In Sanskrit, vadana means “mouth” and refers either to the large openings present on many Shaligrams or to the multiple smaller openings that occasionally appear when the main body of the ammonite shell-chakra has begun to wear out of the surrounding stone. As with every interpretive characteristic though, Shaligrams can have one or many vadana, or none at all.
The classic example of a prominent vadana is the Narasimha Shaligram. These shilas have a single, large, mouth that most often also contains “teeth;” hence the manifestation of the half-man, half-lion incarnation of Krishna as it appears below.
Another Shaligram with well-know vadana is the Lakshmi-Janardhan, which typically has three vadana and upwards of four to six chakras within them.
The key, however, to understanding the difference between vadana and “holes” (which are also occasionally described in Shaligrams) is that vadana never go all the way through a shila, often have chakras or other formations inside of them, and are usually larger than the end of your smallest finger. Conversely, tiny holes may also be present on a Shaligram but they are shallower than a vadana and don’t have any other characteristics inside of them.
Vanamala, on the other hand, refers to the white quartz lines that can appear on Shaligrams. These lines are representative of the sacred thread (upavita) or are sometimes parsed as “garlands or very long necklaces” depending on the Shaligram tradition one is referencing. In any case, the presence of one or more vanamala on a Shaligram is considered quite auspicious and there are certain Shaligrams that must have them in order to be identified.
The Madhusudana Shaligram below, for example, has a single vanamala that wraps all the way around the base of the shila. Madhusudana Shaligrams, however, don’t necessarily need to display a vanamala to be identified as such though they typically have at least one marking that is a vanamala, a lotus, a trishula (trident), a bow, or a spear.
This Kumaramurti Shaligram (a manifestation of Kartikeya/Skanda), however, has several vanamala and must have these markings in order to be identified as this manifestation. A Shaligram of this shape without at least one vanamala would not be Kumaramurti.
In all, both vadana and vanamala are kinds of characteristics that are commonly referenced by the Puranic texts as specific to certain kinds of Shaligrams, along with their number and clarity. Where interpretation can get complicated is when a Shaligram has worn to the point that some of its vadana are indistinguishable from general holes or its vanamala has disappeared completely. It is at this point, according to many ritual specialists, that a Shaligram is ready for retirement or “death.” This means that the Shaligram will either be turned over to a temple for “rest” or will be returned to the river so that it may leave the material world in the same way that it arrived.
Vadana and vanamala are also some of the easiest agreed upon characteristics in Shaligram interpretation. As I have noted previously, there is often a far amount of debate between specialists when it comes to characteristics such as shape and color but the number of mouths and lines present on a Shaligram is often relatively clear. Hence, vadana and vanamala are usually the first aspects of reading Shaligrams that devotees are able to master. After that, it’s just a question of understanding what manifestation they indicate.