blandfordiceras species (lower Tithonian age) are widely distributed ammonites especially known for their tight but evenly balanced spirals and raised, biplicate (Y-shaped), ridges. Geologist Herwart Helmstaedt (1969)[iv] was one of the first researchers to investigate the ammonites of the Thak Khola region (immediately south of Mustang) and, according to him, some fifty percent of all ammonites collected in Mustang belong to the Blandfordiceras genus. He is also credited with discovering and naming the new species Blandfordiceras muktinathense, though the name does not often appear in common usage (Dhital 2015: 288).

Haplophylloceras, on the other hand, tends to include fewer rings in the formation of its central spiral and sports a distinctive chevron-like ridge pattern along the outer phragmocone (the back edge of the shell). Finally, Perisphinctid ammonites are recognizable by their evolute shell morphology with typically biplicate, simple, or triplicate ribbing. Larger shells may have simple apertures and smooth body chambers while smaller species tend to have lappets and ribbed body chambers (Arkell et. al. 1957). Aulacosphinctoides, a member of the Perisphinctidae family, are also well represented in Shaligrams. These ammonites are characterized by an evolute shell with whorls broadly rounded, ribs sigmoid that mostly bifurcate (and occasionally trifurcate), and clearly defined lappets.[v] Aulacosphinctoides also closely resembles its Indo-Malagasian relative Torquantisphinctes but differs in that it has more rounded or depressed whorls and more sigmoid and frequently triplicate ribbing.[vi]

The Tithonian and Berriasian ammonoid successions of the Himalayas with comparison strata
Left: Perisphinctid, Right: Blandfordiceras (both: Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligrams)
Left: Blandfordiceras, with smooth ventral furrow, Right: Perisphinctid (Sudarshan Shaligram)
Haplophylloceras strigilis (Lakshmi-Narayan and Lakshmi Sudarshan Shaligrams)

The paleontological history of ammonites in the Himalayas is a complex one and despite recent advances in the stratigraphical use of microfossil groups and non-palaeontological laboratory techniques in geological dating, ammonites continue to retain their pre-eminent position as one of the most reliable and accurate correlation tools available for marine Jurassic sequencing (not unlike dendrochronology to the archaeologist and paleo-ecologist). They also have a number of other uses.

Ammonites have been recognized for their value in palaeobiogeography studies and in the study of evolutionary mechanisms and patterns, such as speciation and extinction over vast expanses of geological time. As Kevin Page notes however, these latter studies are often hindered by incomplete understandings of ammonite correlation and taxonomy, from the species level upwards (2008: 54). This situation is then exacerbated by the limited funding available for such research given the preference amongst many funding organizations and media outlets for more mysterious or sensational fossil groups and more fashionable (if transient) scientific theories and hypotheses. This is why the Shaligram traditions of South Asia have something to offer the world of paleontology; adding new dimensions of interpretation and importance to the image of the ammonite, perhaps even to cultural conversations about the modern meanings of fossils as a whole. For Shaligram practitioners, the constant scientific debate and limited amount of concrete detail for describing Shaligram ammonites in Mustang is both taken in stride and as further evidence of the entanglements of different kinds of “storytelling” when it comes to Shaligram origins and ontologies. Or, as my old friend and mentor Prasad Vipul Yash once expressed it, “They don’t know and we don’t know. Not all of it, anyway. They call it one thing, we call it another, but it’s all the same thing. It just depends on what it is you want to know about the world.”


[i] A thin (roughly 3 meter), black shale, marker bed which contains microscopic iron (ferruginous) particles which set it apart from the nearby Spiti Shales.

[ii] In the geologic timescale, the Kimmeridgian is a stage in the Late or Upper Jurassic epoch. It spans the time between 157.3 ± 1.0 Ma and 152.1 ± 0.9 Ma (million years ago). The Kimmeridgian follows the Oxfordian and precedes the Tithonian.

[iii] Similar looking ammonites which occasionally appear in Shaligram discussions (but are not considered Shaligram) are Dactylioceras semicelatum from Whitby, North Yorks England; Toxaceratiode sp. From the Walsh River, Queensland, Australia; Crucilobiceras densinodulum from Charmouth, Dorset UK; Dactylioceras athleticum from Schlaifhausen, Forscheim, near Nuremburg, Germany; and Acanthoceras sp from Agadir, Morocco.

[iv] H. Helmstaedt. 1969. Eine Ammoniten-Fauna aus den Spiti-Schiefern von Muktinath in Nepal. Zitteliana 1:63-88 [W. Kiessling/M. Krause]

[v] These are flanges that protrude from the final chamber at the front of the creature in adult male specimens [the microconch] which some speculate may have been used for sexual display. These features are not present on the larger female ammonites.

[vi] Sepkoski, Jack (2002). “Sepkoski’s Online Genus Database.” Retrieved 2016-09-14 and Phil Eyden (2003). “Ammonites: A General Overview.” Retrieved 2016-09-14.

Perspective: The Many Ways of Shaligram Darshan

Shaligram shrines are each as unique as the households that look after them.

As I move into the planning stage for my second manuscript on Shaligram interpretive traditions, I have become more and more fascinated with the specifics of Shaligram ritual practice in the home shrines of families who venerate them. I have written earlier on a number of aspects of this particular kind of home Shaligram seva (service/worship), including discussing how various family members participate in the care of the Shaligram deities, how parents bequeath specific shilas to children during important milestones (weddings, moving away, acceptance to school or graduation, funerals, etc.), and how second and third children plan their own Shaligram pilgrimages to begin building their home practices when elder children inherit the family’s collection. But what I haven’t spoken much at length about is the unique expressions of devotion built into every home mandir and into every home darshan.

As living members of the family, it should come as no surprise that Shaligrams are treated with much the same level of care and the rest of the household is. This means that their mandir (or shrines) are often reflective of things important to the rest of the family. It is not unusual to therefore include food, clothing, and other accessories for your Shaligrams and other deities to enjoy. But home shrines are very often more complicated than that, so I have posted a series of photos taken from specific home shrines along with a short commentary to better demonstrate what I mean.

Krishna with Hats

I love this Vaishnava home darshan. The story behind it is that the household, in this case, happens to be in a region that gets very cold during the winter. As such, one of the elderly women of the family knitted caps for the deities so that they wouldn’t find the temperature so unpleasant. This mirrors, to some degree, a common practice in temple deity worship wherein sandalwood paste (which is very cooling when placed on the skin) is painted over the deities and Shaligrams during especially hot days in order to make them more comfortable. But this is not the first time I have seen warm clothes for murti. Many temples in colder climates have sweaters and wraps on hand for the deities just as much as they have the kinds of typical dhotis, saris, and tunics which are the standard for dressing icons. Either way, though, the hats are incredibly cute and when added to these Krishna Gopala Shaligrams (Krishna as a young child), they seem even more fitting.

You will also likely notice the eyes (as objects attached to the smaller Shaligrams and painted on to the larger one). Adding eyes, faces, and certain expressions is extremely common in Shaligram worship and is described as assisting practitioners in “taking darshan” (a type of ritualized exchange of gazes where one views the deity and is viewed by the deity in return). This does not mean that Shaligrams without the inclusion of eyes cannot “see” their devotees (they can) but only that they act as a focal point for ritual practice. For many people, it’s just easier to interact with a face.

Lastly, these Shaligrams have recently received their daily offering of tulsi leaves. Tulsi (a type of holy basil) and water are, generally speaking, the two most basic parts of Shaligram worship to such a degree that, if these two things are the only things a family is capable of offering their home deities, it is considered enough and the Shaligrams are content.

Narasimha Jagannatha

Next to Krishna and Shiva, Narasimha is probably the third most commonly sought after Shaligram. Unfortunately, it is also one of the hardest to find. Comprised of two internal chakras and a wide open vadana (mouth) this Shaligram must also demonstrate notable “teeth” in the ridges near the edge of the mouth (formed by the incomplete wearing of the internal structures of the ammonite). I particularly like this Ugra Narasimha Shaligram (which has smoother chakras and a larger vadana than other types of Narasimha Shaligrams) because of the eyes the family has added to his face. To me, he looks both simultaneously fierce and adorable. Or perhaps he just knows that he is adorable and is especially mad about it. In any case, this simpler home shrine keeps the primary household deity, the self-manifest Narasimha Shaligram, at the forefront and in the center, and all other murti, such as the Jagannath icons, along the back.

Smarta Abisheka

One of my fondest memories of fieldwork was participating in a four-hour abisheka (bathing ritual) for a Brahmin household’s Shaligrams. It was an all-day community event with food, conversation, and, of course, talk of Shaligram pilgrimage. This was largely due to the fact that the patriarch of the household in question had just gone on his very first Shaligram pilgrimage to Nepal and was excited to welcome the new family members (seen here) home.

Abishek is one of the typical ways new Shaligrams are welcomed into a household. One of the reasons for this is that Shaligrams are said to “take birth” out of the Kali Gandaki River and, as such, water is an integral part of their worship. Another reason for this is that the bathing ritual and subsequent pujas tend to mirror the river birth of the Shaligrams as a kind of secondary rebirth into the family. In other words, Shaligrams are first born into the world through the Kali Gandaki and then born again into their new households and families through abishek. Unsurprisingly, I have known a great many pilgrims to also collect water from either the Kali Gandaki or from the water spouts at the temple of Muktinath (the high-altitude temple at the end of the Shaligram pilgrimage route in Mustang) to bring back home with them and use for precisely this purpose. The most extreme versions of this even involve pilgrims who keep their newly found Shaligrams in containers of river water, completely immersed until they get home. This way, their Shaligrams are, in effect, born only once and always directly into the family.

Hare Krishna Shaligram Seva

One of the fastest growing groups of Shaligram practitioners the world over are undoubtedly the Hare Krishnas. In fact, many Shaligram sellers I worked with in Nepal and in India described Hare Krishnas as their largest set of clienteles who are usually looking to purchase specific Shaligrams. There are a number of reasons for this, despite the typical ban on buying and selling sacred stones. One reason is that many Hare Krishnas do not live in South Asia and cannot afford to undergo pilgrimage to Nepal. Additionally, as many Hare Krishnas are not of South Asian descent, they might be barred from entering certain shrines or temples or they may face exorbitant permit and travel fees when attempting to access certain sacred landscapes (Mustang being one of them, as there are different permit prices for Indian and Nepali pilgrims versus all other foreign passport holders). Unfortunately, many Hindus and Buddhists in South Asia also have extremely ambiguous feelings about Hare Krishna practice and some have (very founded) concerns about the rate at which foreigners are purchasing Shaligram stones, particularly online. In effect, as more and more foreign practitioners are willing to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a Shaligram, the price of available stones goes up and more stones are collected from the depleted reserves of the Kali Gandaki River Valley, rendering many Shaligrams completely out of reach for poorer devotees.

On the other hand, many practitioners have noted that the spread of Shaligram seva to the Hare Krishnas has meant the preservation and continuation of ritual traditions that were, and very much still are, in danger of going extinct. Hare Krishnas, for example, have been some of the first Shaligram devotees to begin writing down Shaligram descriptions and interpretations or compiling different rules for Shaligram puja and sharing those texts with others. As with most things, popularity has its pros and cons.

Size Doesn’t Matter

Lastly, I want to note that one of my personally favorite things about Shaligram darshan, and really home darshan in general, is the use of miniatures to represent or re-create a variety of divine worlds on the small scale. It is not unusual, for example, for ritual practitioners to include small sets of household objects (almost like doll-house furniture and accessories), miniature animals, and other accoutrements of every day life with their murti right alongside the tiny pairs of shoes, clothes, dishes and water cups, and jewelry present in almost every type of darshan. In one especially elaborate home shrine I had the privilege of experiencing, the family had used a collection of Shopkins (tiny, collectible, toys in the shape of anthropomorphic grocery items) to construct an entire smiling feast for the benefit of the household murti. While one might view this particular set-up as bizarrely indicative of late-stage capitalism, what I want to emphasize here is that the use of such objects as ritual offerings or to create new miniature realms for deities to inhabit has a history that predates Moose Toys and Hasbro by about four thousand years. In this case, the fact that Shopkins miniatures are manufactured and sold widely just means they are more accessible to the average family than more expensive hand-made items might be. In the end, it isn’t the nature of object offered that really counts but the spirit within which it is given. And besides, even deities like to have a little fun, right?

Reading Shaligrams

The book is nearly complete! It’s been a long road but I will be turning in the revised and completed manuscript to my publisher in just a few weeks. I believe I’ve mentioned it before but I have decided that my current research will be separated into two different books. The first, which hopefully will be coming out sometime around the beginning of next year, is my principal ethnography about Shaligram pilgrimage in Mustang, Nepal and about the active practice of Shaligram ritual traditions throughout South Asia. The second is going to be about Shaligram interpretive traditions. This way, I can frame the first book as an introduction to the topic of Shaligram pilgrimage for academics and laypeople who aren’t likely to have any prior background or knowledge of Shaligrams at all. The second book can then be designed more for Hindus, Buddhists, and Bonpos who already have some prior experience with and understanding of Shaligrams or who actually practice with Shaligrams right now.

But as I finish up this first manuscript and get it off to the next step in the process, I’m starting to think about how I want the second manuscript to work. I already have a series of “field guide”-style pages that detail the characteristics of each of the 90 or so name-categories of Shaligram stones and I think those will be especially valuable to practitioners. But I also want to have some kind of commentary at the beginning that discusses exactly how Shaligrams are read. This is a challenge, of course, because there are several different Shaligram interpretive traditions and each tradition reads the shilas in slightly different ways. But here is a little of what I am thinking.

Firstly, I want to talk about the main sets of characteristics: shape, color, set, vadana (mouth), vanamala (white thread), and chakra (spiral). Each of these characteristics exists on something of a spectrum. In other words, there are a variety of shapes a Shaligram might appear in, a few different colors, and it might have one or more vadanas or chakras. Or, as it may be, none at all. In any case, this makes any discussion of variations potentially limitless and I just don’t have the time or space to cover every possible permutation.

Secondly, I will need to have some commentary on each of the current Shaligram traditions. There are, for example, several Vaishnava Shaligram traditions, a few Shaiva traditions, a number of Smarta traditions, as well as both Jain and Buddhist traditions. Not surprisingly, these various traditions all tend to use different combinations of sacred texts, guru lineages, and deity genealogies to interpret the specific manifestation present in the shila and, though they overlap significantly, they are each unique and distinct. I’ve compiled a table of my data and descriptions, but I am note entirely sure what I want to do with it just yet.

And lastly, I want to both acknowledge and pay homage to the Shaligram books that have come before me. The two main ones being, of course, Rao’s Shaligram Kosha and Ram Charan Sharma’s Shaligram Puran (I discuss pilgrimage literature in the ethnography). Both of these works, though extremely difficult to find outside of India, have been instrumental in my research and deserve the best citations I can give them. They also aptly demonstrate some of the challenges of working with Shaligram traditions as they move outwards from the Himalayas. As Sharma’s work shows, for example, several Shaligram traditions have begun to incorporate other sacred stones, such as Dwaraka shilas and Shiva Lingams, and ritual objects, such as murti and coins, in place of rarer Shaligrams that have been otherwise too difficult to obtain. This means that any given Shaligram puja might incorporate a wide variety of mantras, images, objects, or other accoutrements whose relationships to one another might not be immediately apparent.

Ultimately, as I continue to contemplate how best to move forward, I have been experimenting with a few ways to demonstrate “reading Shaligrams.” One, represented by the image below, takes a diagrammatical approach to mapping out specific characteristics and their meanings. I’m also considering using other combinations of tables, images, scans, and drawings to highlight the important processes in the most understandable way I can. Hopefully, either later this year or next year, I’ll have the chance to devote a significant amount of time to it and to the complementary online database I’ve been contemplating for a while now.

Reading Shaligrams is a challenge. Both in terms of reading about them and reading the shilas themselves. So, it’s going to be a delicate balance. I’ve already included as many Vedic, Puranic, Shastric, and Tantric references as I can and I will continue to document the various ways in which both sacred texts and peoples over time have come to understand Shaligrams and to receive darsan of the deities present. But in the end, I know that I can’t include everything. It’s a start, though.

Furthermore, I’m interested to hear what you all might think, in terms of format, information, or presentation. If anyone has any thoughts, I’m open to suggestions! Feel free to comment here or contact me on Twitter: @Manigarm

Vasudev Shaligram – Interpretation Explained

Shaligram Stone in an Ammonite Museum

Whenever I am paging through endless spreadsheets of museum collection data on fossils I am always on the lookout for a few magic words: Ammonite, Spiti Shales, Nepal (or Tibet), Himalayas, and possibly Perisphinctes. Recently, while reviewing some fossil collection data supplied by the Oxford Museum of Natural History in the UK, I can across just such a listing for a series of Himalayan ammonite specimens they had listed as “purchased at a bazaar in Southern Tibet.”

While my current review of worldwide museum collections is geared towards an upcoming second manuscript on Shaligram interpretive traditions, it did also get me thinking about labels again. The vast majority of the Western world knows Shaligrams only by scientific categories and because of this, is largely ignorant of their meanings beyond that of a common index fossil (more suited to the backroom of a collection or to a souvenir shelf than much else). They are fossil ammonites, they are primarily found in Nepal and Tibet, they are produced by a geological formation known as the Spiti Shales, and they are comprised of roughly four species of extinct Jurassic shellfish: Blandifordiceras, Haplophylloceras, and Perisphinctids (including both Aulacosphinctus of the Upper Kimmeridgian/Lower Tithonian and Aulacosphinctoides of the Upper Tithonian). Other Shaligram formations include belemnites (such as the Ram Shaligram) and the bivalve Retroceramus (such as the Anirudda Shaligram) but for the most part, “classic” Shaligram manifestations are, by and large, comprised of various black shale ammonites that fit the aforementioned paleontological criteria. In other words, these categories have produced a specific kind of knowing about Shaligrams and about fossils in general that represents a particular perspective in the history of scientific knowledge production.

In Ancient Greece, ammonites were known as “Cormu Ammonis,” “Corni de Ammone,” or “Cornamone” because their shapes were thought to resemble the tightly coiled ram’s horns used to represent the Egyptian god Ammon. Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – AD 79) even referred to them in the 37th volume of his work Naturalis Historia. In it, he writes: “The Hammonis cornu is among the holiest gems of Ethiopia, it is golden in colour and shows the shape of a ram’s horn; one assures that it causes fortune-telling dreams” (see also Nelson 1968). The ‘golden colour’ he refers to is a likely reference to the fact that many ammonite fossils, including Shaligrams, are often covered in iron pyrites which give them a sparkling golden appearance. Georgius Agricola, sometimes referred to as “the father of mineralogy” and the author of De Re Metallica, a work based on Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, also referred to ammonites as Ammonis Cornu. Even today, ammonite genus names often end with –ceras, the Greek word (κέρας) for “horn.”

The Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner also included some ammonite illustrations is his work De rerum fossilium (1565), but even toward the end of the 17th century, it is especially interesting to note that the organic nature of ammonites remained under debate (a debate which takes places in the Hindu Scriptures as well – most notably in reference to the formative workings of the vajra kita, or the thunderbolt worm). Robert Hooke, the famed experimental scientist and nemesis of Sir Isaac Newton, was fascinated by the logarithmic coil of ammonite shells and their regularly arranged septa (recall the classic image of the golden ratio). It was he who reached the conclusion that ammonites were not only of organic origin but also widely resembled the nautilus and may therefore be related. However, it wasn’t until 1716 that ammonites would finally join scientific taxonomy with a classification scheme first recorded by another Swiss naturalist, Johann Jacob Scheuchzer. The modern form of the word ammonite was then coined by the French zoologist Jean Guillaume Bruguière in 1790, but it wasn’t until 1884 that the subclass Ammonoidea was finally formalized in modern zoological taxonomy (Romano 2014).

In China, however, ammonites were called horn stones (jiao-shih) and were typically used in traditional medicine. Japanese texts, on the other hand, refer to them as chrysanthemum stones (kiku-ishi) and Buddhists interpreted their clockwise spirals (a representation of the direction in which the universe rotates) as a focus for meditation or as symbols of the eight-spoked wheel of dharma (an interpretation currently shared by many Buddhist pilgrims to Mustang, Nepal as well). Additionally, among ancient Celts, these fossils have been interpreted as a kind of petrified venomous snake (ophites) and referred to as “serpent stones.” In medieval England, ammonites (along with various other types of fossils) were taken as evidence for the actions of Biblical saints such St. Patrick, St. Keyne Wyry of Wiltshire (ca 461 – 505), or St. Hilda of Whitby (ca 614 – 680). According to Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion,[i] fossil ammonites were serpents that infested the region of Whitby before the coming of St. Hilda, who subsequently defeated the serpents and turned them to stone on the site where she intended to build an abbey (see also Skeat 1912).[ii]

In the Americas, Cretaceous baclitid ammonites were also once collected by the Indigenous peoples as “buffalo stones,” and were kept in medicine pouches as aids in corralling bison (Mayor 2005). Called Iniskim, members of the Blackfoot First Nations continue to harvest bright opalescent ammonites for ceremonial purposes even today.[iii] Furthermore, aside from their role as Shaligrams, ammonites also have a long and storied history more broadly in what Alexandra van der Geer refers to as the ‘fossil folklore’ of South Asia. She relates in detail, for example, entire regions of fossil beds containing not only ammonites but ancient giraffes, elephants, and tortoises near the Siwalik Hills of the Himalayas in India, which are used as evidence in proof of the great cosmic battle of Kurukshetra as described in the Mahabharata epic and which are also visited by religious pilgrims from all over the world (2008).

Isn’t it surprising then, given the incredible history of ammonites beyond geologic categories, that this information, these labels, almost never make it into museum collections? I’ve never seen, for example, any such exhibit that displays fossils in this way, unless, of course, we start talking about religious museums. I have no doubt that the Creation Museum in Kentucky has its own take on the fossil record and one that, undoubtedly, stands in opposition to science; that makes claims to truth over evidence and only that which aligns with their particular interpretation of Biblical texts. But like so many Shaligram practitioners, I do not mean to present Shaligrams here as any kind of potential foil to scientific inquiry or to imply, in any way, that the creation stories of Shaligrams are distinctly at odds with evolutionary theory. Because, for the most part, they aren’t (see: “Living Fossils” – https://thefamiliarstrange.com/2018/06/07/living-fossils/). And, in fact, I might argue that this division of modern museums and their preferred display narratives is more representative of the politics of religion and science in the West broadly than it is about what a Shaligram, or even an ammonite, “really” is.

What I imagine then is the opportunity to design a museum exhibit that pays tribute to all kinds of ways of knowing; to blend the narratives of Deep Geological Time with Mythic Time in such a way as to demonstrate the richness of fossil traditions both within science and without. I’m not entirely sure what I think it would look like just yet but if I were to incorporate Shaligrams, I would be sure to present them respectful to the contexts of their ritual practices, to emblazon placards with instructions on their interpretive traditions (I can see it now: “How to Read a Shaligram! In Six Easy Steps”), and to link the geological understanding of the tectonic creation of the Himalayas with the stories of sinmo and asuras (demons), Vishnu and Shiva, and the transformation of the goddess Tulsi into the river Gandaki. I would strive to introduce museum goers to the stories of gods and monsters, tectonic plates and dinosaurs, evolution and creation through labels, exhibits, and collection data that are all-at-once scientific, spiritual, and imaginative. And, if nothing else, to preserve all manner of histories; from those told by the ancient peoples who first encountered fossil stones, to the faithful pilgrims who continue the tradition, to the scientists who interpret them now, to the stories told by the stones themselves. After all, what is the Past if not the simmering cauldron from which the present emerges?

[i] Lovett, Edward (September 1905). “The Whitby Snake-Ammonite Myth.” Folk-Lore. 16 (3): 333–4.

[ii] Skeat, W.W., 1912. ““Snakestones” and stone thunderbolts as subjects for systematic investigation.” Folk-lore, 23: 45-80. Additionally, during the 19th century, it was not uncommon for people to carve images of snake’s heads around the bottom aperture of the ammonite shell so as to better the appearance of a snake in coiled repose.

[iii] See also: Rainbow Ammonites and Bison Stones available at https://albertashistoricplaces.wordpress.com/2018/01/10/rainbow-fossils-and-bison-calling/

Further Reading:
Etter, W. 2015. Early Ideas about Fossil Cephalopods. Swiss Journal of Palaeontology 134:177-186.

Monks, N. and P. Palmer. 2002. Ammonites. Natural History Museum, London, London, England.

Mychaluk, K. A., A. A. Levinson, and R. L. Hall. 2001. Ammolite: Iridescent Fossilized Ammonite from Southern Alberta, Canada. Gems & Gemology 37: 4-25.

Peck, T. R. 2002. Archaeological Recovered Ammonites: Evidence for Long-Term Continuity in Nitsitapii Ritual. Plains Anthropologist 47:147-164.

Reeves, B. O. K. 1993. Iniskim: A Sacred Nisitapii Religious Tradition. In Kunaitupii: Coming Together on Native Sacred Sites, Their Sacredness, Conservation, and Interpretation, edited by B. O. K. Reeves and M. A. Kennedy, pp. 194-259.

 

Preparing to Publish and Seeking a Title!

Great news!

I’m excited to announce that my book manuscript has been accepted and is now officially under contract with Amsterdam University Press for their “New Mobilities in Asia” ethnographic series. Over the next several months I will be revising, editing, and restructuring the work to better fit the book format but you can now look forward to my Shaligram research becoming widely available.

Now, however, I have one more hurdle to get over. The title.

If anyone has any suggestions for a book title, I would be happy to hear them!

The original title of the research draft was: “Shaligram: Sacred Stones, Ritual Practices, and the Politics of Mobility in Nepal.”

The goal is, of course, to simplify it and make it easy to find via online searches. For this reason, we are currently considering something like: “Sacred Fossils, Pilgrimage, and Politics in the Nepal Himalayas” and “Shaligram Pilgrimage and Mobility in the Nepal Himalayas.”

But nothing is set in stone just yet. Except for the Shaligrams themselves, that is.

Spotlight: Dadhivamana (Vamana) Shaligram

While it is listed as Dadhivamana in the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, this Shaligram is often described as a variation of the more common Vamana Shaligram of the Dasavatara sequence of Vishnu’s incarnations (See Vamana Shaligram). Its description differs from the more standard Vamana Shaligram however, in that the Dadhivamana Shaligram is often identified by ritual specialists as having a “raised head, being yellowish in color, and containing unclear chakras.”

The Dadhivamana Shaligram takes its name from the Dadhi Vamana Stotra (Prayer to Vamana) where Vishnu takes the incarnation of Vamana, his fifth avatar, to destroy the pride of the great Asura king Mahabali. Though a demon, Mahabali was a benevolent emperor. But he usurped the Deva kingdom and as such, Vishnu took the form of a young, dwarf, Brahmin boy called Vamana and requested that he be granted three steps of land as measured by his feet. In spite of his guru’s opposition, Mahabali agreed. Vamana then took the gigantic form of Trivikrama and measured all of the three worlds in two steps. When Mahabali offered his head as a third step, Vamana then requested that instead, Mahabali should live forever in Patala (the underworld). In Kerala, devotees believe that Mahabali makes his home-coming during the festival of Thiruvonam and in Karnataka, devotees believe that he visits them every year on the Bali Padyami. In this way, the Dadhivamana Shaligram is often brought out during the celebrations of these festival seasons.

This Shaligram is also associated with Vamana’s preference for anointing sacred beings in curd or offering rice mixed with curd where he confers strength to the tongue (so as to speak nothing but the truth) and gives a pleasing odor to the mouth.

References: Brahmavaivartta (Prakritikhanda, Ch. 21)

Descriptions:

Small in size with two circular marks (BV).

Very small in size with two circular marks, and having the color of a new cloud. (BV)

Also described as “yellowish, with unclear chakras.”

Discussion:

The Dadhivamana Shaligram is usually uneven in overall shape with one or more openings that appear yellowish in color. The body of the Shaligram itself is also usually mottled with yellow or orange infiltrates and is typically grey to dark blue in color.

Dadhivamana Shaligrams

Spotlight: Vaikuntha Shaligram

Vaikuntha (the Place of Non-Hindrance), Paramapadam, Vishnupada (Vishnu’s feet), or Param Padam (the Supreme Abode) is the celestial home of Vishnu. In most of the Puranas, and in the majority of Vaishnava traditions, Vaikuntha is located in the direction of the Makara Rashi, a celestial formation which roughly coincides with the constellation of Capricorn. Vishnu’s eye is then said to be located at the South Celestial Pole.

Vaikuntha Shaligrams are rare in practice. Oftentimes, the Vishnu Padam Shaligram (See Mahavishnu – Dasavatara Shaligram) takes its place or is identified itself as “Vaikuntha.” In other Shaligram traditions, however, the Vaikuntha Shaligram is identified by its distinctive “two-tiered” structure, where a small, central, spiral can be seen beneath the edge of a larger outer spiral or sunken down beneath the edge of the central shape nodule.

Vaikuntha is also “the one who prevents men from straying down the wrong path” (Vikunthah) and the Shaligram itself is often described as a “seat of Vishnu.” For this reason, veneration of this Shaligram is said to bestow blessings of a strong 6th sense, to ensure moksha (liberation) for the devotee, and to protect the devotee from false information, poor teachings, or disreputable gurus. This Shaligram is also said to be especially partial to requests for guidance or safety and, due to its association with the dwelling places of Vishnu, is often taken on pilgrimages or other religious journeys undertaken by the devotee.

References: Garuda Purana (Panchanan Tarkaratna, Part 1, Ch. 45), Agni Purana; Bengavasi ed., Panchanan Tarkaratna, Saka 1812, Ch. 46

Descriptions:

Blue color, lotus mark, a circular mark, glittering like a gem (G).

Discussion:

The formation of a Vaikuntha Shaligram typically comes about when the entire or nearly the entire ammonite mold has worn out of the shale nodule, leaving a clear chakra-spiral visible on the internal portion of the stone with an overhanging section still partially covering it. It is also not uncommon for the central portions of these Shaligrams to contain significant iron pyrite deposits, lending the entire spiral a gold coloration.

 

Vaikuntha Shaligram

Spotlight: Yagnamurti Shaligram

                                   Yagnamurti Shaligram

Yajna (or conversely, Yagna) literally translates as “sacrifice, worship, or offering,” and refers, in modern Hinduism, to any ritual done in front of a sacred fire. The tradition has evolved considerably over time, however, from the offering of objects and libations into a sacred fire to symbolic offerings in the presence of sacred fire (Agni). The word yajna appears throughout the earliest Vedic literatures (2nd millennium BCE) such as in the Brahmanas and in the Yajurveda. In the Rigveda, Yajurveda and others, it means “worship, devotion to anything, prayer and praise, an act of worship or devotion, a form of offering or oblation, and sacrifice.” In post-Vedic literature, the term meant any form of rite, ceremony or devotion with an actual or symbolic offering or effort.

Yajna ritual-related texts are also called the Karma-kanda (ritual works) portion of the Vedic literatures, in contrast to Jnana-kanda (knowledge) portions contained in the Upanishads. The proper completion of Yajna-like rituals was the primary focus of Mimansa school of Hindu philosophy, though the performance of various types of yajna ceremonies have continued to play a central role in a Hindu’s rites of passage, festivals, and community events. Modern major Hindu temple ceremonies, Hindu community celebrations, or monastic initiations may also include Yajna rites, or may alternatively be based on agamic rituals.

Yajnamurti Shaligrams are most often described as having markings of the two sacrificial sticks (sruk and sruva) along with a wide, flat, body and at least one (but occasionally two or three) large holes or depressions.  These Shaligrams should also contain sections or portions of red to reddish-orange coloration. Generally considered to be a subtype of the Mahavishnu – Dasavatara type Shaligram, Yajnamurti Shaligrams are commonly sought after for inclusion in specific home or community yajna rites as a presiding deity. (Also, depending on the tradition, sometimes associated with or considered to be a subtype of Kapila Shaligrams)

Veneration more generally also remains similar to other Mahavishnu Shaligrams, where they are said to ward off misfortune and to protect the family and community from evil spirits, unquiet ghosts, or from deceit through witchcraft or magic. As uninvoked, presiding deities at yajna rites, they are also said to ensure proper performance of the ritual and to ensure that the merits of the ritual are reciprocally rewarded.

References: Praanatoshani Tantra pg. 351 – 356

Descriptions:

Yajnamurthi: Reddish yellow in color, with a small opening and two circular marks, one at the bottom and one the other side on the right side. (P)