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

ANNOUNCEMENT: A New Blog!

I’m starting a new blog but don’t worry, I can explain!

As the readership of my Peregrinations blog has grown, it has become clear to me that the content of this blog should primarily focus on my ethnographic work, on Shaligram research, and on my continued relationships with the Hindu and South Asian community. In other words, it has come to my attention that the readership of Peregrinations is, aside from friends and family, almost exclusively Shaligram or pilgrimage based and, as such, some of my more general, political, or media oriented commentaries aren’t fitting to the readers.

Therefore, I am splitting my online writing into two sites. Peregrinations will now focus completely on my anthropological and ethnographic work. I will continue to post about my publications, my research, Shaligram discussions, my work in Nepal and India, and so on right here. However, my new blog, Mocking the Apocalypse, will now focus on the particularly political, social, religious, media, and popular culture discussions I tend to engage in otherwise.

So, if you like my writing, feel free to follow both. But you’ll have to catch my more controversial arguments at www.mockingtheapocalypse.com.

Cheers,
JF

A Guide to Getting There: Planning Shaligram Pilgrimage in Nepal

Planning a pilgrimage to the Kali Gandaki can be exceptionally tricky if you are unfamiliar with the region or with traveling in Nepal in general. But because the most common questions I get tend to relate to the logistics of actually going on Shaligram pilgrimage, I’ve compiled a handy short list of considerations below. Think of this as the first part of a brief “Guide to Getting There.”

Total travel days: Between 7 – 10

Total days searching for Shaligrams: 3 – 4 (with trip to Muktinath included)

1. If possible, arrange your travel to Mustang (where the Kali Gandaki flows) prior to arriving in Kathmandu. This can be done through a Nepali travel agent or trekking company easily enough and if anyone is especially interested, feel free to comment on this post for more information.

2. If you are arranging travel to Mustang after you arrive in Kathmandu, you should start with air tickets. From Kathmandu, you must fly first to Pokhara and then to Jomsom, where the pilgrimage route begins. I highly recommend doing this with either Tara Air or Buddha Air as they are the most reliable and are not as prone to random cancellations as some of the other airlines are (you will have to walk or take a taxi to the local ticket office to purchase tickets).

The second thing to keep in mind is that these flights tend to only go early in the mornings (due to weather) so you will likely need to plan for at least two days of travel to get to Mustang. Additionally, if you are traveling during monsoon, expect delays and cancellations (some which can run several days at a time during the height of the rains). PLEASE NOTE! Do not anticipate being able to get from Kathmandu to Jomsom on the same day. While theoretically possible if all your flights work out, it is more likely you will end up with at least one day in Pokhara.

If you plan to travel to Mustang by jeep or bus (from either Kathmandu or Pokhara), you can do so from any one of the many bus or jeep stations in either city. Private jeeps are expensive though, and can run a few hundred dollars (US) for the entire trip, which can be anywhere from 7 – 9 hours or up to 14 hours by bus. Buses are cheap however, and can get you to Jomsom for about $14 dollars (US).

3. Remember that you will need to get two permits to access Mustang, the TIMS permit and the ACAP permit. Both of these permits are available from the Immigration Office in Kathmandu or at the Immigration and Trekking Counter in Pokhara. The total fee is around $25.

4. The final altitude for reaching Muktinath is over 4000 meters. At this altitude, you will acutely notice the thinness of the air and, depending on your personal make-up, you may find it difficult to breathe or that you are tiring easily. This is to be expected, which is why it is important to plan at least a few extra days in case of altitude sickness or travel delays. If you are able, stop by any one of the many pharmacies in Kathmandu or Pokhara for a couple of doses of mountain medications to keep on hand I would recommend it. Just in case. Additionally, if possible, plan for at least one over-night in Jomsom. The elevation between Kathmandu and Jomsom is reasonably extreme (Jomsom is at around 3,100 meters), so if you are not sure how you will react to the altitude, be sure to give yourself enough time to acclimate.

5. It is possible to find Shaligrams in the Kali Gandaki just north of Jomsom. If you are prepared to trek, you can leave Jomsom early in the morning and follow the route of the Kali Gandaki towards Kagbeni village. Kagbeni is about 2 – 3 hours walk north if you follow the road straight but many pilgrims use this opportunity to find Shaligrams in the river as they go. If you choose to do this, plan for around 4 – 5 hours of walking to reach Kagbeni. Otherwise, you can either stay in Jomsom and look for Shaligrams north of the town (on the far side of the river, past the jeep stand and main gompa) or take a bus (in the morning only) to Kagbeni and stay there while looking for Shaligrams. Either place works, though I have noticed that the quality of the Shaligrams I have found outside of Kagbeni tends to be better than outside of Jomsom.

6. Lodging in Mustang is fairly easy to come by. There are guesthouses and trekking lodges throughout Jomsom and Kagbeni (as well as near Muktinath) that offer reasonable rooms and meals (around $15 a night in Jomsom, $8 – $10 a night in Kagbeni and Muktinath). If you have specific dietary restrictions, however, you may have to plan ahead before you arrive. Most guesthouses have vegetarian or Vaishnava food available but the kitchens are not separated from the preparation of trekking meals. This means that meat, eggs, and other animals products are prepared on the same premises as everything else. There are a few houses and dharamsalas that specifically cater only to pilgrims here and there but you will likely need the help of a local travel agent to help you book them. If all else fails, consider bringing some prepared food with you before you leave.

7. Guide services are generally not necessary unless you plan to do more extensive trekking in the Annapurna region, such as the Thorong La Pass. If you are just planning on Shaligram pilgrimage (Jomsom to Kali Gandaki to Muktinath and then back to Jomsom), you won’t need a full mountain guide.

8. Finding Shaligrams in the river can be tricky but it’s not impossible. For most people, even on their first pilgrimages, they are able to find between 6 and 10 Shaligrams over the course of a few hours. The best advice I can offer is to focus on areas of the river where the water has recently passed. This means along the edges of the streams that flow through the main river bed as well as along the rocky areas where the water has recently moved over. Shaligrams will have a distinct inky black color in the water (or when wet) that helps pick them out from the surrounding silt.

9. The typical pilgrimage route is from Jomsom to Kagbeni (1 day), Kagbeni to Muktinath (1 or 2 days), Muktinath to Jomsom (1 day – with flight or bus leaving the following day). For this reason, try to plan at least 4 or 5 days in Mustang aside from 2 days to get to Jomsom and 2 days to get back to Kathmandu.

10. If you are traveling to Kali Gandaki during the summer months (June, July, August) the weather tends to be fairly mild: 10 – 12 C (50 F) during the day, 5 – 7 C (40 F) at night. During the fall and winter, however, it can get quite cold in the Himalayas. Always look up the expected temperatures for Mustang before you plan on arriving so that you can be sure to pack warm enough clothes.

Ok, anything I forgot?

Shaligram Seminars in Stoke-on-Trent, Courtesy of the Hindu Cultural Society of Staffordshire

In April of this year, shortly after leaving Nepal, I had the distinct pleasure to conduct a two-day Shaligram seminar for the Hindu Cultural Society of Staffordshire in Stoke-on-Trent, England. They were also kind enough to film the seminar and, though some parts of the workshop portion of it is difficult to see on the video, you can view the entire talk at the links included below.

Shaligram Practices: Day 1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nD-qaIKGD0

Shaligram Practices and Identification Workshop: Day 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8U6xsnMYMU

Shaligram Workshop – April 27 2017
Madhusūdana Shaligram Presiding

Red + Blue = Purple (Bruises)

A few passing thoughts on the current state of things.

One of the tests of academic criticism is, I think, coming to an understanding that your work is not entirely your own. I don’t mean acts of plagiarism, but that, in all things, you must conform to the standards and expectations of your time. There is an irony in this, of course, as tends to be the case in anthropology; that we critique those who came before us as products of their respective times, but are unwilling or unable to break the mold of our own historical moments. Assuming that we can, of course (many would say not). But we recoil at the very thought, don’t we? Lest we be seen as irrelevant, out of touch, or “fluffy.” It’s an oddly functionalist approach to post-modern, or ostensibly post-modern, social science.

I’m sure this comes across as somewhat overly ponderous for mid-afternoon musings on the third re-write and revision of a four-page dissertation description (for a grant application, as it almost always is), but it got me to thinking about a division I have in my life between my academic endeavors (read: dissertation) and my creative endeavors (sculpture, writing, etc.). In short, I finally came to truly accept that, in the end, my dissertation will never be entirely mine. Rather, it is a chimera of committee and colleague feedback and recommendations, a formulation of scholarship before (a theoretical foundation) and scholarship right now (a conversation), a foregrounding of the voices and experiences of my research participants without whom none of this would be possible, and a little bit of my own experiences and observations. It won’t say all of what I want it to say in the ways that I want it to say it, in the hopes that it will say all that it needs to say and to the right people. In truly coming to terms with this, I realize the need for creativity and for activism. Only there are we king.

When you express yourself in writing or in art or in protest, it says what you want it to say and in the ways that you want to say it. It all comes back down to the same thing over and over again, doesn’t it? Having a voice. One’s own voice. And in the end, it doesn’t even necessarily matter all that much if anyone else is listening, you just don’t want anyone else to have a say in the expression. Ignore me if you like, but don’t change my words.

This might, under some circumstances, come across as a rejection of criticism entirely (and I can understand now a little better those for whom that is the case) but it isn’t. It’s about a deep and visceral desire to keep or discard criticism arbitrarily, at will. But without mastery, or the appearance of mastery (admiration), I’m afraid that only the rarest among us will ever truly get to experience that kind of voice. Public space, you see, always carries a price. The social is economic, as some might argue.

But for those of you who have been watching the last week or so unfold in America, you know that right now, a voice is more important than ever. Trump and his ban on Muslim-majority refugees and non-citizen residents (green card or not). Protests fomenting at major airports and the federal stay. Bills to attack LGBTQ rights on the nonsense grounds of religious freedom to practice/discriminate. Tariffs and taxes to pay for a wall on the US-Mexico border (despite dangers to trade, wildlife, and commerce), executive orders to attack abortion access and reproductive choice, and the looming threat of healthcare repeal. Antagonism of China. Israel pushing forward with illegal settlements, and it’s just the first week of an administration that is already desperately unpopular. The U.S. is gearing up for war; it’s just a question of against who and when. Our own citizens or someone else’s.

In the coming days, I anticipate that more marches will build more momentum, the Republican controlled administration will double-down harder, supporters and dissidents will become more polarized. There will be no “listening,” because the lines in the sand have already been drawn. There is no compromise to be made on choice or no-choice, equality or inequality, rights exercised or rights silenced. A forest fire is coming, and many of the trees will burn. What remains to be seen is what is left and where the new growth will begin.

In the end, though, we had this coming. We gave too much ground to ideology, compromised our own positions when our opponents and adversaries compromised none. A thoughtful revolution questioned itself into obscurity, wondering if the water was hot enough yet or whether or not it was the frog or the pot. We became too post-modern to criticize and as a result, we stopped saying the things we needed to say in the ways that we needed to say them. There have never been two sides to every story, but soon the fires of revisionist history will have you believing that there was only one. We live in a frightened and angry time. But we can never forget, that what comes after, won’t belong entirely to any of us.

Spotlight: Narasimha Shaligram

Description:

As described in the Lakshmi-Narasimha Shaligram, Narasimha, or conversely Narsimha or Narsingh, is an avatar of Vishnu or Krishna who is considered to be the supreme God in certain traditions of Vaishnavism but is also a popular deity in Hinduism more generally. Narasimha commonly appears in early Hindu epics, iconography, and temple and festival worship and dates back to well over a millennium. Narasiṃha’s appearance is particularly distinctive, usually depicted as having a human torso and lower body with the head and arms of a lion. Narasimha is also colloquially referred to as the god of “in-betweens” given his most famous appearance as the ‘Great Protector’ of the devotee Prahlada or as the protector of all devotees in their times of need. For example, when Narasimha appeared to destroy the demon king Hiranyakashipu, he did so in such a way as to circumvent the demon’s boon not to be killed by any living being created by Brahma, not to be killed at night or by day, on the ground or in the sky, nor by any weapon, human, or animal. Narasimha thus appears as the blending of a man and a lion, at twilight, at the threshold of the courtyard, places Hiranyakshipu on his thighs, and disembowels him with his claws.

The general distinction between the Narasimha Shaligram and its more common counterpart, the Lakshmi-Narasimha Shaligram is in the presence of a “mouth” and “teeth” but without the inclusion of the two visible internal chakra-spirals.

For the most part, Narasimha Shaligrams are sought after for their highly protective qualities. As manifestations of Narasimha, the god who defends his devotees in their times of greatest need, Narasimha Shaligrams are said to bestow protection from theft or the influences of evil or impure persons. These Shaligrams are also said to aid in the healing of mental illnesses, especially anxiety and phobias, and to restore spiritual balance to persons caught in chaotic home situations. In some cases, Narasimha Shaligrams are also included in daily puja rituals for the sake of obtaining divine guidance before undertaking an especially challenging endeavor related to household or marital harmony.

In some Shaiva traditions, this Shaligram is interpreted as the deity Bhairava, a fierce and terrifying manifestation of Shiva associated with annihilation.

Vedic References: Praanatoshani Tantra pg. 347-348, Skanda Purana, Nagarekhanda, 244: 3-9, Brahmavaivartta (Prakritikhanda, Ch. 21), Garuda Purana (Panchanan Tarkaratna, Part 1, Ch. 45), Agni Purana; Bengavasi ed., Panchanan Tarkaratna, Saka 1812, Ch. 46

Vedic Description:

Large opening with two circular marks, glittering to look at (BV).

Mark of a mace at center, circular mark in lower middle, upper middle portion comparatively bigger (G).

(i) With a big opening and two circular marks.
(ii) With a long opening and linear marks resembling the mane of a lion, and also with two circular marks.
(iii) Marked with three dot-prints other things being the same as above.
(iv) Uneven in shape with a mixed reddish colour, having two big circular marks above it, and a crack at the front.
(v) Reddish in colour and printed with several teeth like marks, three or five dot-marks and a big circular mark.
(vi) With a big opening, a vanamala and two circular marks. This type is popularly known as Lakshminrisimha.
(vii) Black in colour with dot marks all over his body and two circular marks on His left side. This also is a variety of the Lakshminrisimha sub-type.
(viii) Printed with a lotus mark on His left side. This also is a sub-type of Lakshminrisimha.
(ix) When any of the above types of Narasimha is marked with five dot prints He is popularly called Kapilanrisimha.
(x) Printed with seven circular marks and golden dots and also having openings on all sides. This type is called Sarvotmukhanrisimha.
(xi) Variegated in colour, having many openings including a large one and marked with many circular prints. This type is popularly called Paataalanrisimha.
(xii) With two circular marks inside the main opening and eight others on His sides. This also is a variety of Paataalanrisimha.
(xiii) Aakaashanrisimha: With a comparatively high top and a big opening and also printed with circular marks.
(xiv) Jihvaanrisimha: Big in size, with two openings and two circular marks. He being the giver of poverty, His worship is forbidden.
(xv) Raakshasanrisimha: With a fierce opening and holes, and also marked with golden spots. His worship also is forbidden.
(xvi) Adhomukhanrisimha: With three circular marks one at the top and two on the sides, having His opening at the bottom.
(xvii) Jvaalaanrisimha: Marked with two circular prints and a vanamala, and having a small opening.
(xviii) Mahaanrisimha: Printed with two big circular marks and a few other linear marks one above the other. (P)

 

Narasimha Shaligram