I don’t think I have ever done the Keshav Shaligram yet for my occasional “Spotlight” series. So, let’s do that one today! Because there is much to say about this multi-vocal Shaligram both in interpretation and in practice.
According to Adi Śankara’ s commentary on the Vishnu Sahasranama (of which Keshava is the 23rd and 648th name of Vishnu), Keshava has a variety of meanings:
1. One whose kesa or hair is long, uncut, and beautiful 2. The lord of creation, preservation, and dissolution (Vishnu). 3. Krishna who destroyed the demon Keśī 4. One who is endowed with the rays of light spreading within the orbit of the sun. 5. One who is himself the three: Kah Brahma; Ah Vishnu and Isa Shiva.
According to the Padma Purana, however, the name refers to Krishna’s long, beautiful, unshorn hair. Additionally, in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna uses the name Keshava for Krishna a number of times, referring to him as the ‘Killer of the Keśī demon’ (Bhagavad Gita 1.30).
The demon Keśī, in the form of a horse, was sent by the demon-king Kamsa to kill Krishna but was overpowered and slain (Vishnu Purana 5.15-16).
Associated primarily with the sun (kesa also meaning the sun’s rays), Keshava Shaligrams are said to ward any and all uses of Nazar Dosha (the evil eye) and to protect devotees from all who might think badly of them.
Worship of this Shaligram is also said to bestow wealth, social status and respect, and to facilitate worldly material comforts. Lastly, as one of the “sun” Shaligrams, the Keshava Shaligram is particularly useful for devotees seeking to “illuminate” their proper path in life.
Identification of Keshava Shaligrams is reasonably straight-forward. These śilas are typically “shakha” or conch-shaped overall with a single, large, chakra on their flattened upper side.
The chakra should have clear, highly defined, ridges and striations (the kesa) that radiate outwards from the central spiral though, in all likelihood, the full chakra spiral will not be visible (which would indicate a Surya/Suraj Shaligram like the one below).
In some variations of this Shaligram, more than one chakra will be visible on the outer body of the śila but the entire Shaligram should generally sit flat with its main chakras facing upwards.
One thing I love about Shaligram interpretive practices is how extensively narrative they are. As in, not only does each specific ammonite fossil invoke stories about the geological origin of the world, they also link to mythographic histories of people.
This is something that I have spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about as I now begin work on my second manuscript dedicated to discussing Shaligram interpretation (my first book on Shaligram pilgrimage will be out next year). I am still having some issues working out a format, however. On some level, the current work already looks something like a “field guide:” a short chapter introducing the methods of interpretation and reading Shaligrams (as one might a text) followed by separate, dedicated, pages for identifying each type of Shaligram currently in practice. But I still worry that this format leaves something to be desired. How, for example, do I ensure that the nuances of interpretation are clearly expressed? Or the variations between different Hindu, Buddhist, and Bon traditions? Or, even just attempting to boil down the multiple linkages and complexities of a single set of stories as they are expressed in a particular Shaligram without seeming tragically reductionist.
Take the Vasudev Shaligram, for example (shown below). Vasudev carries a wide variety of meanings depending on the particular Hindu tradition in question. To start with, in Indian epic poetry, Vasudeva is the father of Krishna.
He was also the brother of Nanda Baba, the chieftain of the cowherder tribe, who was a Surasena (an ancient region corresponding to the present-day Braj region in Uttar Pradesh, India) who also became the foster father of Krishna.
His sister Kunti was married to Pandu, both significant figures in the Mahabharata, but in other interpretations, Vasudeva was a partial incarnation of Rishi Kashyapa (a famous Hindu sage) as well as one of Vishnu’s four vyuha avatars who received specific attributes of Vishnu but not his entire incarnation (See also the Anirudda and Pradyumna Shaligrams, which figure similarly). Additionally, following the advent of Bhagavatism in the 1st millennium BCE, the patronymic Vāsudeva (with long ā) has also remained a popular name of Krishna. So, even in this short explanation, “Vasudev” acts as a kind of short-form for a wide variety of possible interpretations; none or all of which might be in play depending on the Shaligram or, for that matter, the interpreter.
According to many Shaligram traditions, on the other hand, the Vaasudev Shaligram is marked by both Śesha (Ananta), the eternal serpent who appeared to protect the infant Krishna as Vasudeva carried him across the river during his flight from the demon Kansa and Kalpvriksha, the sacred tree along the river banks. Typically, these Shaligrams are identified using their long oval shapes and the appearance of a central spiral opening representative of the serpent Śesha.
Ideally, they will then also contain a tree-like marking of grooves or lines somewhere else along the outer surface (which are more pronounced in the Shaligram below).
In practice though, Vasudev Shaligrams are more commonly associated with the stories of Krishna’s father than with Vishnu specifically. As such, they are said to grant enormous physical strength to devotees in times of trial and to encourage all practitioners in their vicinity to adopt stout hearts and minds whenever troubled. This “never give up” atmosphere of ritual veneration also makes them especially popular as gifts to those who are ill or who have recently suffered tragic circumstances in their lives.
For this reason, Vasudev Shaligrams are primarily identified through a combination of features relating to the story of Vasudev and the infant Krishna’s flight from Kansa rather than many of the other possible meanings of the term. Specifically a round or oval shape (a basket), a central spiral opening with two chakras (spirals set one above the other), and other grooved markings representative of tree roots or branches (Kalpvriksha) – or conversely a central, grooved, ring representing Ananta, the serpent: the presence of all such characteristics indicating the Shaligram’s association with this particular tale.
But, as you might imagine, this is a lot of information to fit onto a single page of an ostensible field guide. There is simply so much information and so many linkages within so many traditions, I could, in all honestly, spend a lifetime writing a separate book for each Shaligram. What a voluminous set that would be!
Maybe my original idea of setting up a kind of database with scans and links wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Alas! If only there were more hours in a day…
This second part on the birth of
Shaligrams is meant to briefly demonstrate the concrete links between the
sacred contexts of Shaligram veneration and the actual practices devotees most
commonly carry out. In other words, given the mythic histories of Shaligrams
(previous post), how does one then actually experience the birth of a Shaligram
and how do practitioners prepare them for ritual use in their homes and
Puja is, first and foremost, the main method for venerating Shaligrams. Initial pujas are generally conducted when a Shaligram is born out of Kali Gandaki (often, right on the river bank using the water of the river to welcome them into their new families) and may be performed again and again over the course of the Shaligram’s lifetime. It is also common to include Shaligrams during pujas held for the births of children as well as at weddings and funerals or any other instance of a meaningful or profound change in an individual’s or family’s life. Pujas specific to Shaligrams are also most often performed during the festival celebrating Tulsi Vivah; the marriage of Tulsi and Shaligram (Vishnu).
The first puja for a Shaligram is almost always done as a welcome for them to their new home or temple following their birth and their long travels, just as puja is done for honored guests and great teachers. Subsequent pujas after that are much the same as any other kind of ritual care for a household’s deities and very commonly mirror the typical activities of daily life, such as mealtimes, bedtimes, bathing, and morning awakening. The final puja is then done to honor the passing of the dead, where a particularly important Shaligram may accompany the body of a deceased loved one into the cremation fire and carry their spirit into the presence of the Divine before being reborn back into the world (out of the river once again) in their place. Conversely, any Shaligram which is passed down/inherited and not sent to the funeral pyre will have a similar welcoming puja carried out, as it is once again a new member of a new family. And thus, Shaligrams continue to live out multiple karmic lives, returning again and again into the material world, so that they may guide souls along the path to moksha.
However, as far as religious stricture goes, it is important to note that there is no central Scriptural authority detailing the worship of Shaligrams in either Hinduism or Buddhism. Instead, most Shaligram practitioners take a variety of texts to be authoritative when it comes to Shaligram worship; be they a combination of the Vedas, Puranas, Shastras, or other commentaries. The scriptural rules which govern Shaligram veneration also do not establish a set of rigid boundaries delineating the correct performance of rituals for Shaligrams. Rather, they speak of Shaligrams in more general terms and leave many of the specifics up to long-standing oral traditions or other ritual descriptions. As such, real Shaligram practices function like the banks of a wide riverbed, much like the Kali Gandaki itself, within which streams of traditional and practical variation may appear, meander, and merge as they move through time and space. While the river may then slow to a trickle or come flooding out of the mountains, break up or reconverge, or even occasionally overflow its banks, it nevertheless carries onward in whatever way is necessary for the moment.
Lastly, there is no standardized doctrinal consensus among Shaligram practitioners as a whole, and specific individuals may perform or participate in Shaligram rituals reflective of any range of traditions, be they Buddhist, Hindu, animist, specific to one’s guru lineage, or related to a local deity or practice-style. Even secular, agnostic, and scientific atheists have been known to take part in Shaligram ritual veneration. But, for the most part, Shaligram devotees tend to acknowledge that Shaligram worship follows a few short, easily definable, steps.
As self-manifest deities, Shaligram require no rites of invocation, such as the prana pratistha. When they arrive home, they are greeted as living deities and are usually kept in a common section of the household, wherein they are able to view and participate in the normal activities of the family.
An active Shaligram within a household is usually cleaned with clear water to begin with, and then rubbed with oil to keep them smooth and unblemished. This oil can be from any number of sources but is usually made from sandalwood, flower extracts, or incense. Essential oils derived from fragrant plants are especially popular for this purpose.
Shaligrams then reside in whatever prepared puja mandir, platform, or shelf that has been set aside for them. Many devotees also provide them with small pillows or seats to rest on, crowns or clothing as befits other murti in the household, or any other small items they wish to offer or which may be specific to the Shaligram deity present (i.e., sweets for Krishna or coins for Lakshmi).
The two main offerings generally considered to be vital to Shaligram practice, however, are water and tulsi. Pilgrims to Mustang will often return with water taken directly from the Kali Gandaki for this purpose, but Ganga Jal also works well or any other purified water in the event that none other is available. Tulsi can be grown in the home (and often is) or purchased from Indian groceries if one’s climate is not suitable for growing.
Shaligrams are typically worshipped without any
prathisthana (installation ritual; as
is done while installing man-made deity icons), since Vishnu is already present
in the Shaligram of his free will as a revelation to the devotees. The Śālagrāma-Kosha enumerates this by explaining that: “In the
worship of Salagrama, no initiation is required; there is no special hymnology
or specific procedure of worship, nor any need for a qualified priest or master
of ceremonies. Worshipped anyhow, it will bestow the benefits; and there is no
error of any kind.”
Note: In South India, it is more common for Shaligrams to be
put away in a box or puja mandir
while not actively engaged in ritual, while in North India and Nepal,
Shaligrams tend to remain in the open.
Sri Shaligram Shila Stotram (Prayer)
(Given by Krishna to Yudhishthira,
King Yudhistira asked
“Shree Dev Dev devesa Devarchanamutamam
Tat sarbam srotaumichhami Bruhime Purushotamam / 1/
My dear Supreme Lordship Purushotam, I request you know the significance of the
Shree Bhagavan Uvacha – The Lord Replied
“Gandakyam Chotare Tire Girirajshchya Dakshine
Das Yojan Vistirnam Mahachhetra Vasundhara //2//
“Saligramo Vabet Devo Devi Dwara Bati Vabet
Uvayo Sangamo Yatra Mutistratrana Sansaya //3//
“Saligramo Sila Yatra Yatra dwara Bati Sila
Uvayo Sangamo Yatra Mutistratrana Sansaya //4//
The mountains known as the Himalaya are situated on the bank of river Gandaki.
In the south of this Himalaya is the land where Shaligram shila appear. This is the place where Devi Dwarabati begins. This
place is called by those who know, Sri Muktikshetra.
Shaligram shilas found here are very
precious and significant. These shilas
are considered to be directly Lord Vishnu Himself and the person who worships
or even keeps in the house or bathes the Shaligram and drinks water or pour
those waters on their head, that man becomes free from all sin and it prevents
from untimely death. That person becomes free from all sin and all material
disease. The most feared sin of Bramahatya (killing of a Brahmin) is also
washed away simply by worshiping the Shaligram.
That person who does snan (bathing)
of Shaligram with chakra everyday get
gets rid of all sin like Bramahatya, and if he drinks such water daily gets the
equal boon of a thousand havan (fire
sacrifices) of Lord Vishnu.
“Naivadyayuktam Tulsim cha Misritam Vishesta Pada Jalen Vishnu
Yoshnati Nityam Purato Murari Prapnoti Yazya Uta Koti Pundyam //10//
The person, who worships Shaligram with Tulsi leaf daily, gets the boon of a million
Khandita Sphutita Viina Vandi Dakdhya Tathi Va Cha
Saligram Sialyatra Tatra Dosho Na Vidyate//11//
Even if a Shaligram is damaged or broken, all shila are good to worship
Namantra Pujanam Naiva Natirtham Na cha Bhabanaa
Na stutir Na uppachars cha Saligram Silar cha ne //12//
Bramha Hatya Dikam Papam Manobak Karya Sambhamam
Shirgram Nachyati Tatsarvam Saligram Silrchana//13//
Without worship, without offering any sweets or without any pilgrims – only
chanting this Shaligram mantra is enough to wash away all sins and is the
fulfillment of all desire.
“Nanabarna Mayam Chiva Nana Bhogena Vestitam
Tathavarprasadena Laxmi Kantam Balamhayam //14//
“Narayanorbhabo Dev Chakramadya Cha Karmana
Tathavarprasadena Laxmi Kantam Balamhayam//15//
There are various kinds of size and shape of Shaligram in which Lord Vishnu is
situated representing all the different incarnations.
“Krishane Sila Taneyatra Susmam Cakram Cha Drisyate
Saovagyam Santatim Dhatye Sarva Sakshaym Dadhaticha//16//
Good Luck increases and one gets satisfaction from children, and in every way
in every aspect, all good enters one’s life by worshipping Shaligram black in
color with little chakras.
A person who gets the chance to see the Vasudev shila, that person he became free from sins. Shreedhar, Sukar,
Vamanadev, Harivarna,Varaha, Kurma and lots of other type of Shaligram are
available also. Some Shaligram has marking of cow’s foot marks and some that of
Narshimha Avatara (half lion half man).
“Pitavarnam Tu Devanam Rakta Varnam Vayabhaham
Narashinho Vawet Devo Mokshadam Cha Prakrititam//19//
Sankha Chakra Gada Kurma Sankho Yatra Pradisyate
Sankha Varnaschya Devanaman Vame Devaschya Lakshanam//20//
“Damodarm Tatha Sthulam Madhya Chakram Pratisthitam
Purna Dwarena Sankrina Pita Rekha Cha Drischyate //21//
“Chhatrakare Vabet Rajam Vartule Cha Mahasreeya
Chipite Cha MahaDukham Sulagretu Ranam Dhrubam//22//
A yellowish Shaligram is as auspicious as the Lord Himself (Pitambara) but a reddish Shaligram is
considered to bring fearful situations and is dangerous to worship. The sacred
symbols of Shankha (conch), Chakra (disc), Gada (club), and Kurma (tortoise)
are printed on the Shaligram stones. Shaligram with a Shankha (conch) sign is
considered to be Vamanrup (Vamandev) of Lord Vishnu, whereas chakra in the middle is considered as
Damodar Shaligram. Shaligrams of different shapes; round, umbrella shape which
has white lines are also available; worshipping this kind of Shaligram gives
wealth and reputation in society. Flat shaped Shaligram creates sorrow in a
family and Shaligram with sharp front side creates war, fighting, and tension
“Lalate Shesha Vogastu Siropari Sukanchanam
Chakrakanchanavarnanam VamaDevaschya Lakshnam//23//
Vamaparbe Cha Bai Cakre Krishna Varnas tu Pingalam
Laxinarshimhadevanam Prithak Varnastu Drisyate//24//
Shaligrams which have a chakra around
the head or in the forehead but the rest of its parts are clean and smooth is
considered very auspicious and this type is to be considered as Vamandev shila. Yellowish or black in left side
with a chakra is considered as
Worshipping a long shaped shila
creates poverty, and Shaligram having lagna
(rising) chakra create long term
chronic diseases, even death.
Padom Dakamcha Nirmalyam Mastake Dharayet Shada
Visnor Dristam Vakshitabyam Tulsi Jal Misritam//26//
Kalpa Koti Sahasrani Vaikunthe Basate Sada
Saligram Sila Vinur Hatya Koti Vinasanam//27//
Any person who offers a Tulasi leaf while worshipping the Shaligram gets
salvation and can stay at Vaikuntha (Heaven) for a million years.
Tasmat Sampujayet Dhyatwa Pujitam Chapi Sarvada
Saligram Silas Trotram Yah Pathecha Dijotam//28//
Sa Gakshet Parmam Sthanam Yatra Lokeshworo Hari
Sarva Pap Binir Muktwa Vishnu Lokam Sa Gashati//29//
Therefore always worship Shaligram, and chant Shaligram Stotra which is very
beneficial for mankind. We can get one a higher position on Vishnu Lok
(Vaikuntha) simply by doing so. All sins will also be destroyed and it is
guaranteed that one gets to Vishnulok simply from this process of worshiping
There are various types of descriptions available for Lord Vishnu’s ten primary
incarnations (Dasavatara) and also the Lord’s incarnation in Sri Shaligram’s worship,
the Prayer to the Shaligram and drinking the Lord’s bathing water wash away
sins of million lives and one gets great prosperity, wealth and reputation
through this, so everyone everywhere the Shaligram should be worshiped.
The most common and most basic form of Shaligram puja is the daily simple puja, which only requires that the devotee offer water, tulsi leaves (or flowers/fruit if none available), and a short prayer to the Shaligrams each day. In many cases, the simple puja is also favored among practitioners who travel or who are actively on pilgrimage since it is possible to bring one or two important Shaligrams along and to perform the puja as a kind of morning or evening prayer even under the most difficult circumstances. In many households today, simple puja is the standard, with more elaborate pujas performed on special occasions or at certain times of year.
As a corrective to modern concerns about the potential spiritual dangers of keeping Shaligrams, many gurus also now recommend the simple puja, elaborating that it is more important to give what an individual is capable of giving in order to keep Shaligrams in the home (and the tradition alive) than the alternative of never interacting with Shaligrams at all. In other words, as one of my teachers explained, “Shaligrams are not monsters. They are here for us, to help us. If simple puja is what you can offer. Offer that. The rest will come in time, when it is time.”
If a Shaligram is to be formally worshipped in
a temple context of the Sri Vaishnava tradition, all the details of worship
must be carefully observed. Additionally, Shaligrams are also often strung
together in the form of a garland using metallic casings made of silver and
placed on the moolavar – the Dhruva bera (main temple deity) deity in
Vaishnava temples. (108 in number representing the nine planets comprising the
27 stars and its four navamsa
divisions – 27×4 = 108). Large Shaligrams (typically the larger than a man’s
hand) are also routinely made into iconographic murti (Lord Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, etc.) and worshipped in temples
and Vaishnava mutts.
Depending on the religious tradition in
question, the ritual protocols for Shaligram worship vary considerably.
However, the most commonly referenced method of Shaligram puja comes from the Sri Vaishnava tradition, where there is a more standardized
procedure for the every-day worship of Shaligrams for temples, mutts, and home
shrines. Generally, Shaligrams are almost always worshipped using tulsi leaves.
The Yagna (Yaga) Samskaram also prescribes procedures for the Bhagavad Aradhana
(Aradhana is a method of worship, a Sanskrit word meaning an act of
glorifying God or a person) of Sriman Narayana -Vishnu or His manifest form of
There are two forms of Aradhana: Bahya
(External) and Manasika (Internal). Shaligram puja in a temple context usually
begins when the attendant pujari or brahmacharya initiates the Samskaram
through Sanskrit verses. The following protocol is translated into English by
Anand K. Karalapakkam:
“After Achamanam (sipping and swallowing
water two or three times during which the twenty-four names of Vishnu are
repeated), wearing Oordhvapundram, prostrating to the Lord (Sriman Narayana),
sit in a seat. After pranayamam
(yogic control of the vital breath), perform japam (repetition of Lord’s name) with Dhyana slokas (divine hymns-Ashtakshara, etc). Later, worship the
Lord Sriman Narayana residing in one’s heart (Manasika Aradhana). Then with
water from the vessel placed left of Sriman Narayana (Shaligram), sprinkle
water on flowers and other materials for worship and vessels for arghyam (offering of rice, etc.), padyam (offering of water for washing
the feet), etc. From water in an arghya
vessel, sprinkle water on flowers etc. (for worship) and also on
“After welcoming the Lord, offer arghyam, padyam; Achamaniam and
give Abisheka (ritualistic bath).
Then offer cloth, Yajno Pavitha
(sacred thread), sandal paste, flower, incense, and light, in that order. Offer
Achamana, honey and again Achamana. Later offer food comprising of
pudding, rice, vegetables, water, pan-betel etc. After prostration, restoring
status quo is the procedure of worship of Vishnu.”
Thus, the sishya
(disciple) learn to perform Bhagavad Aradhana (prayer of the divine) to Sriman
Narayana’s archa-avatara as a Shaligram. Additionally, since the food a Sri Vaishnava eats should only consist of the remnants of food
offered to Sriman Narayan, Saligrama Aradhana is considered to be especially
important. Additionally, among Sri Vaishnavas, the
Saligrama Aradhana is typically performed only by the male members of the upper
three varnas (Brahaman, Kshatriya and
Vaishya). In this tradition, women are prohibited from touching or performing
Aradhana of a Shaligram, though this prohibition is not universally shared.
However, even in these cases, women have an important role of assisting the
performance of the ritual by making the necessary preparations for the worship
including cooking the food for offerings to the deity. Women may also be
responsible for arrangements in terms of preparing food, gathering and making
flower garlands, or gathering and directing the participants as the ritual
progresses. In general, however, most practitioners consider the participation
of the entire family in Shaligram puja
to be vital to the health and prosperity of the household.
Protocols for puja as set out by ritual specialists at Pashupatinath Mandir
(from principally Shaiva and Smarta traditions) in Kathmandu, Nepal incorporate
a slightly different sequence: In Puja
Vidhi, Shaligram is worshipped in the same way as one worships Lord
Vishnu. Normally tulsi is used and also a conch shell (Shankh) is kept near the
Shaligram. Daily worship with purity of heart and body is required to get full
benefits from Shaligram. (Ref.: Shrimaddevi Bhagwat and Pashupatinath Mandir).
To perform puja of the Shaligram which you have
selected to install in your altar of worship, you will need the following ‘samagri’ or ingredients: Ganga Jal
(water from the Ganges River), Panchgavya (a mixture of 5 auspicious articles
that include: cow dung, cow’s urine, milk, ghee and curd), fresh tulsi leaves,
kusha grass, pipal leaves, incense sticks, camphor, sandal paste, a lamp
burner, and a conch shell. You may substitute any item that is not available
with uncooked rice. Offerings made to the Shaligram can also be of milk,
fruits, flowers, sweet dishes or a coconut.
Sit in a position in which you can face the
East or North-East direction.
Wash the Shaligram with Ganga Jal poured from
the conch shell. Then wash it again with Panchgavya, and then wash it once more
with Ganga Jal.
Place some kusha grass in a stainless-steel
glass filled with water to sprinkle over the Shaligram.
Now, put the Shaligram on some pipal leaves
placed on a plate. Light the camphor, incense sticks, and the lamp filled with
Apply some sandal paste on the Shaligram and
place some fresh tulsi leaves in front of the Shaligram.
Light the lamp and move it in a circular,
clockwise movement of the hand in front of the Shaligram.
Chant the Shaligram mantra nine times. Other
mantras may be substituted according to tradition.
Offer milk, fruits or sweets to the Shaligram.
Offer some money and then give that money to a poor person.
If you are worshiping more than one Shaligram,
make sure they are in even numbers. This means that you should have either two,
four or six Shaligrams. Place a tulsi mala (garland) around them or offer fresh
tulsi leaves everywhere. It is important to remember that even the water that
has touched the Shaligram becomes ‘amrit’
(holy water), while you are bathing it, it takes on the properties of the
Shaligram. If you drink this water, it is said to bring relief from various
physical ailments and poor health.
Because each specific Shaligram is read and
interpreted in different ways, most Shaligram practitioners consider it
essential that a Shaligram be properly examined and identified before they are
taken for worship. Characteristics of particular focus are the shape and color
of the Shaligram, the number and location of chakra marks, the type of lines or
grooves that are present in the crevices and fissures, or any other distinctive
feature which may indicate the deity’s ultimate identity. (To wit: reading and interpreting Shaligrams is the subject of my
next planned book).
Traditions and Panchayatana Puja
Smarta Traditions, the practice of Panchayatana Puja consists of the worship of
five deities set in a five-point cross pattern. As a rule, these five
deities are Shiva, Vishnu, Devi or Durga, Surya, and an Ishta Devata (a term meaning one’s favorite or tutelary deity) such
as Ganesha, Skanda, or another god specific to the devotee’s practice. On
rare occasions, an Ishta Devata may
also be included as a sixth deity in the puja.
Shaligram Panchayatana Puja, Shiva is often represented as a Linga stone from
the Narmada river in India, the Devi/Shakti using a Srichakra (a Mandala-shaped
quartz crystal or coin), and Ganesh, Vishnu, and Surya as Shaligrams. As per
the tradition, any one of the represented deities can be placed in the center
as the main or presiding deity. This deity is then the one who generally
occupies a central role in the worship of the household and for whom the rest
of the deities will be arranged around them (as is also mirrored in temple
architecture from Odisha to Karnataka to Kashmir; and the temples
containing fusion deities such as Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu)).
Theologically, the Smarta tradition emphasizes that all murti are icons of saguna Brahman, a means to realizing the abstract Ultimate Reality called nirguna Brahman. The five or six icons are then viewed by Smartas as multiple representations of the one saguna Brahman (meaning a personal God with material form), rather than as distinct beings in and of themselves. The ultimate goal in this practice is to transition past the use of icons, then follow a philosophical and meditative path to understanding the oneness of Atman (soul, self) and Brahman as infinite and immaterial.
Vaishnava and Hare Krishna Traditions
Finally, Sri Padmanabha Goswami’s “Śālagrāma-śila” (1993) details the puja sequence more common in the Gaudiya Vaishnava and Hare Krishna traditions. He begins by explaining that the worship of Shaligram is not different than the worship of any other installed deity and in any case where reverence or respect to a deity would be performed, so must it be performed for Shaligram, with individual attention paid to each shila present. He then goes on to say that the worship of Shaligrams should be “conducted in accordance with Purus͎a-sukta.” (1993: 32). If a devotee wishes to adorn a Shaligram with ornaments, this is acceptable but that an offering of rice should never be made (in contrast with the Sri Vaishnava tradition mentioned previously).
Women are allowed to worship Shaligrams openly in these traditions but should refrain from doing so during menstruation and finally, that the specific mantras one should recite vary depending on the Scriptural texts used and should be whatever mantras are most well-known to the initiated Vaishnava.
sequence for puja and the offering of
five items; gandha, pus͎pa, dhūpa, dipa, and naivedya (tulsi is always required) or sixteen items then commences as so
(additional descriptions for each piece of the sequence given in the text, pgs.
Wake the Lord
After the Lord has risen, chant idam pus͎panjali samarpayami and offer
Asana (a seated posture) – while
offering asana, chant idam asanam
Svagata (welcome) – while offering svagata,
chant susvagatam, susvagatam
Padya (poem, verse) – while offering
padya, chant idam padyamsamarpayami
Arghya (libation) – while offering
arghya, chant idam arghyamsamarpayami
Acamana (sipping water) – while
offering acamana, chant idam acamaniyamsamarpayami
Madhuparka (honey and milk) – while
offering madhuparka, chant idam
Punaracamana (sipping water again) –
while offering punaracamana, chant idam
Snana (bathing) – while offering
snana, chant idam snaniyamsamarpayami
Vastra (clothing, or a cloth) –
while offering vastra, chant idam vastramsamarpayami
Upavita (sacred thread) – while
offering upavita, chant idam upavitamsamarpayami
embellishments) – while offering abhushana, chant idam abhushanam samarpayami
Gandha (fragrance) – while offering
gandha, chant idam gandham samarpayami
Tulasi (tulsi leaves) – while
offering tulasi, chant idam tulasimsamarpayami
Pus͎pa (flowers) – while offering
pus͎pa, chant idam pus͎pamsamarpayami
Dhupa (incense) – while offering
dhupa, chant idam dhupamsamarpayami
Dipa (lamp) – while offering dipa,
chant idam dipamsamarpayami
Naivedya (an offering to God; i.e.,
a promise, a willingness, etc.) – while offering naivedya, chant idam naivedyamsamarpayami
Incidentally, he also mentions that the mantra: om yajneshvaraya yajnasabhavaya yajnapataye govindaya namo namah from Hari-bhakti-vilasa (15/530) also suffices for all steps from padya to dipa.
the appearance of a Shaligram stone within the Kali Gandaki river is to, quite
literally, witness its birth. Formed in the womb of the mountains (the
Himalayas) and then brought into the world through the flow of the river
Gandaki, Shaligrams are self-manifest as deities in ways quite unlike many of
the other murti common throughout Hinduism, Buddhism, and Bon.
I have written at some length on the ways in which Shaligrams recreate cycles
of karmic birth, death, and rebirth as well as how they continue to live
literal lives with their human kin as members of the family and of the
community. But as of yet, I have not written quite so extensively on the birth
of Shaligrams such as takes place in the Muktinath Valley of Mustang, Nepal. For
this reason, I am happy to do so here but I find it best to describe the births
of Shaligram through two separate but related approaches. Therefore, my plan is
to describe the process of Shaligram birth in two parts. The first part here
will detail the story of Vrinda/Tulsi and Vishnu so as to convey the Scriptural
foundations that underly the event of Shaligram’s appearance. The second part,
to be posted later on, will discuss the methods of preparing a Shaligram to
return home following pilgrimage so as to draw concrete links between the
sacred contexts of Shaligram veneration and the actual practices devotees most
commonly carry out.
The Water and the Mountain
According to the Varaha Purana (12th
c. CE) some Shaligram stones come from the water (jalaja) while others come from the mountain-side (sthalaja). In common parlance, Shaligram
devotees occasionally refer to these two categories as either water-born (jal) Shaligrams or mountain-born (kshetra) Shaligrams. In practice,
“mountain Shaligrams” are the term typically given to the reddish-orange, raw,
ammonite fossils which can be found slowly sliding down the river valley walls
on their way into the Kali Gandaki River below. While many of these fossils can
be easily obtained by walking the narrow village paths throughout the Baragaon,
few, if any, Shaligram pilgrims ever actually seek them out and I never
encountered any such fossils in the home altars or puja trays of active practitioners. Though they often agreed that
such stones were holy and acknowledged that kshetra
Shaligrams were included in the scriptural texts, I did not encounter a single
religious use of such stones at any point in the years I have worked with Shaligram
devotees. Only the smooth, black, formations of Shaligrams born out of the
river are usually ever accepted for ritual use.
Besides the Shaligram origin accounts detailed in Puranic
texts (mainly the Brahma Vaivarta, Agni, Padma, Garuda, Nrsimha, Skanda,
Brahma, and Brahmanda Puranas), Shaligrams are also mentioned in a wide variety
of other Hindu works (many of which are later commentaries or compilations of
Puranic texts): the Shalagrama-mahatmya of the Gautamiya Tantra, the Shalagrama-pariksha
in the Magh-mahatmya section of the Padma Purana, the Puja-prayoga, the Haribhaktivilasa
of the Gopal Bhat͎t͎a, the Shalagramarcana-candrika, the Puja-pankaja-bhaskara,
the Shalagrama-mimamsa of Somanatha-vyasa, the Shalagrama-lakshan͎a-panjika,
the Shalagrama-pariksha of Anupa-simha, the Shalagrama-mula-lakshana-paddhati,
the Shalagrama-shila-parikshana-paddhati, and an entire section of the Vaishnavanidhi
chapter in Maharaj Krishnaraj Wodeyar III of Mysore’s Sri-tattva-nidhi. Many of
these later texts advocate for the worship of Shaligrams as a method for
obtaining material benefits such as great wealth, numerous children, success in
business ventures, healthy herds of cattle, and a long and healthy life.
Some Hindu theologians, however, view Shaligram veneration
as a “kamya,” an optional form of
ritual worship based on the desires of the practitioners in question and
therefore not obligatory for all Hindus. While this concept is largely shared
among the attitudes of current Shaligram devotees (that the practice is
optional), few, if any, view the ritual worship of Shaligrams as specific to
desires for material goods. Rather, the worship of Shaligrams is more commonly
associated with religious tradition, family history, and movement across sacred
landscapes than the fulfillment of any specific day to day desire. Shaligram
devotees therefore tend to follow the approach of the Skanda Purana which
advocates Shaligram worship for anyone wishing to perform service or
austerities as a way of entering into a relationship with the divine. And it is
here that our story begins.
Tulsi and Shaligram
As related in the Padma Purana, there was once a massive and deeply destructive battle that took place between Lord Shiva and the demon Jalandhar. This battle raged on for several days, neither Shiva nor the demon showing any signs of winning due, in this version of the story, to the power of Jalandhar’s pious wife Brinda. In the Vishnu Purana, Shiva then requested help from Lord Vishnu. As the battle between the demon and Shiva continued, Vishnu took on a duplicate form of Jalandhar and went to Brinda’s home. Subsequently, as Vishnu broke Brinda’s long-held chastity while in the duplicate form of her husband Jalandhar, Brinda’s power, her pativrata or sati dharma, was unable to protect her husband and Shiva was finally able to kill Jalandhar in the battle. As a result of this, Brinda became very angry and cursed Vishnu to take the form of a stone, of grass, and of a tree. It is for this reason then that Vishnu came down to earth to become Shaligram (stone), kush (holy grass), and the Pipal tree.
In the Padma Purana, the events have a slightly different outcome but the course of the narrative is not particularly divergent. In this account, Vishnu is actually infatuated with Brinda and, because of this, the gods Agni, Brahma, and Shiva decide to approach Maya, the divine manifestation of illusion and concealment. Maya, in turn, directs them to three of her representatives: Gauri (rajas), Lakshmi (sattva), and Svadha (tamas) who give the gods three seeds with instructions to sow them in the place where Vishnu dwells. When the seeds were sown, three plants sprouted: dhatri (Umblica officialis), malati (Linum usitatissimum), and tulasi (Ocimum sanctum). These three plants were then considered aspects (amshas) of Svadha, Lakshmi, and Gauri respectively but it is otherwise unclear precisely what this variation has to do with the origins of Shaligrams other than to emphasize that Shaligram and tulsi plants are strongly associated in worship.
In the Brahma Vaivarta Purana version of this story (and in 9thskanda of the Devibhagavata), the part of Brinda is actually subsumed by the goddess Tulasi (tulsi). This account explains that there was once a daughter of King Dharmadhvaja and his queen Madhavi who was both a beautiful princess and an incarnation of the hladhini-shakti, the internal pleasure potency and creative power of the universe (and specifically of the Godhead). When this daughter was born, she was said to have been marked with unusual good fortune and as she matured into an exquisitely beautiful young woman, she never appeared to age beyond sixteen years. As the manifestation of universal divine qualities and blessed with incomparable beauty, she was thus called Tulasi (meaning: matchless). Accordingly, when Vishnu then wanted to perform his lilas (sacred past-times) on earth, he was obliged to do so only in the association of his personal potencies; the potency in this case being that of Vishnu’s divine pleasure (hladhini) called Tulasi. (In the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, this particular manifestation is taken over by Sri Krishna and his hladhini who is manifest as his consort Srimati Radharani, who is also the goddess of fortune).
When Vishnu (or Krishna) then descend into the mundane world
as avatara to perform their past-times
or undertake acts of heroism, their hladhini manifests
along with them. In many Hindu traditions, these expansions that accompany the
avatars of Vishnu are sometimes called Lakshmis and the princess Tulasi
who was born as the daughter of King Dharmadhvaja and Queen Madhavi is also
considered an incarnation of Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu and the principal
goddess of fortune. Finally, in the Devibhagavata, it is noted that Tulasi’s incarnation on earth is actually due to
the jealousy of Radha (Krishna’s principal consort) who became very angry with
Tulasi while in Goloka (the Vaishnava paradise) because Krishna had become
overly fond of her (non-Puranic accounts sometimes explain that it is Lakshmi
who curses Tulasi to become a plant because Tulasi longs to have Vishnu as her
husband. Vishnu then joins with Tulasi as a Shaligram stone).
As the story continues in the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, it is
by the machinations of the karmic cycle that Tulasi is wedded to Sankhacuda, a
powerful demon (subsuming here the role of Jalandhar). As fate would have it, Sankhacuda
had also received an earlier boon from Lord Brahma to obtain Tulasi as his wife
and, having done so, would remain undefeated in battle as long as she remained
chaste to him. Taking full advantage of Brahma’s boon, Sankhacuda began to
terrorize the world and all the demigods as he desired to do. Being severely
afflicted by his attacks, the demigods then approached Shiva for protection. Shiva
himself then went to fight with Sankhacuda, but due to Tulasi’s faithfulness, Shiva
was unable to kill him regardless of what he tried. The demigods then fell into
despair but Vishnu (naturally) devised a plan to spoil Tulasi and render the
demon vulnerable. While Shiva continued to engage Sankhacuda in combat, Vishnu
went to the both of them first in the guise of a brahmana to beg charity from Sankhacuda. Standing before
Sankhacuda, the brahmana requested,
“My dear Sankhacuda, famous throughout the three worlds as the giver of
whatever one desires, please give me your kavaca
(armor) in charity.” Knowing that it was the chastity of his wife, Tulasi,
that protected him, Sankhacuda unhesitatingly gave the brahmana his armor in charity and resumed his fight with Shiva.
Now dressed in Sankhacuda’s armor, Vishnu went immediately to
the palace where Tulasi was waiting news of the battle’s outcome. Thinking that
her husband had returned from the fight to regain his strength, Tulasi welcomed
him to the bed chamber for a rest. Thus, the night passed and the faithfulness
of Tulasi was broken by Vishnu’s deceit, and at that moment Sankhacuda was
slain by Shiva in the battle that had also continued throughout the night. When
Tulasi realized that the Sankhacuda she had slept with was actually Vishnu and
not her husband and that Sankhacuda had been killed by Shiva, Tulasi levied her
curse against Vishnu: “By deceiving me, you have broken my chastity and
killed my husband. Only one whose heart is like stone could do such a thing.
Thus, I curse you to remain on earth as a stone!”
Accepting Tulasi’s curse, Vishnu replied, “For many
years you underwent very difficult penances to achieve me as your husband. At
the same time, Sankhacuda also performed penances to get you as his wife. As a
result of a boon from Lord Brahma, the desire of Sankhacuda was fulfilled. Now
that Sankhacuda has left this mortal world and gone to the spiritual world,
your desire to have me as your husband will be fulfilled. Give up this body,
and let your spirit be merged in Lakshmi’s, so that I am always with you. This
body of yours will be transformed into a river, which will become sacred and
celebrated as Gandaki, and from your beautiful hair will grow millions of small
trees that will be known as Tulasi. These trees will be held sacred by all my
devotees. Furthermore, to fulfill your curse, I will become many stones (shaligram shilas) and will always live
on the banks of the Gandaki River. Thus, Tulasi was transformed and appeared as
both the Gandaki River and as the sacred plant tulsi. Vishnu then came into the
world as Shaligram, born in the waters and on the banks of the Gandaki.
At this point, the Brahma Vaivarta Purana also mentions that Sankhacuda,
though a demon in his last manifestation, was also an eternal associate of
Krishna by the name of Sudama who manifested in the world as a demon so as to
assist these events in coming about.
In most cases, the popularity of this version of the story
owes its fame to the Marriage of Tulsi and Shaligram (Tulsi Vivah), a festival that takes place throughout India and
Nepal on the eleventh lunar day of the Hindu month of Kartik (October/November).
What all three variations of this story provide, however, is the links between
the chastity-deceit-curse version of the Shaligram story and the literal and
metaphorical birth of Shaligrams out of the landscape. To some degree, the
variability in the story likely has to do with narrative blending in both
Vaishnava and Shaiva traditions of Shaligrams veneration where both Vishnu and
Shiva are said to play distinctly important roles in the formation of the Kali
Gandaki River and of the Shaligrams within it. Furthermore, for many Shaiva and
Smarta Shaligram practitioners, the implicit association of Shaligrams directly
with Vishnu is not always accepted, noting for example the many instances where
Shiva mentions the worship of Shaligrams in the Skanda Purana or the particular
quote in the Padma Purana where Shiva himself states:
My devotees who offer obeisances to the shalagrama even negligently become fearless. Those who adore me while making a distinction between myself and Lord Hari will become free from this offence by offering obeisances to shalagrama. Those who think themselves as my devotees, but who are proud and do not offer obeisances to my Lord Vasudeva, are actually sinful and not my devotees. O my son, I always reside in the shalagrama. Being pleased with my devotion the Lord has given me a residence in His personal abode. Giving a shalagrama, is the best form of charity, being equal to the result of donating the entire earth together with its forests, mountains, and all.
Vaishnavas (particularly Gaudiya Vaishnavas), there is an additional reference
to offering Tulasi leaves to Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (9.26):
patram puspam phalam toyam yo me bhaktya prayacchati tad aham bhakty-upahrtamasnami prayatatmanah
my devotee offers me with devotion, a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, I will
to several current Vaishnava acaryas
(spiritual masters), the patram (leaf)
mentioned in this verse particularly refers to the tulsi leaf. Tulsi leaves are
also mentioned in the Garuda Purana and in the Brhan-naradiya Purana,
which state that the worship of Vishnu without tulsi leaves is incomplete and
is unlikely to be accepted by Vishnu as proper veneration: “Without
Tulasi, anything done in the way of worship, bathing, and offering of food and
drink to Vishnu (Krishna) cannot be considered real worship, bathing, or
offering. Vishnu does not accept any worship or eat or drink anything that is
Recently, a friend and devotee I’ve been blessed to know for a while now was finally able to make his yatra (pilgrimage) to the Damodar Kund. For those of you unfamiliar with the landscape of the Kali Gandaki region of Mustang, Nepal, the Damodar Kund is a glacial lake that lies high in the Himalayas in Upper Mustang (near the Southern Tibetan border). At 4890 meters, the Damodar Kund is extremely difficult to reach both because of rough terrain, high winds, and altitude but also because it lies in Upper Mustang, which typically requires extremely costly permits to enter.
Rumored to be the original source of the Kali Gandaki river, however, many Shaligram practitioners dream of the opportunity to see it and to potentially find rare and beautiful Shaligrams in its waters. But few will ever get the chance and fewer still write about their first-hand experiences.
So, with that, I invite you to read Ambarisa Dasa’s account of his recent pilgrimage and take the time to view his wonderful photos of Damodar Kund taken this past June.
honor of Cephalopod Week, I’ve put together a short discussion on the types of
ammonites typically found in Shaligrams. So, here we go!
The Nepal Himalayas contain a wide variety of ammonite species owning to a number of different time periods, from M. bifurcatus and M. apertusmantataranus in the Ferruginous Oolite Formation,[i] to Kimmeridgian[ii]Paraboliceras assemblages, to late Tithonian-Berriasian Blanfordiceras and Proniceras assemblages. Shaligrams, however, are generally comprised of four particular species of Jurassic ammonites: Blandifordiceras, Haplophylloceras, and Perisphinctids (both Aulacosphinctus of the Upper Kimmeridgian/Lower Tithonian and Aulacosphinctoides of the Upper Tithonian). Other Shaligram formations include belemnites (such as the Ram Shaligram) and the bivalve Retroceramus (such as the Anirudda Shaligram) but for the most part, “classic” Shaligram manifestations are, by and large, comprised of various black shale ammonites at assorted levels of erosion and wear.[iii]
Blandfordiceras species (lower Tithonian age) are widely distributed ammonites especially known for their tight but evenly balanced spirals and raised, biplicate (Y-shaped), ridges. Geologist Herwart Helmstaedt (1969)[iv] was one of the first researchers to investigate the ammonites of the Thak Khola region (immediately south of Mustang) and, according to him, some fifty percent of all ammonites collected in Mustang belong to the Blandfordiceras genus. He is also credited with discovering and naming the new species Blandfordiceras muktinathense, though the name does not often appear in common usage (Dhital 2015: 288).
Haplophylloceras, on the other hand, tends to include fewer rings in the
formation of its central spiral and sports a distinctive chevron-like ridge
pattern along the outer phragmocone (the back edge of the shell). Finally, Perisphinctid ammonites are recognizable
by their evolute shell morphology with typically biplicate, simple, or
triplicate ribbing. Larger shells may have simple apertures and smooth body
chambers while smaller species tend to have lappets and ribbed body chambers
(Arkell et. al. 1957). Aulacosphinctoides,
a member of the Perisphinctidae
family, are also well represented in Shaligrams. These ammonites are
characterized by an evolute shell with whorls broadly rounded, ribs sigmoid
that mostly bifurcate (and occasionally trifurcate), and clearly defined lappets.[v]Aulacosphinctoides also closely
resembles its Indo-Malagasian relative Torquantisphinctes
but differs in that it has more rounded or depressed whorls and more sigmoid
and frequently triplicate ribbing.[vi]
The paleontological history of ammonites in the Himalayas is a complex one and despite recent advances in the stratigraphical use of microfossil groups and non-palaeontological laboratory techniques in geological dating, ammonites continue to retain their pre-eminent position as one of the most reliable and accurate correlation tools available for marine Jurassic sequencing (not unlike dendrochronology to the archaeologist and paleo-ecologist). They also have a number of other uses.
Ammonites have been recognized for their value in palaeobiogeography studies and in the study of evolutionary mechanisms and patterns, such as speciation and extinction over vast expanses of geological time. As Kevin Page notes however, these latter studies are often hindered by incomplete understandings of ammonite correlation and taxonomy, from the species level upwards (2008: 54). This situation is then exacerbated by the limited funding available for such research given the preference amongst many funding organizations and media outlets for more mysterious or sensational fossil groups and more fashionable (if transient) scientific theories and hypotheses. This is why the Shaligram traditions of South Asia have something to offer the world of paleontology; adding new dimensions of interpretation and importance to the image of the ammonite, perhaps even to cultural conversations about the modern meanings of fossils as a whole. For Shaligram practitioners, the constant scientific debate and limited amount of concrete detail for describing Shaligram ammonites in Mustang is both taken in stride and as further evidence of the entanglements of different kinds of “storytelling” when it comes to Shaligram origins and ontologies. Or, as my old friend and mentor Prasad Vipul Yash once expressed it, “They don’t know and we don’t know. Not all of it, anyway. They call it one thing, we call it another, but it’s all the same thing. It just depends on what it is you want to know about the world.”
[i] A thin (roughly 3
meter), black shale, marker bed which contains microscopic iron (ferruginous)
particles which set it apart from the nearby Spiti Shales.
the geologic timescale, the Kimmeridgian is a stage in
the Late or Upper Jurassic epoch. It spans the time between 157.3 ±
1.0 Ma and 152.1 ± 0.9 Ma (million years ago). The Kimmeridgian
follows the Oxfordian and precedes the Tithonian.
[iii] Similar looking
ammonites which occasionally appear in Shaligram discussions (but are not
considered Shaligram) are Dactylioceras semicelatum from Whitby, North Yorks
England; Toxaceratiode sp. From the Walsh
River, Queensland, Australia; Crucilobiceras densinodulum from
Charmouth, Dorset UK; Dactylioceras athleticum from Schlaifhausen, Forscheim,
near Nuremburg, Germany; and Acanthoceras sp from Agadir, Morocco.
[iv] H. Helmstaedt.
1969. Eine Ammoniten-Fauna aus den Spiti-Schiefern von Muktinath in
Nepal. Zitteliana 1:63-88 [W. Kiessling/M. Krause]
[v] These are flanges that protrude from the final chamber at the front of the creature in adult male specimens [the microconch] which some speculate may have been used for sexual display. These features are not present on the larger female ammonites.
[vi] Sepkoski, Jack
(2002). “Sepkoski’s Online Genus Database.”
Retrieved 2016-09-14 and Phil Eyden (2003). “Ammonites: A General
Overview.” Retrieved 2016-09-14.
Shaligram shrines are each as unique as the households
that look after them.
As I move into the planning stage for my second manuscript on Shaligram interpretive traditions, I have become more and more fascinated with the specifics of Shaligram ritual practice in the home shrines of families who venerate them. I have written earlier on a number of aspects of this particular kind of home Shaligram seva (service/worship), including discussing how various family members participate in the care of the Shaligram deities, how parents bequeath specific shilas to children during important milestones (weddings, moving away, acceptance to school or graduation, funerals, etc.), and how second and third children plan their own Shaligram pilgrimages to begin building their home practices when elder children inherit the family’s collection. But what I haven’t spoken much at length about is the unique expressions of devotion built into every home mandir and into every home darshan.
As living members of the family, it should come as no surprise that Shaligrams are treated with much the same level of care and the rest of the household is. This means that their mandir (or shrines) are often reflective of things important to the rest of the family. It is not unusual to therefore include food, clothing, and other accessories for your Shaligrams and other deities to enjoy. But home shrines are very often more complicated than that, so I have posted a series of photos taken from specific home shrines along with a short commentary to better demonstrate what I mean.
Krishna with Hats
I love this Vaishnava home darshan. The story behind
it is that the household, in this case, happens to be in a region that gets
very cold during the winter. As such, one of the elderly women of the family
knitted caps for the deities so that they wouldn’t find the temperature so
unpleasant. This mirrors, to some degree, a common practice in temple deity
worship wherein sandalwood paste (which is very cooling when placed on the
skin) is painted over the deities and Shaligrams during especially hot days in
order to make them more comfortable. But this is not the first time I have seen
warm clothes for murti. Many temples in colder climates have sweaters
and wraps on hand for the deities just as much as they have the kinds of typical
dhotis, saris, and tunics which are the standard for dressing icons. Either way,
though, the hats are incredibly cute and when added to these Krishna Gopala
Shaligrams (Krishna as a young child), they seem even more fitting.
You will also likely notice the eyes (as objects attached to the smaller
Shaligrams and painted on to the larger one). Adding eyes, faces, and certain
expressions is extremely common in Shaligram worship and is described as
assisting practitioners in “taking darshan” (a type of ritualized exchange of
gazes where one views the deity and is viewed by the deity in return). This
does not mean that Shaligrams without the inclusion of eyes cannot “see” their
devotees (they can) but only that they act as a focal point for ritual
practice. For many people, it’s just easier to interact with a face.
Lastly, these Shaligrams have recently received their daily offering of tulsi
leaves. Tulsi (a type of holy basil) and water are, generally speaking, the two
most basic parts of Shaligram worship to such a degree that, if these two
things are the only things a family is capable of offering their home deities,
it is considered enough and the Shaligrams are content.
Next to Krishna and Shiva, Narasimha is probably the
third most commonly sought after Shaligram. Unfortunately, it is also one of
the hardest to find. Comprised of two internal chakras and a wide open vadana
(mouth) this Shaligram must also demonstrate notable “teeth” in the ridges near
the edge of the mouth (formed by the incomplete wearing of the internal
structures of the ammonite). I particularly like this Ugra Narasimha Shaligram
(which has smoother chakras and a larger vadana than other types of Narasimha
Shaligrams) because of the eyes the family has added to his face. To me, he
looks both simultaneously fierce and adorable. Or perhaps he just knows that he
is adorable and is especially mad about it. In any case, this simpler home
shrine keeps the primary household deity, the self-manifest Narasimha Shaligram,
at the forefront and in the center, and all other murti, such as the Jagannath
icons, along the back.
One of my fondest memories of fieldwork was participating
in a four-hour abisheka (bathing ritual) for a Brahmin household’s Shaligrams.
It was an all-day community event with food, conversation, and, of course, talk
of Shaligram pilgrimage. This was largely due to the fact that the patriarch of
the household in question had just gone on his very first Shaligram pilgrimage
to Nepal and was excited to welcome the new family members (seen here) home.
Abishek is one of the typical ways new Shaligrams are welcomed into a
household. One of the reasons for this is that Shaligrams are said to “take
birth” out of the Kali Gandaki River and, as such, water is an integral part of
their worship. Another reason for this is that the bathing ritual and
subsequent pujas tend to mirror the river birth of the Shaligrams as a
kind of secondary rebirth into the family. In other words, Shaligrams are first
born into the world through the Kali Gandaki and then born again into their new
households and families through abishek. Unsurprisingly, I have known a
great many pilgrims to also collect water from either the Kali Gandaki or from
the water spouts at the temple of Muktinath (the high-altitude temple at the
end of the Shaligram pilgrimage route in Mustang) to bring back home with them
and use for precisely this purpose. The most extreme versions of this even
involve pilgrims who keep their newly found Shaligrams in containers of river
water, completely immersed until they get home. This way, their Shaligrams are,
in effect, born only once and always directly into the family.
Hare Krishna Shaligram Seva
One of the fastest growing groups of Shaligram practitioners the world over are undoubtedly the Hare Krishnas. In fact, many Shaligram sellers I worked with in Nepal and in India described Hare Krishnas as their largest set of clienteles who are usually looking to purchase specific Shaligrams. There are a number of reasons for this, despite the typical ban on buying and selling sacred stones. One reason is that many Hare Krishnas do not live in South Asia and cannot afford to undergo pilgrimage to Nepal. Additionally, as many Hare Krishnas are not of South Asian descent, they might be barred from entering certain shrines or temples or they may face exorbitant permit and travel fees when attempting to access certain sacred landscapes (Mustang being one of them, as there are different permit prices for Indian and Nepali pilgrims versus all other foreign passport holders). Unfortunately, many Hindus and Buddhists in South Asia also have extremely ambiguous feelings about Hare Krishna practice and some have (very founded) concerns about the rate at which foreigners are purchasing Shaligram stones, particularly online. In effect, as more and more foreign practitioners are willing to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a Shaligram, the price of available stones goes up and more stones are collected from the depleted reserves of the Kali Gandaki River Valley, rendering many Shaligrams completely out of reach for poorer devotees.
On the other hand, many practitioners have noted that the spread of Shaligram seva to the Hare Krishnas has meant the preservation and continuation of ritual traditions that were, and very much still are, in danger of going extinct. Hare Krishnas, for example, have been some of the first Shaligram devotees to begin writing down Shaligram descriptions and interpretations or compiling different rules for Shaligram puja and sharing those texts with others. As with most things, popularity has its pros and cons.
Size Doesn’t Matter
Lastly, I want to note that one of my personally favorite things about Shaligram darshan, and really home darshan in general, is the use of miniatures to represent or re-create a variety of divine worlds on the small scale. It is not unusual, for example, for ritual practitioners to include small sets of household objects (almost like doll-house furniture and accessories), miniature animals, and other accoutrements of every day life with their murti right alongside the tiny pairs of shoes, clothes, dishes and water cups, and jewelry present in almost every type of darshan. In one especially elaborate home shrine I had the privilege of experiencing, the family had used a collection of Shopkins (tiny, collectible, toys in the shape of anthropomorphic grocery items) to construct an entire smiling feast for the benefit of the household murti. While one might view this particular set-up as bizarrely indicative of late-stage capitalism, what I want to emphasize here is that the use of such objects as ritual offerings or to create new miniature realms for deities to inhabit has a history that predates Moose Toys and Hasbro by about four thousand years. In this case, the fact that Shopkins miniatures are manufactured and sold widely just means they are more accessible to the average family than more expensive hand-made items might be. In the end, it isn’t the nature of object offered that really counts but the spirit within which it is given. And besides, even deities like to have a little fun, right?
is nearly complete! It’s been a long road but I will be turning in the revised
and completed manuscript to my publisher in just a few weeks. I believe I’ve
mentioned it before but I have decided that my current research will be
separated into two different books. The first, which hopefully will be coming
out sometime around the beginning of next year, is my principal ethnography
about Shaligram pilgrimage in Mustang, Nepal and about the active practice of Shaligram
ritual traditions throughout South Asia. The second is going to be about
Shaligram interpretive traditions. This way, I can frame the first book as an
introduction to the topic of Shaligram pilgrimage for academics and laypeople
who aren’t likely to have any prior background or knowledge of Shaligrams at
all. The second book can then be designed more for Hindus, Buddhists, and
Bonpos who already have some prior experience with and understanding of
Shaligrams or who actually practice with Shaligrams right now.
But as I finish up this first manuscript and get it off to the next step in the
process, I’m starting to think about how I want the second manuscript to work.
I already have a series of “field guide”-style pages that detail the
characteristics of each of the 90 or so name-categories of Shaligram stones and
I think those will be especially valuable to practitioners. But I also want to
have some kind of commentary at the beginning that discusses exactly how
Shaligrams are read. This is a challenge, of course, because there are several
different Shaligram interpretive traditions and each tradition reads the shilas in slightly different ways. But
here is a little of what I am thinking.
Firstly, I want to talk about the main sets of characteristics: shape, color, set,
vadana (mouth), vanamala (white thread), and chakra (spiral). Each of these
characteristics exists on something of a spectrum. In other words, there are a
variety of shapes a Shaligram might appear in, a few different colors, and it
might have one or more vadanas or chakras. Or, as it may be, none at all. In
any case, this makes any discussion of variations potentially limitless and I
just don’t have the time or space to cover every possible permutation.
Secondly, I will need to have some commentary on each of the current Shaligram
traditions. There are, for example, several Vaishnava Shaligram traditions, a
few Shaiva traditions, a number of Smarta traditions, as well as both Jain and
Buddhist traditions. Not surprisingly, these various traditions all tend to use
different combinations of sacred texts, guru lineages, and deity genealogies to
interpret the specific manifestation present in the shila and, though they overlap significantly, they are each unique
and distinct. I’ve compiled a table of my data and descriptions, but I am note
entirely sure what I want to do with it just yet.
And lastly, I want to both acknowledge and pay homage to the Shaligram books
that have come before me. The two main ones being, of course, Rao’s Shaligram
Kosha and Ram Charan Sharma’s Shaligram Puran (I discuss pilgrimage
literature in the ethnography). Both of these works, though extremely difficult
to find outside of India, have been instrumental in my research and deserve the
best citations I can give them. They also aptly demonstrate some of the challenges
of working with Shaligram traditions as they move outwards from the Himalayas.
As Sharma’s work shows, for example, several Shaligram traditions have begun to
incorporate other sacred stones, such as Dwaraka shilas and Shiva Lingams, and
ritual objects, such as murti and
coins, in place of rarer Shaligrams that have been otherwise too difficult to
obtain. This means that any given Shaligram puja
might incorporate a wide variety of mantras,
images, objects, or other accoutrements whose relationships to one another
might not be immediately apparent.
as I continue to contemplate how best to move forward, I have been
experimenting with a few ways to demonstrate “reading Shaligrams.” One,
represented by the image below, takes a diagrammatical approach to mapping out
specific characteristics and their meanings. I’m also considering using other
combinations of tables, images, scans, and drawings to highlight the important
processes in the most understandable way I can. Hopefully, either later this
year or next year, I’ll have the chance to devote a significant amount of time
to it and to the complementary online database I’ve been contemplating for a
Reading Shaligrams is a challenge. Both in terms of reading about them and reading the shilas themselves. So, it’s going to be
a delicate balance. I’ve already included as many Vedic, Puranic, Shastric, and
Tantric references as I can and I will continue to document the various ways in
which both sacred texts and peoples over time have come to understand
Shaligrams and to receive darsan of
the deities present. But in the end, I know that I can’t include everything. It’s
a start, though.
Furthermore, I’m interested to hear what you all might think, in terms of
format, information, or presentation. If anyone has any thoughts, I’m open to
suggestions! Feel free to comment here or contact me on Twitter: @Manigarm
Whenever I am paging through endless spreadsheets of museum collection data on fossils I am always on the lookout for a few magic words: Ammonite, Spiti Shales, Nepal (or Tibet), Himalayas, and possibly Perisphinctes. Recently, while reviewing some fossil collection data supplied by the Oxford Museum of Natural History in the UK, I can across just such a listing for a series of Himalayan ammonite specimens they had listed as “purchased at a bazaar in Southern Tibet.”
While my current review of worldwide museum collections is geared towards an upcoming second manuscript on Shaligram interpretive traditions, it did also get me thinking about labels again. The vast majority of the Western world knows Shaligrams only by scientific categories and because of this, is largely ignorant of their meanings beyond that of a common index fossil (more suited to the backroom of a collection or to a souvenir shelf than much else). They are fossil ammonites, they are primarily found in Nepal and Tibet, they are produced by a geological formation known as the Spiti Shales, and they are comprised of roughly four species of extinct Jurassic shellfish: Blandifordiceras, Haplophylloceras, and Perisphinctids (including both Aulacosphinctus of the Upper Kimmeridgian/Lower Tithonian and Aulacosphinctoides of the Upper Tithonian). Other Shaligram formations include belemnites (such as the Ram Shaligram) and the bivalve Retroceramus (such as the Anirudda Shaligram) but for the most part, “classic” Shaligram manifestations are, by and large, comprised of various black shale ammonites that fit the aforementioned paleontological criteria. In other words, these categories have produced a specific kind of knowing about Shaligrams and about fossils in general that represents a particular perspective in the history of scientific knowledge production.
In Ancient Greece, ammonites were known as “Cormu Ammonis,”“Corni de Ammone,” or “Cornamone” because their shapes were thought to resemble the tightly coiled ram’s horns used to represent the Egyptian god Ammon. Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – AD 79) even referred to them in the 37th volume of his work Naturalis Historia. In it, he writes: “The Hammonis cornu is among the holiest gems of Ethiopia, it is golden in colour and shows the shape of a ram’s horn; one assures that it causes fortune-telling dreams” (see also Nelson 1968). The ‘golden colour’ he refers to is a likely reference to the fact that many ammonite fossils, including Shaligrams, are often covered in iron pyrites which give them a sparkling golden appearance. Georgius Agricola, sometimes referred to as “the father of mineralogy” and the author of De Re Metallica, a work based on Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, also referred to ammonites as Ammonis Cornu. Even today, ammonite genus names often end with –ceras, the Greek word (κέρας) for “horn.”
The Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner also included some ammonite illustrations is his work De rerum fossilium (1565), but even toward the end of the 17th century, it is especially interesting to note that the organic nature of ammonites remained under debate (a debate which takes places in the Hindu Scriptures as well – most notably in reference to the formative workings of the vajra kita, or the thunderbolt worm). Robert Hooke, the famed experimental scientist and nemesis of Sir Isaac Newton, was fascinated by the logarithmic coil of ammonite shells and their regularly arranged septa (recall the classic image of the golden ratio). It was he who reached the conclusion that ammonites were not only of organic origin but also widely resembled the nautilus and may therefore be related. However, it wasn’t until 1716 that ammonites would finally join scientific taxonomy with a classification scheme first recorded by another Swiss naturalist, Johann Jacob Scheuchzer. The modern form of the word ammonite was then coined by the French zoologist Jean Guillaume Bruguière in 1790, but it wasn’t until 1884 that the subclass Ammonoidea was finally formalized in modern zoological taxonomy (Romano 2014).
In China, however, ammonites were called horn stones (jiao-shih) and were typically used in traditional medicine. Japanese texts, on the other hand, refer to them as chrysanthemum stones (kiku-ishi) and Buddhists interpreted their clockwise spirals (a representation of the direction in which the universe rotates) as a focus for meditation or as symbols of the eight-spoked wheel of dharma (an interpretation currently shared by many Buddhist pilgrims to Mustang, Nepal as well). Additionally, among ancient Celts, these fossils have been interpreted as a kind of petrified venomous snake (ophites) and referred to as “serpent stones.” In medieval England, ammonites (along with various other types of fossils) were taken as evidence for the actions of Biblical saints such St. Patrick, St. Keyne Wyry of Wiltshire (ca 461 – 505), or St. Hilda of Whitby (ca 614 – 680). According to Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion,[i] fossil ammonites were serpents that infested the region of Whitby before the coming of St. Hilda, who subsequently defeated the serpents and turned them to stone on the site where she intended to build an abbey (see also Skeat 1912).[ii]
In the Americas, Cretaceous baclitid ammonites were also once collected by the Indigenous peoples as “buffalo stones,” and were kept in medicine pouches as aids in corralling bison (Mayor 2005). Called Iniskim, members of the Blackfoot First Nations continue to harvest bright opalescent ammonites for ceremonial purposes even today.[iii] Furthermore, aside from their role as Shaligrams, ammonites also have a long and storied history more broadly in what Alexandra van der Geer refers to as the ‘fossil folklore’ of South Asia. She relates in detail, for example, entire regions of fossil beds containing not only ammonites but ancient giraffes, elephants, and tortoises near the Siwalik Hills of the Himalayas in India, which are used as evidence in proof of the great cosmic battle of Kurukshetra as described in the Mahabharata epic and which are also visited by religious pilgrims from all over the world (2008).
Isn’t it surprising then, given the incredible history of ammonites beyond geologic categories, that this information, these labels, almost never make it into museum collections? I’ve never seen, for example, any such exhibit that displays fossils in this way, unless, of course, we start talking about religious museums. I have no doubt that the Creation Museum in Kentucky has its own take on the fossil record and one that, undoubtedly, stands in opposition to science; that makes claims to truth over evidence and only that which aligns with their particular interpretation of Biblical texts. But like so many Shaligram practitioners, I do not mean to present Shaligrams here as any kind of potential foil to scientific inquiry or to imply, in any way, that the creation stories of Shaligrams are distinctly at odds with evolutionary theory. Because, for the most part, they aren’t (see: “Living Fossils” – https://thefamiliarstrange.com/2018/06/07/living-fossils/). And, in fact, I might argue that this division of modern museums and their preferred display narratives is more representative of the politics of religion and science in the West broadly than it is about what a Shaligram, or even an ammonite, “really” is.
What I imagine then is the opportunity to design a museum exhibit that pays tribute to all kinds of ways of knowing; to blend the narratives of Deep Geological Time with Mythic Time in such a way as to demonstrate the richness of fossil traditions both within science and without. I’m not entirely sure what I think it would look like just yet but if I were to incorporate Shaligrams, I would be sure to present them respectful to the contexts of their ritual practices, to emblazon placards with instructions on their interpretive traditions (I can see it now: “How to Read a Shaligram! In Six Easy Steps”), and to link the geological understanding of the tectonic creation of the Himalayas with the stories of sinmo and asuras (demons), Vishnu and Shiva, and the transformation of the goddess Tulsi into the river Gandaki. I would strive to introduce museum goers to the stories of gods and monsters, tectonic plates and dinosaurs, evolution and creation through labels, exhibits, and collection data that are all-at-once scientific, spiritual, and imaginative. And, if nothing else, to preserve all manner of histories; from those told by the ancient peoples who first encountered fossil stones, to the faithful pilgrims who continue the tradition, to the scientists who interpret them now, to the stories told by the stones themselves. After all, what is the Past if not the simmering cauldron from which the present emerges?
[i] Lovett, Edward (September 1905). “The Whitby Snake-Ammonite Myth.” Folk-Lore. 16 (3): 333–4.
[ii] Skeat, W.W., 1912. ““Snakestones” and stone thunderbolts as subjects for systematic investigation.” Folk-lore, 23: 45-80. Additionally, during the 19th century, it was not uncommon for people to carve images of snake’s heads around the bottom aperture of the ammonite shell so as to better the appearance of a snake in coiled repose.
[iii] See also: Rainbow Ammonites and Bison Stones available at https://albertashistoricplaces.wordpress.com/2018/01/10/rainbow-fossils-and-bison-calling/
Etter, W. 2015. Early Ideas about Fossil Cephalopods. Swiss Journal of Palaeontology 134:177-186.
Monks, N. and P. Palmer. 2002. Ammonites. Natural History Museum, London, London, England.
Mychaluk, K. A., A. A. Levinson, and R. L. Hall. 2001. Ammolite: Iridescent Fossilized Ammonite from Southern Alberta, Canada. Gems & Gemology 37: 4-25.
Peck, T. R. 2002. Archaeological Recovered Ammonites: Evidence for Long-Term Continuity in Nitsitapii Ritual. Plains Anthropologist 47:147-164.
Reeves, B. O. K. 1993. Iniskim: A Sacred Nisitapii Religious Tradition. In Kunaitupii: Coming Together on Native Sacred Sites, Their Sacredness, Conservation, and Interpretation, edited by B. O. K. Reeves and M. A. Kennedy, pp. 194-259.