While the classic (and most typical) color for a Shaligram is black, various Puranic and Tantric texts describe Shaligrams as being black, red, yellow (honey-colored), white/whitish, sky-colored/blue, or brown. The Pranatoshini Tantra, a 565-page encyclopedic compilation of earlier scriptural texts composed in Bengal in the 19th century, is another one of the most commonly referenced scriptural authorities on Shaligram identification. It quotes an additional writing called the Yogaparijata that describes any Shaligram with a white color (or displaying “white teeth marks”) as particularly inclined to bring good fortune to the devotee. As a result, any given Shaligram or group of Shaligrams might contain a combination of colors, from the overall color of the standard black shale nodule to white quartz bands, reddish or golden iron pyrites, or green calcite.
Color is sometimes a confusing topic, however. The Skanda Purana (also in Pranatoshini Tantra, page 347), for example, references twenty categorical divisions of Shaligrams based on mixed variations of color and texture: (1) Glaced (meaning polished), (2) Black, (3) Brown, (4) Yellow, (5) Blue, (6) Red, (7) Rough, (8) Curved, (9) Big, (10) Unmarked, (11) Reddish brown, (12) Variegated, (13) Broken, (14) With many circular marks (chakras), (15) With a single circular mark, (16) With a long opening, (17) With a big circular mark, (18) Having two or more circular marks joined with each other, (19) Having a broken circular mark, and (20) Having an opening at the base.[i] The Skanda Purana then goes on to explain the likely results of worshipping each of the color-type varieties:[ii]
A color-type and size list compiled by a Sri Vaishnava ritual specialist, however, includes another wide variety of possible combinations:
Furthermore, according to the Yogaparijata, the veneration of broken, unusually large, or rough Shaligrams can cause the loss of wealth, of intellect, and of lifetime longevity respectively. And if that wasn’t enough, the Pranatoshini Tantra [iv] describes even more results of worship based on the number of circular marks (chakras) along the surface of a Shaligram (a characteristic I will address in a later post about chakras). The Prayogaparaijata section, however, describes the results of worshipping different colors of Shaligrams that contain only a single circular mark (second section), all of which relate to the expected behavior of the Shaligram once it returns home with a devotee (Prayogaparaijata quoted in Pranatoshini Tantra, page 361):
The scriptures therefore tend to advise that only the first five color-types of Shaligram recorded in the Skanda Purana should ever be worshipped by devotees. This means that, in practice, most practitioners only keep Shaligrams that are black, brown, yellow/honey-colored, or blue/sky-colored (or that have a combination of those colors).
Shaligrams that appear in other colors should then either be turned over for temple care or simply avoided entirely. In general though, the Puranic texts remain primarily concerned with the quality of Shaligrams as far as they might be considered ritually viable rather than their color specifically. For example, most of the scriptures also contain injunctions against worshipping Shaligrams that have been cracked (by accident, use, or by intention). Shaligrams that are broken into pieces, have holes that continue all the way through the shila, Shaligrams that have been burnt by fire, Shaligrams that have been stolen by an insane person or an enemy, or those that have lost their circular marks because of long-term handling are also all considered to be unfit for ritual practice in most circumstances. The reasons given for this is that the deity is likely to abandon a worn or defective body in the same way that a person discards old clothes or, in some cases, the way the elderly give up their worn and used up bodies in death (dehe jirune yathaa dehi tyktvaanyamupagacchati lingaadini tu jirnaani tathaa munchati devataa – quoted in Pranatoshiṇi Tantra, page 361.)
In practice, red Shaligrams are typically of the greatest concern and were described, more than once, as the most inauspicious form a Shaligram could take and that these were not worshipped due to the trouble they tended to bring. On the rare occasion that a red Shaligram was found, most devotees either immediately returned it to the river or packed it securely in cloth for transport to a temple where, as several explained, it would be looked after by a temple priest (pujari or brahmacharya) so that its unusual potency would not inadvertently cause problems for devotees elsewhere. In other cases, devotees pointed out that such Shaligrams were mostly associated with destruction and death and therefore, should only be worshipped by especially knowledgeable and skilled practitioners. When I asked if this was why the red-orange “mountain” Shaligrams (those not yet worn by the river) were also similarly shunned, many devotees responded affirmatively. Their formations were pure but their colors were a warning.
The concern about red coloration, however, is not extended to one particular formation of Shaligrams called Ratnagarbha, a small, translucent, pebble-like shila that, when held up to a bright light source, turns bright red, yellow, or occasionally blue (it appears black otherwise).
Overall, different colors of Shaligrams are associated with different ritual effects. The standard black Shaligrams are sometimes said to bestow fame or general good fortune while brown Shaligrams are thought to remove sins committed in previous lives. Yellow Shaligrams are also occasionally described as particularly beneficial to children and blue (or “sky-colored”) Shaligrams as bringers of wealth and prosperity. These color categories, however, though mentioned in the Puranic texts, are quite complex in practice and there are debates among devotees as to what constitutes which color category (i.e., the difference between a brown Shaligram and a yellow one) and what those colors mean. In the end though, as far as most practitioners are concerned, you can never go wrong with black.
[i] See also Rabindra Kumar Siddhantashastree. 1985. Vaishnavism Through the Ages. pages 27-49
[ii] Interestingly, this text also describes the characteristics of reading Dwarka shilas, which are also divided into a number of different varieties according to their colors and outward appearances (Padma Purana, quoted in Pranatoshini Tantra, page 360.)
(1) The blue type: It is the giver of untimely death
(2) The reddish brown: It brings in serious dangers.
(3) Variegated: It gives insanity
(4) Yellow: It causes destruction of wealth.
(5) Smoky Color: It causes untimely death of children.
(6) The broken type: It causes death of wife.
(7) The white type with dot prints: It fulfils all desires.
(8) The type with unbroken circular marks: It removes poverty and sorrow.
(9) The type having glaced circular shape: It gives the same results as above.
(10) The type with quadrangular shape: It gives the same result as above.
(11) The type with even number of circular marks: It gives bliss and worldly pleasure.
(12) The type with odd number of circular marks: It causes sorrow and worldly pain.
The same authority adds that one should not offer worship to any of the following types because of their habit of giving undesirable results
(1) The type with one or more holes on its body.
(2) The broken one.
(3) That which is neither round, nor has angles on its sides.
(4) That which has odd number of circles marked on its body.
(5) That which is shaped like the half part of the moon.
[iii] Balasubramanian, Venkatesh. 2003. Sri Ranga Sri “The Story of Shaligram.” Ibiblio Archives. http://www.ibiblio.org/sripedia/srirangasri/archives/dec03/msg00007.html. Accessed 2 Dec 2016).
[iv] The Pranatoshini Tantra is one of the two largest and most comprehensive scriptural compendia of tantric practices from northeast India, along with the 16th century Br͎hat Tantrasara. See: Hugh B. Urban. 2009. The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies. I. B. Tauris Publishers.
Pranatoshini Tantra. प्राणतोषिणी. 1983. Ramatoṣaṇa Bhaṭṭa and Ramadatta Shukla, trans. Prayaga: Shakta Sadhana Piṭha Publishers.