“But What Is It Really?” – Notes on Science, Pseudoscience, and Religion in Fossil Folklores

“Yes, but what is it really?” The man pressed. “A fossil, or God?”

Sitting in the domestic airport in Kathmandu, Nepal waiting on the day’s flights into the Himalayas was, I found, often fertile ground for impromptu research discussions. Since I was usually on my way to Mustang, where I was carrying out fieldwork on Shaligram stones; the sacred fossil ammonites revered by Hindus, Buddhists, and Bonpos the world over, it was not uncommon for trekkers or religious pilgrims to strike up conversations with me on the strange combinations of puja (ritual worship) paraphernalia and high-altitude hiking gear I typically carried.

“I mean,” the young Indian traveler went on to say, “the Vedas say that they (Shaligrams) are gods, but that’s just because they didn’t know what they actually were, right?”

For anyone who spends any amount of time working with sacred fossils, especially Shaligram stones, they will quickly come to understand that in actual ritual practice, the categories of “fossil” and “deity” are not mutually exclusive, as might be anticipated in more Euro-American religious philosophies. In other words, that Shaligram practitioners do not necessarily see the fossil “being” of a Shaligram, along with the immense geological and temporal processes that go with it, as a challenge to the divine nature also present in the stones once they manifest in the Kali Gandaki River. In short, that Shaligrams are equally fossil and god and that these two categories are seen as complementary to one another rather than exclusionary.

But the question of “what are they really?” was a common one. At first, I took it as a revelatory question that demonstrated, for many people, a desire to be seen as modern and rational over superstitious and potentially backward. This was because people questioning me about my work wanted to know not only how I saw the Shaligram stones themselves but how I, and other Americans, saw Shaligram practitioners. For example, questioning whether or not non-Hindus and non-Buddhists could truly understand the divinity of the stones came up routinely as did questions about whether or not Americans thought that Indians and Nepalis were ignorant for “seeing God in the stone.” But then, as I began to think on it more and more, I came to realize that the core of the question, the true underlying implication of the word really, had less to do with fears of appearing uneducated and everything to do with the relationship between Shaligrams as scientific objects of study (i.e., ammonite fossils), as religious objects of worship (i.e., Shaligram deities), and as targets of pseudoscience. Essentially, just as the boundaries between “fossil” and “deity” had become blurry and indistinct, so too were the boundaries between “science,” “religion,” and “myth.” My subversion here of the “real” concepts of fossils and “non-real” concepts of gods and magic is also intentional because the boundaries between the two are what is ultimately at stake in conversations of pseudoscience.

Scholars often refer to the religious use of fossils, both historically and in contemporary periods, as fossil folklores (van der Greer et al, 2008). Generally, fossil folklores tend to refer to the use of otherwise ostensibly scientific phenomena; the preserved remains of prehistoric creatures in this case, for mythical or superstitious (read: fictional) ends. For example, the ways in which Young Earth Creationists and some fundamentalist Christians view the fossil record as devilish trickery rather than as products of deep geological time (IBSS 2019) or how “crystal magic” includes the occasional trilobite or bit of petrified wood along with various rare-earth minerals and salts. But in most cases, author’s, even religious authors, tend to take the overall position that their work is in conversation with the study of fossils and that “fossil” remains the default label. This is to say that, in the literature, they are really fossils first and divine second. But despite what we might argue in terms of taking ethnographic narratives seriously or how we might view this issue through competing cultural ontologies, my goal here isn’t to argue whether or not one side is ultimately correct over the other. Rather, what I note is a growing shift in public discourse from folklore to pseudoscience that is, at its core, a shift in models of knowing. Where myths and folklore once played important roles in social narrative, meaning-making, identity, and experience, they’ve now become the focal point for ontic reality and scientific positivism. Which is to say, that the boundaries between folklore and pseudoscience have been transgressed when the point of inquiry and discovery is no longer “what does it mean?” but “what is it really?” [i]

Crystal Magic and Saffron Science

In his book, The Philosophy of Science and the Occult, Patrick Grim argues that the role of pseudoscience, especially as it related to America and Europe in the Victorian Age, was as a label used to place social constraints on the creation and understanding of what constituted reality (1982: 131). In other words, that by calling something “pseudoscience,” one enacted a kind of cultural authority over an idea so as to regulate it to the fringes of acceptable discourse. To proclaim it “not real.” In modern America, I would argue that many academics continue to use the term similarly (for good and for ill) in what Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry call the “demarcation problem” (2013); a philosophical debate about the division between seeking the empirical reality of an object versus understanding the ways in which we think about the object (2013: 1). But this generally Western scientific approach tends to leave out some important other considerations especially as it relates to religious practices in South Asia. And that is the growing problem of saffron science.

Saffron science, according to Meera Nanda, is the “appropriation of modern scientific concepts and theories for the glories of the Vedas.” (2016: 2). Put another way, it is the drive to view all modern scientific discoveries, from robotics to nuclear physics to genetics and evolution, as having their true origins in Hindu sacred texts. This results, not surprisingly, in a fair amount of pseudoscientific thought designed to align the authority of scientific inquiry with right-wing political ideologies that claim India as an intrinsically Hindu homeland. In the US, many teachers and professionals will likely recognize very similar underlying political threads in the problem of Atlantis, Ancient Aliens, and Biblical literalism.

Shaligram stones are, unfortunately, not immune to either of these problems. I have encountered these rare fossils in a variety of contexts outside of their ritual ones, including in debates about their “true belonging” to specific Hindu traditions (and which proves these tradition’s antiquity and spiritual authority) over the claims of other religious groups as well as in New Age rock shops and in pagan-themed stores in the US and the UK where they are prized for their “magic” characteristics along with various amethyst and quartz crystals or other polished minerals. As such, what was originally a type of divine manifestation rooted in the landscapes of the high Himalayas and the creation stories of a variety of South Asian peoples has transformed into a pseudoscientific community in both America and South Asia that is more concerned with two particular problems. Firstly, that Shaligrams are really fossils (rather than aniconic deities) and secondly, that they are possessed of mystical properties that can bestow blessings on their owners. In other words, what was once a search for meaning in the narratives of the stones has become a debate about their ontological existence. The root of the problem has become, “but what are they really?” Regardless of your ultimate position on this subject, in the end, the point that I want to emphasize here is that science, pseudoscience, and religion are not quite so separate and exclusive as we like to believe. They are deeply, inextricably, intertwined.

What Can We Do?

Pseudoscience is never position neutral. It has an aim, even if that aim seems obscure. This means that combating pseudoscience in the classroom and in public discourse is going to have to take into account that many proponents of these kinds of theories are not necessarily arguing from either a position of good faith or from ignorance, but rather from an ideological or political position seeking social power and cultural control. In the classroom, I often translate this dynamic not into questioning a student’s particular faith-based ideal but into helping them uncover the motivations behind the belief. Where does this belief come from? Who does it serve? What is it about science that is being mistrusted here? And why? Pseudoscience is also not unique to Western discourses or even to Euro-American scientific models. It plays a role in political and social conflicts the world over. This means that an understanding of culture and belief systems, both ours and others, are integral to combating the desire to make into empirical reality what was once faith, community, and meaning. For all of us, it’s time to better ask the question, “what does it mean?” and not “but what is it really?”


Grim, Patrick. 1982. Philosophy of Science and Occult, 1st Ed. SUNY Press.

Institute for Biblical and Scientific Studies (IBSS). “The Bible and Science: How Old is the Earth.” Accessed 6/9/2019. https://www.bibleandscience.com/science/ageofearth.htm

Nanda, Meera. 2016. Science in Saffron: Skeptical Essays on History of Science. Three Essays Collective.

Pigliucci, Massimo and Maarten Boudry eds. 2013. Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. University of Chicago Press.

van der Geer, Alexandra and Michael Dermitzakis and John de Vos. 2008. “Fossil Folklore from India: The Siwalik Hills and the Mahâbhârata.” Folklore, Vol. 119, No. 1 (Apr., 2008), pp. 71-92. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

[i] I am reminded, here, of the debate between Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge who argued similarly.

Getting a Fake Shaligram, Intentionally

So, I got a fake Shaligram. But don’t be indignant on my behalf, it was on purpose.

One of the most pervasive fears many Shaligram devotees (or would-be devotees) have is ordering a Shaligram online, typically from an established seller, and receiving a fake stone. But unfortunately, due to both profiteering and scarcity, it’s not an uncommon problem.

Ordering Shaligrams over the internet is a contentious topic among numerous practitioner communities for a variety of reasons. This is mainly because finding one’s own Shaligrams on pilgrimage is the ultimate religious ideal. But, sadly, a great many people are unable to reach the high Himalayas in order to do so (for economic, health, and political access reasons). As a result, choices are often limited in terms of getting a Shaligram in other ways. If possible, the second option for many devotees would be to receive one as a gift or acquire one from a temple collection. This is because placing monetary value on sacred stones is explicitly forbidden in many Hindu traditions and, for that reason, Shaligrams are never supposed to be bought or sold (to do so is a karmic sin). Barring that, getting one from another devotee in exchange for some other spiritual object or service is also considered to be an acceptable form of Shaligram mobility. The last resort however, when all other previous avenues have been exhausted, is then to look online, where any number of sellers and shops exist (from Amazon, to Ebay, to Etsy) to cater specifically to Shaligram practitioner’s needs.

Unfortunately, many of these sellers are less than reputable when it comes to the origin, quality, and authenticity of their stones. Aside from that, even trusted sellers tend to price their ritual Shaligrams out of reach of the average devotee and can sometimes ask as much as several thousand dollars for a particularly rare or unusual deity. “Average” Shaligrams are then still relatively quite expensive, at several hundred dollars apiece plus shipping. Finally, very small or low quality Shaligrams round out the bottom of the list at roughly between $50 and $100 depending on the clarity of their chakras (ammonite shell spirals) and overall appearance of the stone. The price, in these cases, is therefore supposed to represent compensation for the seller’s travel, time, and trouble in getting the stone from Mustang and not, as might be the more pessimistic interpretation, the cost of the stone itself.

Even so, stories of receiving fake stones abound.

There are generally three well-known ways to fake a Shaligram. The first involves taking broken pieces of a real Shaligram and gluing them together in a kind of facsimile of a whole, unblemished, stone. This method is also sometimes used to add additional chakras to otherwise “unimpressive” Shaligrams or to repair a damaged ritual stone and sell it off rather than return it to the Kali Gandaki or to the care of a temple (as is the typical tradition). For the most part, glued piecemeal stones are reasonably easy to spot by their surface seams and cleavages but such things can be easily hidden in webpage photos for the unsuspecting buyer who cannot otherwise inspect the Shaligram on their own time.

Real Shaligram broken into pieces and re-glued

The second, and far more popular, way of faking a Shaligram is to mold or fabricate an entirely new stone out of M-Seal industrial epoxy or concrete. M-Seal versions of Shaligrams look the best in photos largely due to the smooth, shiny, black exterior of the resulting plastic nodules, which superficially resemble the appearance of a real Shaligram just out of the river or just following ritual bathing (abishek). Some sellers will even take this further by attempting to press or stamp “chakra” shapes into the false stone and I have seen some impressive instances of such sculpted Shaligrams. Sadly, many of these fake stones tend to fool even the relatively practiced eye of long-time devotees, depending on the skill of the fabricator. This is because, while a significant number of devotees have tremendous experience with sacred objects, not many have much in the way of familiarity with invertebrate fossils. Meaning, they aren’t always quite so savvy in recognizing imprinted shapes that wouldn’t be found in nature and thus, which couldn’t be formed by a petrified ammonite.

M-Seal Shaligram with stamped “chakras”

Recognizing these kinds of faked Shaligrams, unfortunately, often requires physical handling; which is another reason why being in the actual presence of a Shaligram is so vital to receiving one. Not just from a spiritual sense, but a practical one as well. M-Seal Shaligrams tend to feel “plastic-y” to the touch and are far lighter than a real stone would be. Additionally, if scratched with a fingernail or sharp implement, they will indent and furrow in the way that epoxy does when damaged, rather than powdering like black slate. Concrete Shaligrams work similarly, but in that scratching them reveals their underlying sandy composition or simply chips the paint (since most concrete can’t be made to look like smooth black shale when dry). They also tend to fracture more readily than either M-Seal or a real stone and will often fall apart with little more than a firm tap.

M-Seal Shaligram from Ebay

Finally, one of the more bizarre ways to fake a Shaligram is to simply substitute another fossil in for the Kali Gandaki ammonite. I’ve seen trilobites advertised as “Ganesh Shaligrams,” other kinds of ammonites obviously from elsewhere in the world claimed to be from Nepal, as well as fossilized plants, crinoids, and insects. As I have discussed previously, none of these fossils are Shaligram owing to the fact that they have not undergone death and re-formation in the sacred landscape of Muktikshetra and have not been born from the waters of the sacred river (one of the key parts of the process to becoming Shaligram).

Trilobite “Shaligram” from Ebay

As a side note, this problem has resulted in a variety of methods for determining the authenticity of a Shaligram; involving everything from keeping the stone in a pile of rice (to see if the rice increases or decreases), to spinning them with the tip of a finger, to scratching them with gold, to seeing if they float in water (which a real Shaligram wouldn’t do, but then again, neither would a concrete one.)

But again, most of this relies on general ignorance of geological and fossil processes and anticipates that people who are buying Shaligrams online are not otherwise in contact with these types of sacred stones often enough such that they would readily be able to recognize a fake one.

My new fake Shaligram is of the second variety: an M-Seal nodule smoothed and shaped to look like a real stone. Mine, unfortunately, does not have any chakra impressions or other “markings” and probably wouldn’t be broadly appealing to a devotee looking for a puja-worthy stone anyway but my reason for getting it has nothing to do with veneration. Rather, I’ve long wanted one so that, whenever I am giving talks on Shaligrams or conducting workshops on identification, I can use it as an educational example for what to be wary of. It is also the reason it was given to me by a devotee I’ve known for a long time and whom I have worked with previously in combating the spread of false Shaligrams. In the end, I would actually like to build a collection of such manufactured Shaligrams for this purpose.

My M-Seal “Shaligram”
Compare to, for example, this real Shaligram from the Kali Gandaki
(Would you be able to tell the difference from a photo if I hadn’t already told you which one was genuine?)

Thus far, my collection of gaffes includes a black trilobite, a broken Shaligram re-glued, and now, an M-Seal imitation. At some point, I would then like to also acquire other M-Seal or concrete Shaligrams with cut or tooled markings or one that has been molded wholesale from an impression. I am, however, not keen on spending the hundreds of dollars many sellers ask for such obvious (to me) fakes and I can only imagine what a grant application would look like that had a provision in it for paying out that kind of expense on what amounts to chunks of plastic and cement. I’m also not especially enthusiastic about attempting to fake one myself. I’m confident my sculpting skills are up to par in this regard but I’m not entirely sure this is the kind of relationship I really want to cultivate with my research at this given moment.

In the end, the practice of falsifying sacred stones is an opportunistic one. Like many instances of people seeking to profit from the misfortunes of others, fake Shaligram sales are driven by the increasing inaccessibility of Mustang (for pilgrimage) as well as the challenges of ritual-object practice in the Diaspora; where communities have less in the way of established home temples, gurus, or Shaligram specialists. As a result, the dilemma many young Shaligram practitioners face is to potentially receive a fake stone (while losing a large amount of money in doing so) versus never being able to have a Shaligram stone at all. And if the latter continually comes to pass, many fear that the tradition itself will be in danger of disappearing as sons and daughters no longer learn the stories, pujas, and mantras from their elders or just never encounter a real Shaligram in their lives.

On a personal note, I’m often asked to identify new Shaligrams and I hate having to tell someone that a stone is fake. In many cases I can, thankfully, do so from an image before the item has been purchased but more often than not, it involves questions someone has regarding a stone they’ve had (and sometimes worshipped with) for years. Ultimately, faking fossils has a pretty long and gory history all over the world (both paleo-anthropology and paleontology, for example, have some pretty spectacular instances of this) but now we can add another version to the concerning line-up of spiritual fossil fakery. Not in the better-known Creationist sense this time, where the fossil record is intentionally altered and re-interpreted to fit fundamentalist Biblical narratives, but as a way of subverting darshan (the ritual viewing of and interacting with deities in many South Asian religions) into less a relationship with the material Divine and more a commodified form of tourist religion that blurs the lines between “icon” and “souvenir” even more so than usual.

What do you think about this one? Real or fake?

Buyer beware, indeed.

Shaligram Interpretive Practices: The Vasudev Shaligram Example

One thing I love about Shaligram interpretive practices is how extensively narrative they are. As in, not only does each specific ammonite fossil invoke stories about the geological origin of the world, they also link to mythographic histories of people.

This is something that I have spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about as I now begin work on my second manuscript dedicated to discussing Shaligram interpretation (my first book on Shaligram pilgrimage will be out next year). I am still having some issues working out a format, however. On some level, the current work already looks something like a “field guide:” a short chapter introducing the methods of interpretation and reading Shaligrams (as one might a text) followed by separate, dedicated, pages for identifying each type of Shaligram currently in practice. But I still worry that this format leaves something to be desired. How, for example, do I ensure that the nuances of interpretation are clearly expressed? Or the variations between different Hindu, Buddhist, and Bon traditions? Or, even just attempting to boil down the multiple linkages and complexities of a single set of stories as they are expressed in a particular Shaligram without seeming tragically reductionist.

Take the Vasudev Shaligram, for example (shown below). Vasudev carries a wide variety of meanings depending on the particular Hindu tradition in question. To start with, in Indian epic poetry, Vasudeva is the father of Krishna.

He was also the brother of Nanda Baba, the chieftain of the cowherder tribe, who was a Surasena (an ancient region corresponding to the present-day Braj region in Uttar Pradesh, India) who also became the foster father of Krishna.

His sister Kunti was married to Pandu, both significant figures in the Mahabharata, but in other interpretations, Vasudeva was a partial incarnation of Rishi Kashyapa (a famous Hindu sage) as well as one of Vishnu’s four vyuha avatars who received specific attributes of Vishnu but not his entire incarnation (See also the Anirudda and Pradyumna Shaligrams, which figure similarly). Additionally, following the advent of Bhagavatism in the 1st millennium BCE, the patronymic Vāsudeva (with long ā) has also remained a popular name of Krishna. So, even in this short explanation, “Vasudev” acts as a kind of short-form for a wide variety of possible interpretations; none or all of which might be in play depending on the Shaligram or, for that matter, the interpreter.

According to many Shaligram traditions, on the other hand, the Vaasudev Shaligram is marked by both Śesha (Ananta), the eternal serpent who appeared to protect the infant Krishna as Vasudeva carried him across the river during his flight from the demon Kansa and Kalpvriksha, the sacred tree along the river banks. Typically, these Shaligrams are identified using their long oval shapes and the appearance of a central spiral opening representative of the serpent Śesha.

Ideally, they will then also contain a tree-like marking of grooves or lines somewhere else along the outer surface (which are more pronounced in the Shaligram below).

In practice though, Vasudev Shaligrams are more commonly associated with the stories of Krishna’s father than with Vishnu specifically. As such, they are said to grant enormous physical strength to devotees in times of trial and to encourage all practitioners in their vicinity to adopt stout hearts and minds whenever troubled. This “never give up” atmosphere of ritual veneration also makes them especially popular as gifts to those who are ill or who have recently suffered tragic circumstances in their lives.

For this reason, Vasudev Shaligrams are primarily identified through a combination of features relating to the story of Vasudev and the infant Krishna’s flight from Kansa rather than many of the other possible meanings of the term. Specifically a round or oval shape (a basket), a central spiral opening with two chakras (spirals set one above the other), and other grooved markings representative of tree roots or branches (Kalpvriksha) – or conversely a central, grooved, ring representing Ananta, the serpent: the presence of all such characteristics indicating the Shaligram’s association with this particular tale.

Vasudev Shaligram side by side with the iconic image of Vasudev rescuing the infant Krishna

But, as you might imagine, this is a lot of information to fit onto a single page of an ostensible field guide. There is simply so much information and so many linkages within so many traditions, I could, in all honestly, spend a lifetime writing a separate book for each Shaligram. What a voluminous set that would be!

Maybe my original idea of setting up a kind of database with scans and links wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Alas! If only there were more hours in a day…

A Shaligram is Born – Part 2

This second part on the birth of Shaligrams is meant to briefly demonstrate the concrete links between the sacred contexts of Shaligram veneration and the actual practices devotees most commonly carry out. In other words, given the mythic histories of Shaligrams (previous post), how does one then actually experience the birth of a Shaligram and how do practitioners prepare them for ritual use in their homes and communities?

Puja is, first and foremost, the main method for venerating Shaligrams. Initial pujas are generally conducted when a Shaligram is born out of Kali Gandaki (often, right on the river bank using the water of the river to welcome them into their new families) and may be performed again and again over the course of the Shaligram’s lifetime. It is also common to include Shaligrams during pujas held for the births of children as well as at weddings and funerals or any other instance of a meaningful or profound change in an individual’s or family’s life. Pujas specific to Shaligrams are also most often performed during the festival celebrating Tulsi Vivah; the marriage of Tulsi and Shaligram (Vishnu).

The first puja for a Shaligram is almost always done as a welcome for them to their new home or temple following their birth and their long travels, just as puja is done for honored guests and great teachers. Subsequent pujas after that are much the same as any other kind of ritual care for a household’s deities and very commonly mirror the typical activities of daily life, such as mealtimes, bedtimes, bathing, and morning awakening. The final puja is then done to honor the passing of the dead, where a particularly important Shaligram may accompany the body of a deceased loved one into the cremation fire and carry their spirit into the presence of the Divine before being reborn back into the world (out of the river once again) in their place. Conversely, any Shaligram which is passed down/inherited and not sent to the funeral pyre will have a similar welcoming puja carried out, as it is once again a new member of a new family. And thus, Shaligrams continue to live out multiple karmic lives, returning again and again into the material world, so that they may guide souls along the path to moksha.

However, as far as religious stricture goes, it is important to note that there is no central Scriptural authority detailing the worship of Shaligrams in either Hinduism or Buddhism. Instead, most Shaligram practitioners take a variety of texts to be authoritative when it comes to Shaligram worship; be they a combination of the Vedas, Puranas, Shastras, or other commentaries. The scriptural rules which govern Shaligram veneration also do not establish a set of rigid boundaries delineating the correct performance of rituals for Shaligrams. Rather, they speak of Shaligrams in more general terms and leave many of the specifics up to long-standing oral traditions or other ritual descriptions. As such, real Shaligram practices function like the banks of a wide riverbed, much like the Kali Gandaki itself, within which streams of traditional and practical variation may appear, meander, and merge as they move through time and space. While the river may then slow to a trickle or come flooding out of the mountains, break up or reconverge, or even occasionally overflow its banks, it nevertheless carries onward in whatever way is necessary for the moment.

Lastly, there is no standardized doctrinal consensus among Shaligram practitioners as a whole, and specific individuals may perform or participate in Shaligram rituals reflective of any range of traditions, be they Buddhist, Hindu, animist, specific to one’s guru lineage, or related to a local deity or practice-style. Even secular, agnostic, and scientific atheists have been known to take part in Shaligram ritual veneration. But, for the most part, Shaligram devotees tend to acknowledge that Shaligram worship follows a few short, easily definable, steps.


As self-manifest deities, Shaligram require no rites of invocation, such as the prana pratistha. When they arrive home, they are greeted as living deities and are usually kept in a common section of the household, wherein they are able to view and participate in the normal activities of the family.

An active Shaligram within a household is usually cleaned with clear water to begin with, and then rubbed with oil to keep them smooth and unblemished. This oil can be from any number of sources but is usually made from sandalwood, flower extracts, or incense. Essential oils derived from fragrant plants are especially popular for this purpose.

Shaligrams then reside in whatever prepared puja mandir, platform, or shelf that has been set aside for them. Many devotees also provide them with small pillows or seats to rest on, crowns or clothing as befits other murti in the household, or any other small items they wish to offer or which may be specific to the Shaligram deity present (i.e., sweets for Krishna or coins for Lakshmi).

The two main offerings generally considered to be vital to Shaligram practice, however, are water and tulsi. Pilgrims to Mustang will often return with water taken directly from the Kali Gandaki for this purpose, but Ganga Jal also works well or any other purified water in the event that none other is available. Tulsi can be grown in the home (and often is) or purchased from Indian groceries if one’s climate is not suitable for growing.


Krishna Shaligram from Vrindavan

Shaligrams are typically worshipped without any prathisthana (installation ritual; as is done while installing man-made deity icons), since Vishnu is already present in the Shaligram of his free will as a revelation to the devotees. The Śālagrāma-Kosha enumerates this by explaining that: “In the worship of Salagrama, no initiation is required; there is no special hymnology or specific procedure of worship, nor any need for a qualified priest or master of ceremonies. Worshipped anyhow, it will bestow the benefits; and there is no error of any kind.”

Note: In South India, it is more common for Shaligrams to be put away in a box or puja mandir while not actively engaged in ritual, while in North India and Nepal, Shaligrams tend to remain in the open.

Sri Shaligram Shila Stotram (Prayer)

(Given by Krishna to Yudhishthira, Bhagavad-Gita)

Yudhistiro Uvacha 

King Yudhistira asked 

“Shree Dev Dev devesa Devarchanamutamam 
Tat sarbam srotaumichhami Bruhime Purushotamam / 1/ 

My dear Supreme Lordship Purushotam, I request you know the significance of the Shaligram shila

Shree Bhagavan Uvacha – The Lord Replied 

“Gandakyam Chotare Tire Girirajshchya Dakshine 
Das Yojan Vistirnam Mahachhetra Vasundhara //2// 
“Saligramo Vabet Devo Devi Dwara Bati Vabet 
Uvayo Sangamo Yatra Mutistratrana Sansaya //3// 
“Saligramo Sila Yatra Yatra dwara Bati Sila 
Uvayo Sangamo Yatra Mutistratrana Sansaya //4//

The mountains known as the Himalaya are situated on the bank of river Gandaki. In the south of this Himalaya is the land where Shaligram shila appear. This is the place where Devi Dwarabati begins. This place is called by those who know, Sri Muktikshetra. 

“Ajanma Krita Papanam Prayaschitam Ya Ichati 
Saligram Silawari Paphari Namastute //5// 
“ Akal Mritu Haranam Sarvabyadhi Binasanam 
Vishu Padodakam Pitwa Shirasha Dharyamyaham //6// 
“Sankha Madhya Sthitam Toyyam Vramitam Keshavopari 
Angalagnam Manukshanam Bramha Hatya Dikam Dayat //7// 

Shaligram shilas found here are very precious and significant. These shilas are considered to be directly Lord Vishnu Himself and the person who worships or even keeps in the house or bathes the Shaligram and drinks water or pour those waters on their head, that man becomes free from all sin and it prevents from untimely death. That person becomes free from all sin and all material disease. The most feared sin of Bramahatya (killing of a Brahmin) is also washed away simply by worshiping the Shaligram. 

“Snano Dakam Piben Nityam Chakrankita Sirot Vabam 
Partkshallya Sudham Tatoyam Bramha Hatya Byapohati //8// 
“Agnistomasahasnani Vajapaya Satanicha 
Samyak Phalama Bapnoti Visnornai Vedya Vakshina //9// 

That person who does snan (bathing) of Shaligram with chakra everyday get gets rid of all sin like Bramahatya, and if he drinks such water daily gets the equal boon of a thousand havan (fire sacrifices) of Lord Vishnu. 

“Naivadyayuktam Tulsim cha Misritam Vishesta Pada Jalen Vishnu 
Yoshnati Nityam Purato Murari Prapnoti Yazya Uta Koti Pundyam //10//

The person, who worships Shaligram with Tulsi leaf daily, gets the boon of a million Yajna also. 

Khandita Sphutita Viina Vandi Dakdhya Tathi Va Cha 
Saligram Sialyatra Tatra Dosho Na Vidyate//11// 

Even if a Shaligram is damaged or broken, all shila are good to worship 

Namantra Pujanam Naiva Natirtham Na cha Bhabanaa 
Na stutir Na uppachars cha Saligram Silar cha ne //12// 
Bramha Hatya Dikam Papam Manobak Karya Sambhamam 
Shirgram Nachyati Tatsarvam Saligram Silrchana//13//

Without worship, without offering any sweets or without any pilgrims – only chanting this Shaligram mantra is enough to wash away all sins and is the fulfillment of all desire. 

“Nanabarna Mayam Chiva Nana Bhogena Vestitam 
Tathavarprasadena Laxmi Kantam Balamhayam //14// 
“Narayanorbhabo Dev Chakramadya Cha Karmana 
Tathavarprasadena Laxmi Kantam Balamhayam//15//

There are various kinds of size and shape of Shaligram in which Lord Vishnu is situated representing all the different incarnations. 

“Krishane Sila Taneyatra Susmam Cakram Cha Drisyate 
Saovagyam Santatim Dhatye Sarva Sakshaym Dadhaticha//16//

Good Luck increases and one gets satisfaction from children, and in every way in every aspect, all good enters one’s life by worshipping Shaligram black in color with little chakras

Vashu Devschya Chinhani Distwa Papai Pramuchyate 
Sridhar Sukare Bame Harivbarnatu Disyate//17// 
“Varaha Rupenam Devam Kurmangai Rapi Chinhitam 
Gopadam Tatra Dissheta Varaham Vamanam Tatha //18// 

A person who gets the chance to see the Vasudev shila, that person he became free from sins. Shreedhar, Sukar, Vamanadev, Harivarna,Varaha, Kurma and lots of other type of Shaligram are available also. Some Shaligram has marking of cow’s foot marks and some that of Narshimha Avatara (half lion half man). 

“Pitavarnam Tu Devanam Rakta Varnam Vayabhaham 
Narashinho Vawet Devo Mokshadam Cha Prakrititam//19// 
Sankha Chakra Gada Kurma Sankho Yatra Pradisyate 
Sankha Varnaschya Devanaman Vame Devaschya Lakshanam//20// 
“Damodarm Tatha Sthulam Madhya Chakram Pratisthitam 
Purna Dwarena Sankrina Pita Rekha Cha Drischyate //21// 
“Chhatrakare Vabet Rajam Vartule Cha Mahasreeya 
Chipite Cha MahaDukham Sulagretu Ranam Dhrubam//22// 

A yellowish Shaligram is as auspicious as the Lord Himself (Pitambara) but a reddish Shaligram is considered to bring fearful situations and is dangerous to worship. The sacred symbols of Shankha (conch), Chakra (disc), Gada (club), and Kurma (tortoise) are printed on the Shaligram stones. Shaligram with a Shankha (conch) sign is considered to be Vamanrup (Vamandev) of Lord Vishnu, whereas chakra in the middle is considered as Damodar Shaligram. Shaligrams of different shapes; round, umbrella shape which has white lines are also available; worshipping this kind of Shaligram gives wealth and reputation in society. Flat shaped Shaligram creates sorrow in a family and Shaligram with sharp front side creates war, fighting, and tension in family. 

“Lalate Shesha Vogastu Siropari Sukanchanam 
Chakrakanchanavarnanam VamaDevaschya Lakshnam//23// 
Vamaparbe Cha Bai Cakre Krishna Varnas tu Pingalam 
Laxinarshimhadevanam Prithak Varnastu Drisyate//24// 

Shaligrams which have a chakra around the head or in the forehead but the rest of its parts are clean and smooth is considered very auspicious and this type is to be considered as Vamandev shila. Yellowish or black in left side with a chakra is considered as Lakshmi-Narshimha shila

Lamboste Cha Dalidram Syat Pingale Hani Revacha 
Lagna Cakre Vabet Baydhir Bidare Maranamdrubam//25// 

Worshipping a long shaped shila creates poverty, and Shaligram having lagna (rising) chakra create long term chronic diseases, even death. 

Padom Dakamcha Nirmalyam Mastake Dharayet Shada 
Visnor Dristam Vakshitabyam Tulsi Jal Misritam//26// 
Kalpa Koti Sahasrani Vaikunthe Basate Sada 
Saligram Sila Vinur Hatya Koti Vinasanam//27//
Any person who offers a Tulasi leaf while worshipping the Shaligram gets salvation and can stay at Vaikuntha (Heaven) for a million years. 

Tasmat Sampujayet Dhyatwa Pujitam Chapi Sarvada 
Saligram Silas Trotram Yah Pathecha Dijotam//28// 
Sa Gakshet Parmam Sthanam Yatra Lokeshworo Hari 
Sarva Pap Binir Muktwa Vishnu Lokam Sa Gashati//29//

Therefore always worship Shaligram, and chant Shaligram Stotra which is very beneficial for mankind. We can get one a higher position on Vishnu Lok (Vaikuntha) simply by doing so. All sins will also be destroyed and it is guaranteed that one gets to Vishnulok simply from this process of worshiping the Shaligram. 

Dusovataro Devanam Prithak Varnastu Disyate 
Ipsitam Labate Rajyam Vishnu Pooja Manukramat//30// 
Kotyohi Vramhahatyanamgamyagamya Kotaya 
Ta Sarva Nasamayamti Vishu Nai Vidya Vakshanat//31// 
Vishno Pador Dakam Pitwa Koti Janmaghanasanam 
Tasma Dasta Gunam Papam Ghumou Vindupatnat//32// 

There are various types of descriptions available for Lord Vishnu’s ten primary incarnations (Dasavatara) and also the Lord’s incarnation in Sri Shaligram’s worship, the Prayer to the Shaligram and drinking the Lord’s bathing water wash away sins of million lives and one gets great prosperity, wealth and reputation through this, so everyone everywhere the Shaligram should be worshiped. 

Iti Shree Vishotara Purane Shree Saligram Sila-stotram Sumpurnam!!..

Simple Puja

The most common and most basic form of Shaligram puja is the daily simple puja, which only requires that the devotee offer water, tulsi leaves (or flowers/fruit if none available), and a short prayer to the Shaligrams each day. In many cases, the simple puja is also favored among practitioners who travel or who are actively on pilgrimage since it is possible to bring one or two important Shaligrams along and to perform the puja as a kind of morning or evening prayer even under the most difficult circumstances. In many households today, simple puja is the standard, with more elaborate pujas performed on special occasions or at certain times of year.

As a corrective to modern concerns about the potential spiritual dangers of keeping Shaligrams, many gurus also now recommend the simple puja, elaborating that it is more important to give what an individual is capable of giving in order to keep Shaligrams in the home (and the tradition alive) than the alternative of never interacting with Shaligrams at all. In other words, as one of my teachers explained, “Shaligrams are not monsters. They are here for us, to help us. If simple puja is what you can offer. Offer that. The rest will come in time, when it is time.”

Sri Vaishnava Tradition

If a Shaligram is to be formally worshipped in a temple context of the Sri Vaishnava tradition, all the details of worship must be carefully observed. Additionally, Shaligrams are also often strung together in the form of a garland using metallic casings made of silver and placed on the moolavar – the Dhruva bera (main temple deity) deity in Vaishnava temples. (108 in number representing the nine planets comprising the 27 stars and its four navamsa divisions – 27×4 = 108). Large Shaligrams (typically the larger than a man’s hand) are also routinely made into iconographic murti (Lord Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, etc.) and worshipped in temples and Vaishnava mutts.

Depending on the religious tradition in question, the ritual protocols for Shaligram worship vary considerably. However, the most commonly referenced method of Shaligram puja comes from the Sri Vaishnava tradition, where there is a more standardized procedure for the every-day worship of Shaligrams for temples, mutts, and home shrines. Generally, Shaligrams are almost always worshipped using tulsi leaves. The Yagna (Yaga) Samskaram also prescribes procedures for the Bhagavad Aradhana (Aradhana is a method of worship, a Sanskrit word meaning an act of glorifying God or a person) of Sriman Narayana -Vishnu or His manifest form of Shaligrams.

There are two forms of Aradhana: Bahya (External) and Manasika (Internal). Shaligram puja in a temple context usually begins when the attendant pujari or brahmacharya initiates the Samskaram through Sanskrit verses. The following protocol is translated into English by Anand K. Karalapakkam:

“After Achamanam (sipping and swallowing water two or three times during which the twenty-four names of Vishnu are repeated), wearing Oordhvapundram, prostrating to the Lord (Sriman Narayana), sit in a seat. After pranayamam (yogic control of the vital breath), perform japam (repetition of Lord’s name) with Dhyana slokas (divine hymns-Ashtakshara, etc). Later, worship the Lord Sriman Narayana residing in one’s heart (Manasika Aradhana). Then with water from the vessel placed left of Sriman Narayana (Shaligram), sprinkle water on flowers and other materials for worship and vessels for arghyam (offering of rice, etc.), padyam (offering of water for washing the feet), etc. From water in an arghya vessel, sprinkle water on flowers etc. (for worship) and also on yourself.”

“After welcoming the Lord, offer arghyam, padyam; Achamaniam and give Abisheka (ritualistic bath). Then offer cloth, Yajno Pavitha (sacred thread), sandal paste, flower, incense, and light, in that order. Offer Achamana, honey and again Achamana. Later offer food comprising of pudding, rice, vegetables, water, pan-betel etc. After prostration, restoring status quo is the procedure of worship of Vishnu.”

Thus, the sishya (disciple) learn to perform Bhagavad Aradhana (prayer of the divine) to Sriman Narayana’s archa-avatara as a Shaligram. Additionally, since the food a Sri Vaishnava eats should only consist of the remnants of food offered to Sriman Narayan, Saligrama Aradhana is considered to be especially important. Additionally, among Sri Vaishnavas, the Saligrama Aradhana is typically performed only by the male members of the upper three varnas (Brahaman, Kshatriya and Vaishya). In this tradition, women are prohibited from touching or performing Aradhana of a Shaligram, though this prohibition is not universally shared. However, even in these cases, women have an important role of assisting the performance of the ritual by making the necessary preparations for the worship including cooking the food for offerings to the deity. Women may also be responsible for arrangements in terms of preparing food, gathering and making flower garlands, or gathering and directing the participants as the ritual progresses. In general, however, most practitioners consider the participation of the entire family in Shaligram puja to be vital to the health and prosperity of the household.

Shaiva Traditions

Protocols for puja as set out by ritual specialists at Pashupatinath Mandir (from principally Shaiva and Smarta traditions) in Kathmandu, Nepal incorporate a slightly different sequence: In Puja Vidhi, Shaligram is worshipped in the same way as one worships Lord Vishnu. Normally tulsi is used and also a conch shell (Shankh) is kept near the Shaligram. Daily worship with purity of heart and body is required to get full benefits from Shaligram. (Ref.: Shrimaddevi Bhagwat and Pashupatinath Mandir).

To perform puja of the Shaligram which you have selected to install in your altar of worship, you will need the following ‘samagri’ or ingredients: Ganga Jal (water from the Ganges River), Panchgavya (a mixture of 5 auspicious articles that include: cow dung, cow’s urine, milk, ghee and curd), fresh tulsi leaves, kusha grass, pipal leaves, incense sticks, camphor, sandal paste, a lamp burner, and a conch shell. You may substitute any item that is not available with uncooked rice. Offerings made to the Shaligram can also be of milk, fruits, flowers, sweet dishes or a coconut.


  1. Sit in a position in which you can face the East or North-East direction.
  2. Wash the Shaligram with Ganga Jal poured from the conch shell. Then wash it again with Panchgavya, and then wash it once more with Ganga Jal.
  3. Place some kusha grass in a stainless-steel glass filled with water to sprinkle over the Shaligram.
  4. Now, put the Shaligram on some pipal leaves placed on a plate. Light the camphor, incense sticks, and the lamp filled with ghee.
  5. Apply some sandal paste on the Shaligram and place some fresh tulsi leaves in front of the Shaligram.
  6. Light the lamp and move it in a circular, clockwise movement of the hand in front of the Shaligram.
  7. Chant the Shaligram mantra nine times. Other mantras may be substituted according to tradition.
  8. Offer milk, fruits or sweets to the Shaligram. Offer some money and then give that money to a poor person.

If you are worshiping more than one Shaligram, make sure they are in even numbers. This means that you should have either two, four or six Shaligrams. Place a tulsi mala (garland) around them or offer fresh tulsi leaves everywhere. It is important to remember that even the water that has touched the Shaligram becomes ‘amrit’ (holy water), while you are bathing it, it takes on the properties of the Shaligram. If you drink this water, it is said to bring relief from various physical ailments and poor health.

Because each specific Shaligram is read and interpreted in different ways, most Shaligram practitioners consider it essential that a Shaligram be properly examined and identified before they are taken for worship. Characteristics of particular focus are the shape and color of the Shaligram, the number and location of chakra marks, the type of lines or grooves that are present in the crevices and fissures, or any other distinctive feature which may indicate the deity’s ultimate identity. (To wit: reading and interpreting Shaligrams is the subject of my next planned book).

Smarta Traditions and Panchayatana Puja

In Smarta Traditions, the practice of Panchayatana Puja consists of the worship of five deities set in a five-point cross pattern. As a rule, these five deities are Shiva, Vishnu, Devi or Durga, Surya, and an Ishta Devata (a term meaning one’s favorite or tutelary deity) such as GaneshaSkanda, or another god specific to the devotee’s practice. On rare occasions, an Ishta Devata may also be included as a sixth deity in the puja.

In Shaligram Panchayatana Puja, Shiva is often represented as a Linga stone from the Narmada river in India, the Devi/Shakti using a Srichakra (a Mandala-shaped quartz crystal or coin), and Ganesh, Vishnu, and Surya as Shaligrams. As per the tradition, any one of the represented deities can be placed in the center as the main or presiding deity. This deity is then the one who generally occupies a central role in the worship of the household and for whom the rest of the deities will be arranged around them (as is also mirrored in temple architecture from Odisha to Karnataka to Kashmir; and the temples containing fusion deities such as Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu)).

Theologically, the Smarta tradition emphasizes that all murti are icons of saguna Brahman, a means to realizing the abstract Ultimate Reality called nirguna Brahman. The five or six icons are then viewed by Smartas as multiple representations of the one saguna Brahman (meaning a personal God with material form), rather than as distinct beings in and of themselves. The ultimate goal in this practice is to transition past the use of icons, then follow a philosophical and meditative path to understanding the oneness of Atman (soul, self) and Brahman as infinite and immaterial.

Gaudiya Vaishnava and Hare Krishna Traditions

Finally, Sri Padmanabha Goswami’s “Śālagrāma-śila” (1993) details the puja sequence more common in the Gaudiya Vaishnava and Hare Krishna traditions. He begins by explaining that the worship of Shaligram is not different than the worship of any other installed deity and in any case where reverence or respect to a deity would be performed, so must it be performed for Shaligram, with individual attention paid to each shila present. He then goes on to say that the worship of Shaligrams should be “conducted in accordance with Purus͎a-sukta.” (1993: 32). If a devotee wishes to adorn a Shaligram with ornaments, this is acceptable but that an offering of rice should never be made (in contrast with the Sri Vaishnava tradition mentioned previously).

Women are allowed to worship Shaligrams openly in these traditions but should refrain from doing so during menstruation and finally, that the specific mantras one should recite vary depending on the Scriptural texts used and should be whatever mantras are most well-known to the initiated Vaishnava.

The sequence for puja and the offering of five items; gandha, pus͎pa, dhūpa, dipa, and naivedya (tulsi is always required) or sixteen items then commences as so (additional descriptions for each piece of the sequence given in the text, pgs. 33-39):

  1. Wake the Lord
  2. After the Lord has risen, chant idam pus͎panjali samarpayami and offer flowers.
  3. Asana (a seated posture) – while offering asana, chant idam asanam samarpayami
  4. Svagata (welcome) – while offering svagata, chant susvagatam, susvagatam
  5. Padya (poem, verse) – while offering padya, chant idam padyam samarpayami
  6. Arghya (libation) – while offering arghya, chant idam arghyam samarpayami
  7. Acamana (sipping water) – while offering acamana, chant idam acamaniyam samarpayami
  8. Madhuparka (honey and milk) – while offering madhuparka, chant idam madhuparka samarpayami
  9. Punaracamana (sipping water again) – while offering punaracamana, chant idam punaracamaniyam samarpayami
  10. Snana (bathing) – while offering snana, chant idam snaniyam samarpayami
  11. Vastra (clothing, or a cloth) – while offering vastra, chant idam vastram samarpayami
  12. Upavita (sacred thread) – while offering upavita, chant idam upavitam samarpayami
  13. Abhushana (ornaments, embellishments) – while offering abhushana, chant idam abhushanam samarpayami
  14. Gandha (fragrance) – while offering gandha, chant idam gandham samarpayami
  15. Tulasi (tulsi leaves) – while offering tulasi, chant idam tulasim samarpayami
  16. Pus͎pa (flowers) – while offering pus͎pa, chant idam pus͎pam samarpayami
  17. Dhupa (incense) – while offering dhupa, chant idam dhupam samarpayami
  18. Dipa (lamp) – while offering dipa, chant idam dipam samarpayami
  19. Naivedya (an offering to God; i.e., a promise, a willingness, etc.) – while offering naivedya, chant idam naivedyam samarpayami

Incidentally, he also mentions that the mantra: om yajneshvaraya yajnasabhavaya yajnapataye govindaya namo namah from Hari-bhakti-vilasa (15/530) also suffices for all steps from padya to dipa.


A Shaligram is Born – Part 1

Witnessing the appearance of a Shaligram stone within the Kali Gandaki river is to, quite literally, witness its birth. Formed in the womb of the mountains (the Himalayas) and then brought into the world through the flow of the river Gandaki, Shaligrams are self-manifest as deities in ways quite unlike many of the other murti common throughout Hinduism, Buddhism, and Bon.

Previously, I have written at some length on the ways in which Shaligrams recreate cycles of karmic birth, death, and rebirth as well as how they continue to live literal lives with their human kin as members of the family and of the community. But as of yet, I have not written quite so extensively on the birth of Shaligrams such as takes place in the Muktinath Valley of Mustang, Nepal. For this reason, I am happy to do so here but I find it best to describe the births of Shaligram through two separate but related approaches. Therefore, my plan is to describe the process of Shaligram birth in two parts. The first part here will detail the story of Vrinda/Tulsi and Vishnu so as to convey the Scriptural foundations that underly the event of Shaligram’s appearance. The second part, to be posted later on, will discuss the methods of preparing a Shaligram to return home following pilgrimage so as to draw concrete links between the sacred contexts of Shaligram veneration and the actual practices devotees most commonly carry out.

The Water and the Mountain

According to the Varaha Purana (12th c. CE) some Shaligram stones come from the water (jalaja) while others come from the mountain-side (sthalaja). In common parlance, Shaligram devotees occasionally refer to these two categories as either water-born (jal) Shaligrams or mountain-born (kshetra) Shaligrams. In practice, “mountain Shaligrams” are the term typically given to the reddish-orange, raw, ammonite fossils which can be found slowly sliding down the river valley walls on their way into the Kali Gandaki River below. While many of these fossils can be easily obtained by walking the narrow village paths throughout the Baragaon, few, if any, Shaligram pilgrims ever actually seek them out and I never encountered any such fossils in the home altars or puja trays of active practitioners. Though they often agreed that such stones were holy and acknowledged that kshetra Shaligrams were included in the scriptural texts, I did not encounter a single religious use of such stones at any point in the years I have worked with Shaligram devotees. Only the smooth, black, formations of Shaligrams born out of the river are usually ever accepted for ritual use.

Besides the Shaligram origin accounts detailed in Puranic texts (mainly the Brahma Vaivarta, Agni, Padma, Garuda, Nrsimha, Skanda, Brahma, and Brahmanda Puranas), Shaligrams are also mentioned in a wide variety of other Hindu works (many of which are later commentaries or compilations of Puranic texts): the Shalagrama-mahatmya of the Gautamiya Tantra, the Shalagrama-pariksha in the Magh-mahatmya section of the Padma Purana, the Puja-prayoga, the Haribhaktivilasa of the Gopal Bhat͎t͎a, the Shalagramarcana-candrika, the Puja-pankaja-bhaskara, the Shalagrama-mimamsa of Somanatha-vyasa, the Shalagrama-lakshan͎a-panjika, the Shalagrama-pariksha of Anupa-simha, the Shalagrama-mula-lakshana-paddhati, the Shalagrama-shila-parikshana-paddhati, and an entire section of the Vaishnavanidhi chapter in Maharaj Krishnaraj Wodeyar III of Mysore’s Sri-tattva-nidhi. Many of these later texts advocate for the worship of Shaligrams as a method for obtaining material benefits such as great wealth, numerous children, success in business ventures, healthy herds of cattle, and a long and healthy life.

Some Hindu theologians, however, view Shaligram veneration as a “kamya,” an optional form of ritual worship based on the desires of the practitioners in question and therefore not obligatory for all Hindus. While this concept is largely shared among the attitudes of current Shaligram devotees (that the practice is optional), few, if any, view the ritual worship of Shaligrams as specific to desires for material goods. Rather, the worship of Shaligrams is more commonly associated with religious tradition, family history, and movement across sacred landscapes than the fulfillment of any specific day to day desire. Shaligram devotees therefore tend to follow the approach of the Skanda Purana which advocates Shaligram worship for anyone wishing to perform service or austerities as a way of entering into a relationship with the divine. And it is here that our story begins.

Tulsi and Shaligram

As related in the Padma Purana, there was once a massive and deeply destructive battle that took place between Lord Shiva and the demon Jalandhar. This battle raged on for several days, neither Shiva nor the demon showing any signs of winning due, in this version of the story, to the power of Jalandhar’s pious wife Brinda. In the Vishnu Purana, Shiva then requested help from Lord Vishnu. As the battle between the demon and Shiva continued, Vishnu took on a duplicate form of Jalandhar and went to Brinda’s home. Subsequently, as Vishnu broke Brinda’s long-held chastity while in the duplicate form of her husband Jalandhar, Brinda’s power, her pativrata or sati dharma, was unable to protect her husband and Shiva was finally able to kill Jalandhar in the battle. As a result of this, Brinda became very angry and cursed Vishnu to take the form of a stone, of grass, and of a tree. It is for this reason then that Vishnu came down to earth to become Shaligram (stone), kush (holy grass), and the Pipal tree.

In the Padma Purana, the events have a slightly different outcome but the course of the narrative is not particularly divergent. In this account, Vishnu is actually infatuated with Brinda and, because of this, the gods Agni, Brahma, and Shiva decide to approach Maya, the divine manifestation of illusion and concealment. Maya, in turn, directs them to three of her representatives: Gauri (rajas), Lakshmi (sattva), and Svadha (tamas) who give the gods three seeds with instructions to sow them in the place where Vishnu dwells. When the seeds were sown, three plants sprouted: dhatri (Umblica officialis), malati (Linum usitatissimum), and tulasi (Ocimum sanctum). These three plants were then considered aspects (amshas) of Svadha, Lakshmi, and Gauri respectively but it is otherwise unclear precisely what this variation has to do with the origins of Shaligrams other than to emphasize that Shaligram and tulsi plants are strongly associated in worship.

In the Brahma Vaivarta Purana version of this story (and in 9th skanda of the Devibhagavata), the part of Brinda is actually subsumed by the goddess Tulasi (tulsi). This account explains that there was once a daughter of King Dharmadhvaja and his queen Madhavi who was both a beautiful princess and an incarnation of the hladhini-shakti, the internal pleasure potency and creative power of the universe (and specifically of the Godhead). When this daughter was born, she was said to have been marked with unusual good fortune and as she matured into an exquisitely beautiful young woman, she never appeared to age beyond sixteen years. As the manifestation of universal divine qualities and blessed with incomparable beauty, she was thus called Tulasi (meaning: matchless). Accordingly, when Vishnu then wanted to perform his lilas (sacred past-times) on earth, he was obliged to do so only in the association of his personal potencies; the potency in this case being that of Vishnu’s divine pleasure (hladhini) called Tulasi. (In the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, this particular manifestation is taken over by Sri Krishna and his hladhini who is manifest as his consort Srimati Radharani, who is also the goddess of fortune).

When Vishnu (or Krishna) then descend into the mundane world as avatara to perform their past-times or undertake acts of heroism, their hladhini manifests along with them. In many Hindu traditions, these expansions that accompany the avatars of Vishnu are sometimes called Lakshmis and the princess Tulasi who was born as the daughter of King Dharmadhvaja and Queen Madhavi is also considered an incarnation of Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu and the principal goddess of fortune. Finally, in the Devibhagavata, it is noted that Tulasi’s incarnation on earth is actually due to the jealousy of Radha (Krishna’s principal consort) who became very angry with Tulasi while in Goloka (the Vaishnava paradise) because Krishna had become overly fond of her (non-Puranic accounts sometimes explain that it is Lakshmi who curses Tulasi to become a plant because Tulasi longs to have Vishnu as her husband. Vishnu then joins with Tulasi as a Shaligram stone).

As the story continues in the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, it is by the machinations of the karmic cycle that Tulasi is wedded to Sankhacuda, a powerful demon (subsuming here the role of Jalandhar). As fate would have it, Sankhacuda had also received an earlier boon from Lord Brahma to obtain Tulasi as his wife and, having done so, would remain undefeated in battle as long as she remained chaste to him. Taking full advantage of Brahma’s boon, Sankhacuda began to terrorize the world and all the demigods as he desired to do. Being severely afflicted by his attacks, the demigods then approached Shiva for protection. Shiva himself then went to fight with Sankhacuda, but due to Tulasi’s faithfulness, Shiva was unable to kill him regardless of what he tried. The demigods then fell into despair but Vishnu (naturally) devised a plan to spoil Tulasi and render the demon vulnerable. While Shiva continued to engage Sankhacuda in combat, Vishnu went to the both of them first in the guise of a brahmana to beg charity from Sankhacuda. Standing before Sankhacuda, the brahmana requested, “My dear Sankhacuda, famous throughout the three worlds as the giver of whatever one desires, please give me your kavaca (armor) in charity.” Knowing that it was the chastity of his wife, Tulasi, that protected him, Sankhacuda unhesitatingly gave the brahmana his armor in charity and resumed his fight with Shiva.

Now dressed in Sankhacuda’s armor, Vishnu went immediately to the palace where Tulasi was waiting news of the battle’s outcome. Thinking that her husband had returned from the fight to regain his strength, Tulasi welcomed him to the bed chamber for a rest. Thus, the night passed and the faithfulness of Tulasi was broken by Vishnu’s deceit, and at that moment Sankhacuda was slain by Shiva in the battle that had also continued throughout the night. When Tulasi realized that the Sankhacuda she had slept with was actually Vishnu and not her husband and that Sankhacuda had been killed by Shiva, Tulasi levied her curse against Vishnu: “By deceiving me, you have broken my chastity and killed my husband. Only one whose heart is like stone could do such a thing. Thus, I curse you to remain on earth as a stone!”

Accepting Tulasi’s curse, Vishnu replied, “For many years you underwent very difficult penances to achieve me as your husband. At the same time, Sankhacuda also performed penances to get you as his wife. As a result of a boon from Lord Brahma, the desire of Sankhacuda was fulfilled. Now that Sankhacuda has left this mortal world and gone to the spiritual world, your desire to have me as your husband will be fulfilled. Give up this body, and let your spirit be merged in Lakshmi’s, so that I am always with you. This body of yours will be transformed into a river, which will become sacred and celebrated as Gandaki, and from your beautiful hair will grow millions of small trees that will be known as Tulasi. These trees will be held sacred by all my devotees. Furthermore, to fulfill your curse, I will become many stones (shaligram shilas) and will always live on the banks of the Gandaki River. Thus, Tulasi was transformed and appeared as both the Gandaki River and as the sacred plant tulsi. Vishnu then came into the world as Shaligram, born in the waters and on the banks of the Gandaki. At this point, the Brahma Vaivarta Purana also mentions that Sankhacuda, though a demon in his last manifestation, was also an eternal associate of Krishna by the name of Sudama who manifested in the world as a demon so as to assist these events in coming about.

In most cases, the popularity of this version of the story owes its fame to the Marriage of Tulsi and Shaligram (Tulsi Vivah), a festival that takes place throughout India and Nepal on the eleventh lunar day of the Hindu month of Kartik (October/November). What all three variations of this story provide, however, is the links between the chastity-deceit-curse version of the Shaligram story and the literal and metaphorical birth of Shaligrams out of the landscape. To some degree, the variability in the story likely has to do with narrative blending in both Vaishnava and Shaiva traditions of Shaligrams veneration where both Vishnu and Shiva are said to play distinctly important roles in the formation of the Kali Gandaki River and of the Shaligrams within it. Furthermore, for many Shaiva and Smarta Shaligram practitioners, the implicit association of Shaligrams directly with Vishnu is not always accepted, noting for example the many instances where Shiva mentions the worship of Shaligrams in the Skanda Purana or the particular quote in the Padma Purana where Shiva himself states:

My devotees who offer obeisances to the shalagrama even negligently become fearless. Those who adore me while making a distinction between myself and Lord Hari will become free from this offence by offering obeisances to shalagrama. Those who think themselves as my devotees, but who are proud and do not offer obeisances to my Lord Vasudeva, are actually sinful and not my devotees. O my son, I always reside in the shalagrama. Being pleased with my devotion the Lord has given me a residence in His personal abode. Giving a shalagrama, is the best form of charity, being equal to the result of donating the entire earth together with its forests, mountains, and all.

For Vaishnavas (particularly Gaudiya Vaishnavas), there is an additional reference to offering Tulasi leaves to Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (9.26):

patram puspam phalam toyam yo me bhaktya prayacchati
tad aham bhakty-upahrtamasnami prayatatmanah

(If my devotee offers me with devotion, a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, I will accept it).

According to several current Vaishnava acaryas (spiritual masters), the patram (leaf) mentioned in this verse particularly refers to the tulsi leaf. Tulsi leaves are also mentioned in the Garuda Purana and in the Brhan-naradiya Purana, which state that the worship of Vishnu without tulsi leaves is incomplete and is unlikely to be accepted by Vishnu as proper veneration: “Without Tulasi, anything done in the way of worship, bathing, and offering of food and drink to Vishnu (Krishna) cannot be considered real worship, bathing, or offering. Vishnu does not accept any worship or eat or drink anything that is without Tulasi.”

A Mountain Shaligram (kshetra) on the left. A River Shaligram (jal) on the right.
A Shaligram is born from the river! (Sudarshan Shaligram)

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

Time and Writing: Reflections on Shaligrams and Knowledge-Making

I am exceptionally pleased that, as of the end of November, my manuscript on Shaligram pilgrimage and practices was officially complete. It’s six chapters long, nearly 320 pages, and contains virtually all the learning, knowledge, and experiences I have had with Shaligrams and Shaligram practitioners over the past five years. Over the weeks of December, it was in review with my doctoral committee members and with a few other research participants concerned with the accuracy of the material. And now, it’s back! And with the New Year finally here, I am ready to sit down and hash out the details and nuances of revision in preparation for my defense in (hopefully) a few months.

This also, of course, begins what is usually the hardest part of manuscript editing: ensuring that I have properly engaged with previous literatures in my field. For those of you who are not as well versed in academic writing, any piece of social science research work must, at least to some degree, refer to and position itself within previous works in the same field. For me, this means that I must not only talk about and analyze other ethnographies of the Himalayas, India, and Nepal but I need to be able to articulate how my work with Shaligrams relates to theories in anthropology that deal with time, space, nationalism, kinship, and religion. In the end, it means that there are likely to be sections of the finished book that are written in terms of their “political positioning” within anthropology rather than by what I want the chapter to actually say about the silas. It’s a delicate balancing act: writing for an academic audience in my field while keeping the work accessible to all those who have participated in its creation in the first place (and who are looking forward to reading it).

Regardless, I remain humbled by the journey. Since beginning this work in India in 2012, I have had the great privilege to travel all across Northern India and into Nepal to spend over a year in the Kali Gandaki region as a student of pilgrimage, of Muktinath, and of the Shaligrams themselves. Now, what remains, is to do justice to everything that has come before in a narrative that I can only accept will have to be, by its nature, incomplete. There is simply too much to say for one book, or perhaps even for one lifetime.

But it also means that the end is in sight for this particular part of the project. I have no doubt that Shaligram practices will continue to be a major part of my ongoing work and that I will be returning to Nepal and to India in the future as I expand this research further. But for the time being, my focus is going to be on getting this manuscript finished and getting myself settled into the academic world (i.e., getting a job) so that I might finally have a position of relative stability from which to continue. Sadly, this kind of research requires a fair amount of funding as well as academic and community support.

I think, though, that the time has finally come for me to get this work out there and to do everything that I can to ensure that as many people as possible can access it. You’ve all been waiting so very patiently and I can’t thank you enough.

Happy Wednesday and Happy New Year. May love, light, and illumination follow you through all of your days.

Shaligram in the River