About H. W.

Holly Walters is a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College. Her ethnographic work focuses on Shaligrams. the sacred fossil ammonites of the Nepal Himalayas.

Outward Spirals: A Guide to Shaligram Stones (Cover Reveal)

It’s taken over a decade of work to get here but Outward Spirals finally has a release date for October, 2024.

When I met my first Shaligram on the way to India in 2012, I never could have imagined this would be the result. I will definitely have more to say the closer we get to pre-orders, but let this be welcoming news for the new year.

Outward Spirals: A Guide to Shaligram Interpretive Traditions (TLS Press, 2024)

I finally have some good news to share about the Shaligram interpretive guide that I know so many of you have been asking me about for the past few years. Well, we finally have a release date!

March 2024.

The book manuscript currently covers 90 Shaligram name-types with several of their variations and Puranic references. This means that I have documented most of the primary types of Shaligrams identified by multiple religious traditions and their most common appearances. But, it is important to remember that I certainly haven’t been able to cover ever possible variation or manifestation (which I talk about in the introduction). However, I sincerely hope that this book will allow me to give back to so many Shaligram practitioners, devotees, and communities who have helped me in my research over the past ten years.

It’s hard to believe that I have dedicated a decade to learning Shaligram interpretive traditions. I’ve lived in India for a time and spent over two years in Mustang, Nepal focusing on the Kali Gandaki pilgrimage route specifically. Along the way, I have had the distinct pleasure and privilege to meet and work with gurus, sadhus, ritual specialists, and devotees from all over the world. It is my hope that this book reflects all of that accumulated knowledge and makes it accessible to anyone and everyone who wants it.

I will, of course, talk about the book more as we close in on the release, but I wanted to thank you all for your help and support of this work. It will be a happy day when the book, with photos and drawings all included, is finally out in the world.

A Krishna Gopala Shaligram from the author’s personal collection.

“Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas” — Interview with Dr. Raj Balkaran

I’ve been hard at work recently with the new book on Shaligram interpretive tradition which is still on track to come out around the end of 2023. But, in the meantime, I spent some time with Dr. Raj Balkaran talking about my first book and my fieldwork in Nepal on Shaligram pilgrimage.

If you want to hear me talk more about my work, check it out!

https://newbooksnetwork.com/shaligram-pilgrimage-in-the-nepal-himalayas

“Outward Spirals: A Guide to Shaligram Interpretive Traditions” (Work Continues)

A lovely morning Shaligram seva image

I’ve been hard at work editing the manuscript for my upcoming book on Shaligram interpretive traditions and I am excited that we are still on track for publication next year. As I continue with the additions and changes however, I want to share my current table of contents. While I do have a page limit (to ensure that the book can be printed affordably), I have added some Shaligrams that I wasn’t able to before, bringing me to a name-list of 85. I still have some leeway to work with though. As such, let me know if there are any Shaligrams I haven’t included here that you might like to see added to the discussion!

(Note: I am not including multiple manifestations — meaning Shaligrams that have more than one deity appearing in their characteristics. This guide specifically focuses on single name-types.)

As of right now, I have:

  1. Acyuta
  2. Adhokshaja
  3. Aditya
  4. Agni
  5. Ananta-Sesha
  6. Ananta-Vasuki
  7. Anirudda
  8. Basudev/Vasudev
  9. Brahman
  10. Buddha
  11. Dadhivamana
  12. Damodar
  13. Gada Dhar (with addition of Padma Shaligram)
  14. Ganesh
  15. Garuda
  16. Govardhana
  17. Hamsa
  18. Hanuman
  19. Harihara
  20. Hayagriva
  21. Hiranyagarbha
  22. Hrishikesh
  23. Janardhan
  24. Kalki
  25. Kalpvriksha
  26. Kamal-Narayan
  27. Kapila
  28. Keshav
  29. Krishna
  30. Krishna-Balaram
  31. Krishna-Gopala (Santan Gopala)
  32. Krishna-Govinda
  33. Kubera
  34. Kumaramurti
  35. Kurma
  36. Lakshmi-Janardhan
  37. Lakshmi-Narasimha
  38. Lakshmi-Narayan
  39. Lakshmi (Devi)
  40. Madhusudana
  41. Mahashakti
  42. Mahavishnu-Dasavatara
  43. Mahavishnu-Multichakra
  44. Matsya
  45. Murari
  46. Narasimha (Ugra Narasimha)
  47. Narayan (Vishnu-Narayana)
  48. Navavyuha
  49. Navdurga
  50. Padmanabha
  51. Parameshtin
  52. Parashurama
  53. Parvati (Shiva-Parvati)
  54. Pitambara
  55. Pradyumna
  56. Prthu
  57. Pundarikaaksha
  58. Purushottama
  59. Rada Ram/Sri Ram
  60. Raghunath
  61. Raj Rajeshwara
  62. Ratnagharbha
  63. Samudra Manthan/Sona Parbat
  64. Shankarshan
  65. Shankha
  66. Shashidhara-Chandramauli
  67. Shimshumara
  68. Shiva Linga
  69. Shridhar
  70. Shrikara
  71. Sudarshan
  72. Surya/Suraj
  73. Tarkshya
  74. Trivikrama
  75. Upendra
  76. Vaikuntha
  77. Vamana
  78. Varaha
  79. Venkateshwara-Balaji
  80. Vishvakesha
  81. Vishvarupa and Vishvambhara
  82. Vishvayoni/Jagadyoni
  83. Vittala and Vitobha
  84. Yagnamurti
  85. Yogeshwara-Yogaraja

Great News! The “Guide to Shaligrams” Has a Publisher!

Wonderful announcement everyone!!

My second manuscript, designed for a popular general audience, finally has a publisher! I can hardly believe it but the book will be coming out in 2023!

I have planned a guide that details each type of Shaligram with photographs and line drawings explaining exactly how each shila is identified and what characteristics mean what.

Stay tuned for more information as I work on revisions and updates!

–HW

Image
All thanks and praises to Shaligram shila for this blessing!

Shaligram Interpretive Practice (Secondary Markings)

One of the most complicated aspects of Shaligram interpretation, and the one that often takes the longest to learn, is reading the various small markings that indicate the nuances of a specific manifestation. While I have already posted extensively on the major aspects of interpretation (i.e., set, color, chakra, vadana, vanamala, and so on), I haven’t yet truly tackled a discussion of secondary markings. To be honest, it’s an intimidating topic; not just because it’s complicated in practice but also because there really is no overarching standard to reference in terms of how this kind of Shaligram reading is done. That being said, there are some typical features that appear in the Puranic texts that make for a reasonably easy introduction to the basics. As such, my caveat here is one I’ve made before. I will cover the broad strokes of this kind of Shaligram interpretation while also continually noting that this is by no means comprehensive and you will likely encounter even more detail and variable techniques depending on the specific Shaligram tradition you consult.

The issue of small or minute markings is one that appears commonly in scriptural Shaligram descriptions. Usually referred to as “circular marks,” “linear marks,” “marks of a conch,” or “weapon marks,” these surface details that may or may not appear on a particular Shaligram act as guides to the specific mood (bhava) of the deity present or as indications of a unique manifestation (such as the difference between a Krishna Govinda Shaligram and a Krishna Gopala Shaligram). For this reason, any given Shaligram may have one, many, or no markings at all that can add varying levels of complexity to its interpretation. For example, the typical Sri Ram Shaligram is described as having a single outer chakra with a white vanamala that goes all the way around the shila. But Sri Ram also appears in secondary markings. Specifically, the “arrow” marking (the long white line shown below).

Sri Ram Shaligram with white arrow marking

The “arrow” marking can also appear like this:

Sri Ram Shaligram with black “arrow” marking

In both cases, the “arrow” is described as a long line, raised or depressed into the stone, with a corresponding round “heel” mark somewhere next to it.

Other common markings include the icons of various weapons, such as the Gada (mace) or Shiva’s Trishula (trident).

Shaligram with trishula marking
Shaligram with gada marking

The appearance of weapons on a Shaligram tends to denote that the bhava (mood) of the deity present is highly protective or, in some cases, even hostile (depending on the deity). These Shaligrams tend to be viewed with a measure of caution then, until the exact nature of the manifestation can be determined. They are not uncommon in households though and many devotees seek them out in times of hardship or when misfortune has befallen them or their loved ones.

There is also, of course, the popular Padma or lotus marking, which is almost the exact polar opposite of the weapon marking because it indicates a Shaligram in a state of calm or meditation. Here it is on a Madhusudana Shaligram that also contains a white vanamala (garland) marking around the base.

Madhusudana Shaligram with padma marking and vanamala

Lotus markings, however, can appear in a few different ways. In the four Mahavishnu Shaligrams pictured below, the lotus appears on the front of the top right shila.

These four Shaligrams then comprise a puja set (from top left: Sudarshan Shaligram, Padma Shaligram, Shankha Shaligram, Gada Shaligram).

Secondary markings can also be far more subtle than this. The Mahavishnu Multi-Chakra Shaligram that follows after here has a deep elongated depression on its underside. The presence of this flattened “bowl” shape indicates that this Shaligram is a Yagnamurti and can be used for community rites.

Top of Mahavishnu
Bottom of Mahavishnu

Yagnamurti Shaligrams also commonly have the markings of sruk and sruva, the two spoons or “sticks” used in fire rituals. In all, these characteristics can appear alone or together and can be found on all manner of Shaligrams.

Sruk and Sruva on a Krishna Shaligram

One of the most challenging aspects for me, in learning Shaligram interpretation, has always been the difference between “linear marks” and vanamala. While vanamala markings are almost always white and therefore differentiated on the basis of size and color, linear marks can still look very similar. This Parashurama Shaligram, for example, has one such ambiguous marking.

Parashurama Shaligram

As you can see, the linear mark is quite deep and readily observable in the stone. It even goes all the way around the top of the Shaligram, again, in much the same way as a vanamala would. So, which is it then? A vanamala or a “linear mark?” Ultimately, in this case, the final determination is made using the Shaligram’s other characteristics. The shape of this stone is called “axe-like,” with a longer chakra ridge on one side of the shila and a shorter ridge opposite it. The rounded central body and smooth features then indicate that this is Parashurama and since it is Parashurama (Sanskrit: “Rama with an axe,” the sixth incarnation of the Dasavatara), the marking is that of his sacred thread. This variation of Parashurama is then that of the warrior who has surrendered his weapons and taken up his role as Guru.

And finally, there is similar complexity between chakras (the spiral discus formation) and “circular marks.” This one is slightly easier to determine though. Chakras are pretty distinctive in that they are spiral formations with ridges along their surface.

Sudarshan Shaligram

Circular marks are much smaller and don’t have much in the way of identifiable features.

Vishvarupa Shaligram

The presence of linear and circular marks must then be taken into consideration when reading the overall Shaligram since linear marks tends to indicate a more passive, instructive, or contemplative deity while circular marks tend to indicate a larger, more cosmic, form of the deity.

Ultimately, reading Shaligrams is a lengthy and complicated process that involves extensive knowledge of ritual traditions, stories, and histories. Etched on the face of every Shaligram is an entire text, only available to those who know how to speak its language and understand its script. But this is also how Shaligram connects the past, the present, and the future: by carrying within itself the entirety of a world that stretches backwards and forwards into indeterminate eons. This is how every Shaligram tells a story. Unfortunately, there are, without a doubt, volumes I could write on each and every specific manifestation and all of the possible markings that might appear on a given Shaligram, but alas, I only have so much time myself.

Shaligram Interpretive Practice (Chakra)

I’ve intentionally saved chakra for last. The reasons for this are really two-fold. One, chakras (the name given to the ammonite shell-spiral) are probably the most iconic characteristic of Shaligram stones and the vast majority of devotees and practitioners want their shilas to have clear, obvious, and visible chakras. And two, chakra is the only consistently mentioned trait in every Shaligram interpretive tradition. Which is to say that if anything could be said to “define” Shaligram reading, it’s the presence and absence of spiral markings.

Chakra, the central spiral

But as with any Shaligram characteristic, chakra exists on a kind of spectrum. The first concern in Shaligram identification is how many chakras a shila has followed by what state of completeness those chakras are in. For example, the Sudarshan, Lakshmi-Narayan, and Surya Shaligrams all have one, large, prominent, chakra. But in the case of Sudarshan, the chakra is sharp and clear and is visible all the way through to the center.

Sudarshan Shaligram

The Surya Shaligram then has essentially the same thing, but in reverse (i.e., the chakra is impressed into the stone, not raised above it).

*In fossil paleontology this is called the cast and the mold.

Surya Shaligram

The Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram, on the other hand, also boasts a single main chakra but one that is partially obscured in the center by either a smooth, shale, nodule or by flattened wearing.

Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram

In yet one more case, the Vaikuntha Shaligram also contains only a single chakra. But within the spiral of this Shaligram stone, the chakra contains at least one “step” wherein parts of the cast and the mold are both still visible. This gives the central chakra a “two-layered” appearance that indicates its association with transcending the material world into the spiritual world beyond. Hence, Vaikuntha — the celestial abode of Vishnu.

A pair of Vaikuntha Shaligrams

But all of this, as you may have noticed, still only refers to Shaligrams with a single chakra! There are, of course, Shaligrams with two, three, or even up to ten and twelve chakras. Each of which contains multiple distinctions and variations depending on the Shaligram interpretive tradition one uses. It is fair to say, however, that the most common and most sought-after Shaligrams tend to display either one or two chakras. Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligrams, such as the one pictured above, can have one chakra and a smooth, featureless, back or another chakra on the opposite side (for a total of 2). They also have a second variation.

The alternative Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram has two internal chakras and a slightly obscured or worn central column between them (see below). I include this Shaligram to note specifically that chakras are not always external and that internal chakras are just as common. What makes for troublesome identification is that the Puranic texts don’t distinguish between the two types. A Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram with internal characteristics isn’t described any differently than a Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram with all external characteristics.

Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram

Multichakra Shaligrams are much trickier, unfortunately, and there is often a fair amount of debate when it comes to identifying some of the more esoteric variations. The Praanatoshani Tantra, for example, lists thirteen divisions of Shaligrams by their number of chakras.

  1. Sudarshan
  2. Lakshmi-Narayan
  3. Acyuta
  4. Janardan, Caturbhuja
  5. Vaasudeva
  6. Pradyumna
  7. Sankarshan
  8. Purushottam
  9. Navavyuha
  10. Dasavatara
  11. Anirudda
  12. Ananta
  13. Paramatma

Other sources, such as the Skanda Purana, give different lists (something I discuss more at length in my upcoming manuscript on interpretive traditions) or don’t delineate numbers of chakras at all. Conversely, some Puranic sources say that any Shaligram with more than three chakras is automatically Mahavishnu. In practice, once a Shaligram reliably demonstrates more than four chakras, it tends to be read as one of the Mahavishnu types.

The Mahavishnu Multi-Chakra Shaligram can therefore also appear in a wide variety of forms. For many devotees, these Shaligrams are specific to Shaligram category-types listed in both the Praanatoshani Tantra and in the Skanda Purana, where the specific name of Vishnu associated with the Shaligram is determined by the number of visible chakras rather than by specific characteristics of shape or color. For this reason, many practitioners will identify multi-chakra Shaligrams using the name associated with their number of chakras followed by Mahavishnu (i.e., a four chakra Shaligram would be called Caturbhuja Mahavishnu, a ten chakra Shaligram would be called Dasavatara Mahavishnu, and so on). This naming convention, however, can become confusing in cases where other Puranic texts use the same deity designations, such as Acyuta (three chakras) or Pradyumna (six chakras) to identify other types of Shaligrams in their own right. For example, Pradyumna Shaligrams are also mentioned in the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, but are identified by criteria other than their number of chakras.

Also referred to as Chaturbhuj Shaligrams overall, Mahavishnu shilas are particularly sought after for their capacity to shield individuals and households from snakes, evil spirits, and restless ghosts. In other cases, they are prized for their capacity to create atmospheres of holiness and devotion marked by creative energies, innovation, and good luck. In Shakti Hindu traditions, Mahavishnu Shaligrams are sometimes referred to as Sri Chakra or Sri Yantra Shaligrams. In this interpretation, the multiple interlocking chakras are seen as representations of a yantra of nine interlocking triangles that radiate outwards from a central point. As a junction point between the manifest (physical) and unmanifest (divine) world, these Shaligrams are therefore considered to be the form of the goddess Sri Lalitha or Tripura Sundari, “the beauty of three worlds” (an aspect, not of Lakshmi but of the goddess Parvati).

A five-chakra Mahavishnu Shaligram

It is also important to note that multi-chakra Shaligrams can be interpreted as being multi-deity stones as well and some Shaligram interpretive traditions do just this (such as the two-chakra Ram-Sita Shaligram and the multi-chakra Radha-Krishna-Shrikara Shaligram). This means, ultimately, that while chakra is the most common and probably most referenced Shaligram characteristic, the particular appearance and number of spirals on a shila can mean different things depending on the authoritative sources one uses to read it. It can also vary given the Shaligram’s other characteristics, such as set, color, and vadana. But in the end, visible chakras are always considered auspicious and, for the most part, the more the merrier.

Shaligram Interpretive Practice (Vadana and Vanamala)

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.

Ugra-Narasimha Shaligram with “teeth”

Another Shaligram with well-know vadana is the Lakshmi-Janardhan, which typically has three vadana and upwards of four to six chakras within them.

Lakshmi-Janardhan Shaligram

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.

A Multi-Chakra Mahavishnu Shaligram with holes (not vadana)

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.

Madhusudhana Shaligram with vanamala and lotus marking.

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.

Kumaramurti Shaligram

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.