Shaligram Interpretive Practice (Shape)

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.

Anirudda Shaligram

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.

Narayan-Anirudda Shaligram

Which then differs from the classic Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram which looks like this:

Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram

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.”

Matsya Shaligram
Matsya and Matsya Shaligram

The Kamadhenu Shaligram, a manifestation of the “Cow of Plenty” is, unsurprisingly, described as “shaped like a kneeling cow.”

Kamadhenu Shaligram

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.

Yagnamurti Shaligram

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.”

Shaligram Interpretive Practice (Set)

Reading a Shaligram may begin with scriptural texts, but it ends with the final divination of the deity by way of each Shaligram’s unique characteristics. For ritual specialists, interpreting a Shaligram typically follows three general steps: determining the name-type of the Shaligram (from the scriptures at hand), determining the specific deity manifested, and then determining the particular mood or stance (bhava) the deity happens to be in. As I noted in my previous post, Shaligram Interpretive Practice (The Basics), this is accomplished with the observation of six types of characteristics: set (how the Shaligram rests on a flat surface), shape, color, chakra (number and type of spirals), vadana (number and type of “mouths”/holes), and vanamala (number of white lines).

This post will focus on the first of these characteristics: set.

Numerous Puranic descriptions of Shaligrams reference markings that appear on the top, bottom, right or left sides of the shila (stone). But, if one cannot determine which way the Shaligram is sitting, these descriptions aren’t of much use since everything would be completely relative. Set therefore refers to the way a Shaligram naturally comes to rest when placed on a flat, stable, surface. Once the resting position is then achieved, the practitioner can observe where the Shaligram’s top and base are as well as what constitutes the shila’s general point-of-view. More specifically, this involves a sense of how the Shaligram is the most balanced, where it tends to display most of its other surface characteristics, and, sometimes, just where it looks the best.

A devotee paints a tilak on a Krishna Shaligram

This is not meant, however, to imply that all Shaligrams have a clear “face.” In fact, many don’t. But all of this is part of their interpretation and the variations in Shaligram set is typically the first characteristic practitioners look at when reading a Shaligram’s bhava. Many Shaligrams, for example, have very obvious set and these Shaligrams in turn are often described as manifestations who are also solid, steady, and stable. Shaligrams with less defined set are then often described as mischievous, fickle, or harder to please.

To demonstrate what I mean, take a look at this Shiva Linga Shaligram. Among many notable characteristics, one of its most prominent is its strong set. It immediately comes to rest sitting upright, has an even, flat, base, and is difficult to tip over.

Shiva Linga Shaligram

This is a characteristic quite typical of Shiva-type Shaligrams, actually. Look at the Harihara Shaligram (Vishnu-Shiva) pictured below. The Shiva Linga appears on the top of the stone, the Vishnu Sudarshan chakra appears on the bottom, but the set of the Lingam remains upwards-facing, balanced, and secure.

Harihara Shaligram

Even this Shiva-Parvati Shaligram (below) demonstrates an almost uncanny degree of set such that it might make one think it was intentionally carved by a person to look this way. I assure you; it was not! This is one of the Shaligrams that I, myself, found in the Kali Gandaki river during my two years in Nepal. This is precisely how it came out of the water.

Shiva-Parvati Shaligram

This is in quite obvious contrast, on the other hand, to many Krishna-type Shaligrams, who are notorious for having very little, if any, stable set. The most obvious example of this is the Krishna Gopala Shaligram (Krishna as a young child). These Shaligrams (also called Laddu Gopalas for their perfectly round, ball-like, shape) have no set what-so-ever and freely roll about no matter where you put them.

Krishna Gopala Shaligram

Unsurprisingly, other Krishna Shaligrams are similar in this respect. Krishna Govinda Shaligrams (Krishna as Cowherder) are virtually identical to Krishna Gopala Shaligrams except for the fact that they also display a visible white cow-hoof marking.

Krishna Govinda Shaligram

The point here is that Krishna Shaligrams overall have characteristically low set and, as a result, are often described as being playful, naughty, or troublesome in ways that Krishna himself is equally described. This makes set (or, more specifically, their lack of it) one of the defining traits of Krishna Shaligrams broadly as well as for the Shiva Shaligrams above, if for the reverse reason.

A collection of various Krishna Shaligrams

Other Shaligram types then tend to fall along some point of the spectrum in between these two extremes. Sudarshan Shaligrams, for example, tend to face their large, single, chakra upwards (resting on a flattened or even slightly rounded back) but have a notable wobble or spin to them unless sitting on a cushion or pillow. Kurma Shaligrams, on the other hand, rarely wobble and generally sit on a wide, flat, bottom that shows off their turtle-like shapes.

Kurma Shaligram

But all in all, the larger point of understanding the characteristic of set is in understanding how the Shaligram exists in relation to itself and then, how each of its other defining traits exist in relation to the position of its body. Therefore, when Puranic descriptions simply state where markings may appear on a Shaligram as “top,” “bottom,” “right side,” or “head;” set helps you to determine precisely where that is on any given shila. This is especially important then for devotees who give their Shaligrams painted faces, clothing, and crowns. Adding eyes, tilaks, garlands, hats, and other accoutrements to your Shaligram practice generally means seeking some understanding of how your Shaligram normally sits and in which direction it is actually looking. Otherwise the practice of darshan might be come unneccesarily confusing.

A beautiful Shaligram darshan