The second of the six main identifying characteristics in Shaligram interpretive practice is shape. I realize that this might, at least initially, seem relatively self-explanatory but shape, like set and color, is as complex as any other trait. The Puranas, especially, have a wide variety of potential shapes that Shaligrams might appear in. They range from the simple, such as round or triangular, to esoteric, such as cow-shaped, fish-shaped, umbrella-shaped, and layered (meaning that the Shaligram has multiple stacked surfaces).
Shape can also refer to the variety of bumps, rises, and indentations on the body of the Shaligram that form its “markings.” I’ll go into markings more in-depth in another post later but what should suffice to say for now is that shapes that appear in various places on a Shaligram also add nuance to its identification. The most common of these shape-markings are referred to in the texts as “arrows/bows,” “the neck of a peacock,” “gada,” “conch,” and “lotus.” As such, using shape as a characteristic of identifying a Shaligram includes both the overall shape of the shila as well as the shapes that appear on its surfaces.
This is also where Shaligram interpretation starts to get complicated. Most Shaligrams fall into one of some 90 available name-types that determine which deity manifestation is present in the shila but there is also a large degree of room for combinations. What I mean by this is that most Shaligrams have a primary manifestation, such as Lakshmi-Narayan or Krishna or Shiva, but they can then also include other secondary presences, such as Devi consorts, sages, or other figures. All of which is generally determined by reading the shape of the Shaligram and the shapes that appear on the Shaligram.
Here’s a basic example.
The Shaligram below is the deity Anirudda. Anirudda (“The one who cannot be obstructed or resisted by anyone”), is a form of Bhagavan Vishnu (the Supreme God), a son of Pradyumna, and the grandson of Krishna. Along with Pradyumna, Sankarshan, and Vasudev, Anirudda is considered one of Vishnu’s four vyuha avatars who received specific attributes or functions of Vishnu but not his entire incarnation.
It’s a pretty distinctive Shaligram, essentially determined by it’s recognizable scooped shape (formed by the bivalve Retroceramus) and pointed end. But Anirudda doesn’t always appear alone.
This shila is a Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram. It’s also readily identifiable by it’s single, large, dominating chakra, smooth nodular center, and partially interrupted spiral (at the base). But you will hopefully also notice the presence of Anirudda as well in the impression in the center. This shila is, therefore, identified as a Narayan-Anirudda Shaligram.
Which then differs from the classic Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram which looks like this:
But that’s not what most people are thinking when they think “shape.” Generally, what most Shaligram practitioners first learn to recognize is the overall shape of the Shaligram and the ways in which these distinctive forms give us clues to the presence of the deity.
For example, the Matsya Shaligram (the first avatar of Vishnu who appears in the form of a fish) is broadly fish-shaped with at least one, but often two, “fins.”
The Kamadhenu Shaligram, a manifestation of the “Cow of Plenty” is, unsurprisingly, described as “shaped like a kneeling cow.”
Less iconic Shaligrams still have significant shapes, though. Sudarshan Shaligrams (manifestations of Vishnu’s discus weapon) are clean and clear spirals. The Trivikrama Shaligram, conversely, has three distinct “steps” on the body of shila* and the Yagnamurti Shaligram (a Shaligram most often used in yajna fire rituals) always has the impressions of two sacrificial sticks (sruk and sruva) along with a wide, flat, body and at least one (but occasionally two or three) large holes or depressions.
*Trivikrama is a manifestation of Vamana, the fifth incarnation of Vishnu and the first incarnation to have appeared in Tretayuga (the third age). The name Trivikrama comes from the giant form Vamana took when he conquered the three worlds – sky, earth and underworld – by taking three giant steps.
As such, shape, as you can see, is complicated. Most of the time, Shaligram shapes act as key indicators of the deity manifestation within the shila but they also link back to a wide variety of stories, histories, and personalities present throughout Hindu and Buddhist traditions. For this reason, even though the Puranas have set up a relatively standard set of naming conventions and lists of characteristics, Shaligram themselves can be quite unruly. There are nearly infinite combinations of possible forms or patterns that might appear in Shaligram interpretation and hence why this practice is a skill that many specialists hone over years and years of study and experience.
Even now, I am humbled by the varieties and the deep knowledge of so many of the elders I have had the privilege to learn from.
For this reason, allow me to end with a related story about my own journey to this point; an excerpt taken from my second manuscript in-progress:
“One of my long-term teachers explained is thusly: “You first look at the shape.” Sriram Bhavyesh placed a Shaligram in the palm of his right hand. “It’s smooth, black, and almost perfectly round, but it has this one chakra on the bottom here which forms a ridge all along the edge. It makes the bottom flat, the top rounded, and there is this little protrusion here on the end, sort of pointed. This is a Mahavishnu Shaligram. Others call it Dasavatara. It is Sri Kurma, the turtle incarnation of Vishnu as you see that it is shaped like a turtle. But you see this indentation here in the center of the shell?”
He turned the Shaligram to show me the small, rounded, impression with a small amount of iron pyrites glittering in the center. “It is golden in color. This is the mark of Mount Mandara where it rested upon Kurma’s back. From here the gods churned the ocean of milk and so this is Sri Kurma Mandar Parvat, the turtle who carries the mountain. This we find in Bhagavata Purana, in Vishnu Purana, and in Mahabharata.”
“Would everyone agree?” I asked. “If I were to take this to another temple, would they say the same?”
Sriram laughed. “I am Sri Vaishnava, so I know it in this way. A Shaiva might say the same. So would a Smarta. They would know that it is Mahavishnu because this is what the scriptures tell us. They would also know that it is Kurma; that can be read no other way. But maybe they would see some other manifestation in the small things. Each tradition is different and different teachers can see different things. It depends on who you are when the Shaligram speaks to you.”