An Introduction to Shaligrams

Living Fossils

One of the most popular jokes among anthropologists is how often our work is mistaken for paleontology. Almost every one of my colleagues and even a few of my students can relate an anecdote involving a situation where they were asked if they “dug up dinosaurs.” Imagine the difficulty I now face in my own work where the answer is effectively, “Yes, but not for the reasons you’re thinking.”

For more than two thousand years, the veneration of sacred fossil ammonites (an extinct type of cephalopod), called Shaligrams, has been an integral part of Hindu and Buddhist ritual practice throughout Nepal and India. Originating from a single remote region of Himalayan Nepal, in the Kali Gandaki River Valley of Mustang District, ritual use of these stones today has become a significant focus of pilgrimage, religious co-participation, and exchange throughout South Asia and among the global South Asian Diaspora. But if anyone had ever told my 12-year-old self that one day I would be fossil hunting in the high Himalayas while simultaneously conducting anthropological fieldwork in Nepal, I would probably have laughed myself sick. As it turns out, however, that is exactly what I have spent the last several years doing.

Not Your Average Artifact

More along the participant side of participant-observation, I found that wandering the mountain sides and river banks looking for Shaligram stones was the perfect activity for meeting Hindu pilgrims, sadhus (ascetics), and gurus (ritual specialists and teachers). And ever since my first few months of fieldwork in India in the summer of 2012, I have been documenting and learning about the wide variety of Shaligram rituals and interpretive traditions; where the characteristics of each fossil stone are literally read (as one might a text) to determine which deities have made themselves manifest in a body that was once living and is now alive again.

Viewed primarily as natural manifestations of the Hindu god Vishnu, Shaligrams are considered to be inherently sacred not only because they are not man-made but because the workings of the landscape (i.e., the processes of geological formation) has imbued them with a living essence and agency of their own. For this reason, Shaligrams require no rites of consecration or invocation when brought into homes or temples as presiding deities over the family and the community. In other words, the gods do not come to inhabit them, they are them.

Shaligrams are also deeply intertwined with understandings of divine movement, either through a geologically and mythologically formative journey down the sacred river, or transnationally in the hands of devout pilgrims. Pouring out into the river each year following the summer melt high in the mountains, Shaligrams are gathered up by pilgrims, tourists, and merchants alike. On their way out of the mountains, they travel through forests and cities, into temples and homes, across great expanses of time and space, carried by the indescribable forces of nature or the complex networks of pilgrimage and kinship exchange that eventually come to define their “lives” as gods and as family members. Shaligrams are therefore described as a kind of divine person; and one who is often in the habit of making pilgrimages throughout Nepal, into India, and across the world.

A Long Story Short

Scholarship often refers to these kinds of religious views on the fossil record as fossil folklores. But Shaligrams and Shaligram devotees are just as likely to refer to the Western scientific understanding of fossil formation as they are to religious creation stories. In many cases, for example, my friends and research participants would begin their explanation of a particular ritual or reading of a Shaligram with “I know it’s a fossil, but…” In these explanations, the tectonic uplift that created the Himalayas millions of years ago becomes synonymous with the story of the Samudra Manthan, the churning of the milky ocean in Hinduism that produced the nectar of immortality (amrita) that allowed the gods (devas) to defeat the demons (asuras). The mythical Mount Mandara thus becomes a specific mountain in the Kali Gandaki region, or more often a stand-in for the Himalayas generally, and the Samudra (milky ocean) itself a reference to the now vanished Tethys Sea that once separated the Indian Subcontinent from Asia. As a result, the geological antiquity of the Shaligram ammonites is taken as further proof of the ancient origins of Hindu practice broadly and as evidence of the gods continued intervention in the world over time as avatars and incarnations.

As part of my research, I often visited the fossil beds located high in the mountains of the Annapurna region in Nepal. One particular fossil layer, the remnants of the ancient Tethys sea floor, can be found up around 4500 meters just a short distance outside of Chongkhor village at the northernmost point of the Muktinath valley gorge as it stretches eastward away from the Kali Gandaki River. As the black shale layer slowly erodes out of the mountain, it forms a large wash of broken stones and fossil shells extending some 300 meters down, tumbling en masse into the Dzong Chu river below (which joins up with the Kali Gandaki at Kagbeni village a few kilometers to the south west).

My purpose for visiting this particular fossil bed at the time was two-fold: one, it allowed me to observe some of the earlier geological forms that might eventually result in a few of the ammonites becoming Shaligram (after they have been born out of the water) and two, it gave me a chance to see “raw” unmodified fossils that, given an additional few thousand years rolling through river silts, would become the characteristics of deities as read in the stones’ final manifestations. I brought with me one of my favorite Shaligrams, called Krishna Govinda (Krishna the Cowherder). It’s a typically palm-sized, smooth, and perfectly round black Shaligram which bears a white “cow hoof” impression on one side (an effect created by the cross-sectional breakage of a concentric quartz ring inside a belemnite shell). And as luck would have it, I was able to find just such a structure in one of the “raw” ammonites in this particular fossil wash-out as well.

Taking Shape

When I returned to my lodgings later that day, with both Shaligram and ammonite in hand, I brought them to a man named Sriram Bhavyesh. He had spent decades of his life studying Shaligrams in the temples of South India and was now in Mustang on his seventh personal Shaligram pilgrimage. We had met by chance at the Muktinath temple (located just east of the Kali Gandaki, the temple is the ostensible end-point of Shaligram pilgrimage) the year before and had kept in touch as often as possible after I had returned to Boston and he to Chennai. Thankfully, he was happy to meet up again while both of us were visiting Nepal.

He took the two stones, touched them to his forehead, and set them on the table before us. He pointed to my Shaligram, “Do you remember this one?” he asked. “Yes,” I responded, “Krishna Govinda. The cow-hoof makes it clear.” “And this one?” He pointed to the ammonite. Though heavily fractured and dark-orange with iron oxidization, the white hoof-like quartz structure was still easily discernable. “It is still the cow-hoof,” I answered. “But it is not Shaligram, correct?” He smiled, the wide grin that wrinkled his face in such delightfully characteristic ways immediately putting me at ease. “It is.” He patted my hand. “But it is different. It is still Dasavatara, just changing. Just moving. Not quite there yet. But we can still see what it will be, can’t we?”

A large portion of active Shaligram devotees are Vaishnava Hindus and one of the defining characteristics of Vishnu’s story is the theology of the Dasavatara, or the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. In this particular aspect of Vishnu’s lengthy mythological history, is it said that he has appeared on Earth in some form on 10 particularly notable occasions (or will, given that we are currently only up to 9 in the 10-avatar stretch). This does not mean, however, that each avatar was human (or even human-looking); rather each avatar took on a specific form and function designed to accomplish some particular set of tasks necessary for the given time in which the avatar appeared. Given the circumstances of his appearance, Vishnu has manifested as a fish (Matsya), a tortoise (Kurma), a boar (Varaha), a half-man half-lion (Narasimha), a dwarf-man (Vamana), a warrior bearing an axe (Parashurama), Sri Ram the god-king of Ayodhya, Krishna the divine lover and hero of the Mahabharata, the Buddha (depending on what tradition you come from, there is some contention on this one. Some traditions place other famous gurus or teachers in this position – such as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, or who swap Krishna for his brother Balarama as the 8th and 9th avatars respectively), and finally Kalki, the destroyer of the current age who is yet to come. Given this, it was not difficult for me to imagine that becoming a stone shouldn’t be all that difficult in the grand scheme of Vishnu’s divine omnipotence, but I was not entirely sure at that moment what he meant in saying that the ammonite was “moving.”

“The Dasavatara are in Shaligrams,” he responded. “There are Matsya Shaligrams and Kurma Shaligrams, Ram Shaligrams and Krishna Shaligrams, each appearing according to the characteristics laid out in the Puranas and in the Epic stories. You call this one ammonite.” He held the fossil in his palm. “This is what science tells us. You think that we reject this, but we do not. Science is right, you see.” I asked him for clarification. “We live in the age of Kali Yuga,” he explained earnestly, his words coming faster with excitement. “In Kali Yuga, people are very far away from God and it is very hard to understand things we used to understand in ancient times. Science tries to explain it. Religion tries to explain it. But you see,” here he pressed the ammonite into my hand. “This is an age of science. Vishnu comes in the form that is needed most, so this one comes in the form of science. He is God moving as fossil, hiding in fossil, because that is how people are going to come to understand this now.”

Many Pasts, One Present

While I had never expected my childhood fascination with dinosaurs (I think I still have some small fossil collection buried in the basement somewhere) to come to fruition in this way, or at all really, such is the fluidity of anthropology. In Shaligrams, science and religion meet, blend, and become comparable methods designed for a singular purpose: to narrate the past so that it explains the present. For this reason, many Shaligram practitioners often refer to both science and their own religious stories as “mythology.” Or conversely, to both as factual truth if only from slightly different perspectives. Shaligrams as both fossils and deities then challenge us to question many of the taken-for-granted ways we connect the past and the present and what we think of as science versus religion. In the end, these questions might help us to come to better understand our own ways of being in the world, both physically and spiritually. Or what is more, in a world where ‘living fossil’ no longer simply refers to the living and breathing simulacra of a more ancient creature petrified in stone, it may be possible for us to imagine, for a time, that a stone that has once lived and died, has come alive again.