“Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas” has gotten a formal book review!
Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas has been reviewed in Himal Mag! Check it out!
Iâ€™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 â€œdefineâ€ Shaligram reading, itâ€™s the presence and absence of spiral markings.
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.
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.
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.
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 â€œstepâ€ wherein parts of the cast and the mold are both still visible. This gives the central chakra a â€œtwo-layeredâ€ appearance that indicates its association with transcending the material world into the spiritual world beyond. Hence, Vaikuntha â€“ the celestial abode of Vishnu.
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 donâ€™t distinguish between the two types. A Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram with internal characteristics isnâ€™t described any differently than a Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram with all external characteristics.
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.
- Lakshmi â€“ Narayan
- Janardan, Caturbhuja
Other sources, such as the Skanda Purana, give different lists (something I discuss more at length in my upcoming manuscript on interpretive traditions) or donâ€™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, â€œthe beauty of three worldsâ€ (an aspect, not of Lakshmi but of the goddess Parvati).
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 Shaligramâ€™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.
In Sanskrit, vadana means â€œmouthâ€ 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 â€œteeth;â€ hence the manifestation of the half-man, half-lion incarnation of Krishna as it appears below.
Another Shaligram with well-know vadana is the Lakshmi-Janardhan, which typically has three vadana and upwards of four to six chakras within them.
The key, however, to understanding the difference between vadana and â€œholesâ€ (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 donâ€™t have any other characteristics inside of them.
Vanamala, on the other hand, refers to the white quartz lines that can appear on Shaligrams. These lines are representative of the sacred thread (upavita) or are sometimes parsed as â€œgarlands or very long necklacesâ€ 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, donâ€™t necessarily need to display a vanamala to be identified as such though they typically have at least one marking that is a vanamala, a lotus, a trishula (trident), a bow, or a spear.
This Kumaramurti Shaligram (a manifestation of Kartikeya/Skanda), however, has several vanamala and must have these markings in order to be identified as this manifestation. A Shaligram of this shape without at least one vanamala would not be Kumaramurti.
In all, both vadana and vanamala are kinds of characteristics that are commonly referenced by the Puranic texts as specific to certain kinds of Shaligrams, along with their number and clarity. Where interpretation can get complicated is when a Shaligram has worn to the point that some of its vadana are indistinguishable from general holes or its vanamala has disappeared completely. It is at this point, according to many ritual specialists, that a Shaligram is ready for retirement or â€œdeath.â€ This means that the Shaligram will either be turned over to a temple for â€œrestâ€ 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, itâ€™s just a question of understanding what manifestation they indicate.
While the classic (and most typical) color for a Shaligram is black, various Puranic and Tantric texts describe Shaligrams as being black, red, yellow (honey-colored), white/whitish, sky-colored/blue, or brown. The Pranatoshini Tantra, a 565-page encyclopedic compilation of earlier scriptural texts composed in Bengal in the 19th century, is another one of the most commonly referenced scriptural authorities on Shaligram identification. It quotes an additional writing called the Yogaparijata that describes any Shaligram with a white color (or displaying â€œwhite teeth marksâ€) as particularly inclined to bring good fortune to the devotee. As a result, any given Shaligram or group of Shaligrams might contain a combination of colors, from the overall color of the standard black shale nodule to white quartz bands, reddish or golden iron pyrites, or green calcite.
Color is sometimes a confusing topic, however. The Skanda Purana (also in Pranatoshini Tantra, page 347), for example, references twenty categorical divisions of Shaligrams based on mixed variations of color and texture: (1) Glaced (meaning polished), (2) Black, (3) Brown, (4) Yellow, (5) Blue, (6) Red, (7) Rough, (8) Curved, (9) Big, (10) Unmarked, (11) Reddish brown, (12) Variegated, (13) Broken, (14) With many circular marks (chakras), (15) With a single circular mark, (16) With a long opening, (17) With a big circular mark, (18) Having two or more circular marks joined with each other, (19) Having a broken circular mark, and (20) Having an opening at the base.[i] The Skanda Purana then goes on to explain the likely results of worshipping each of the color-type varieties:[ii]
A color-type and size list compiled by a Sri Vaishnava ritual specialist, however, includes another wide variety of possible combinations:
Furthermore, according to the Yogaparijata, the veneration of broken, unusually large, or rough Shaligrams can cause the loss of wealth, of intellect, and of lifetime longevity respectively. And if that wasnâ€™t enough, the Pranatoshini Tantra [iv] describes even more results of worship based on the number of circular marks (chakras) along the surface of a Shaligram (a characteristic I will address in a later post about chakras). The Prayogaparaijata section, however, describes the results of worshipping different colors of Shaligrams that contain only a single circular mark (second section), all of which relate to the expected behavior of the Shaligram once it returns home with a devotee (Prayogaparaijata quoted in Pranatoshini Tantra, page 361):
The scriptures therefore tend to advise that only the first five color-types of Shaligram recorded in the Skanda Purana should ever be worshipped by devotees. This means that, in practice, most practitioners only keep Shaligrams that are black, brown, yellow/honey-colored, or blue/sky-colored (or that have a combination of those colors).
Shaligrams that appear in other colors should then either be turned over for temple care or simply avoided entirely. In general though, the Puranic texts remain primarily concerned with the quality of Shaligrams as far as they might be considered ritually viable rather than their color specifically. For example, most of the scriptures also contain injunctions against worshipping Shaligrams that have been cracked (by accident, use, or by intention). Shaligrams that are broken into pieces, have holes that continue all the way through the shila, Shaligrams that have been burnt by fire, Shaligrams that have been stolen by an insane person or an enemy, or those that have lost their circular marks because of long-term handling are also all considered to be unfit for ritual practice in most circumstances. The reasons given for this is that the deity is likely to abandon a worn or defective body in the same way that a person discards old clothes or, in some cases, the way the elderly give up their worn and used up bodies in death (dehe jirune yathaa dehi tyktvaanyamupagacchati lingaadini tu jirnaani tathaa munchati devataa – quoted in Pranatoshiá¹‡i Tantra, page 361.)
In practice, red Shaligrams are typically of the greatest concern and were described, more than once, as the most inauspicious form a Shaligram could take and that these were not worshipped due to the trouble they tended to bring. On the rare occasion that a red Shaligram was found, most devotees either immediately returned it to the river or packed it securely in cloth for transport to a temple where, as several explained, it would be looked after by a temple priest (pujari or brahmacharya) so that its unusual potency would not inadvertently cause problems for devotees elsewhere. In other cases, devotees pointed out that such Shaligrams were mostly associated with destruction and death and therefore, should only be worshipped by especially knowledgeable and skilled practitioners. When I asked if this was why the red-orange â€œmountainâ€ Shaligrams (those not yet worn by the river) were also similarly shunned, many devotees responded affirmatively. Their formations were pure but their colors were a warning.
The concern about red coloration, however, is not extended to one particular formation of Shaligrams called Ratnagarbha, a small, translucent, pebble-like shila that, when held up to a bright light source, turns bright red, yellow, or occasionally blue (it appears black otherwise).
Overall, different colors of Shaligrams are associated with different ritual effects. The standard black Shaligrams are sometimes said to bestow fame or general good fortune while brown Shaligrams are thought to remove sins committed in previous lives. Yellow Shaligrams are also occasionally described as particularly beneficial to children and blue (or â€œsky-coloredâ€) Shaligrams as bringers of wealth and prosperity. These color categories, however, though mentioned in the Puranic texts, are quite complex in practice and there are debates among devotees as to what constitutes which color category (i.e., the difference between a brown Shaligram and a yellow one) and what those colors mean. In the end though, as far as most practitioners are concerned, you can never go wrong with black.
[i] See also Rabindra Kumar Siddhantashastree. 1985. Vaishnavism Through the Ages. pages 27-49
[ii] Interestingly, this text also describes the characteristics of reading Dwarka shilas, which are also divided into a number of different varieties according to their colors and outward appearances (Padma Purana, quoted in Pranatoshini Tantra, page 360.)
(1) The blue type: It is the giver of untimely death
(2) The reddish brown: It brings in serious dangers.
(3) Variegated: It gives insanity
(4) Yellow: It causes destruction of wealth.
(5) Smoky Color: It causes untimely death of children.
(6) The broken type: It causes death of wife.
(7) The white type with dot prints: It fulfils all desires.
(8) The type with unbroken circular marks: It removes poverty and sorrow.
(9) The type having glaced circular shape: It gives the same results as above.
(10) The type with quadrangular shape: It gives the same result as above.
(11) The type with even number of circular marks: It gives bliss and worldly pleasure.
(12) The type with odd number of circular marks: It causes sorrow and worldly pain.
The same authority adds that one should not offer worship to any of the following types because of their habit of giving undesirable results
(1) The type with one or more holes on its body.
(2) The broken one.
(3) That which is neither round, nor has angles on its sides.
(4) That which has odd number of circles marked on its body.
(5) That which is shaped like the half part of the moon.
[iii] Balasubramanian, Venkatesh. 2003. Sri Ranga Sri â€œThe Story of Shaligram.â€ Ibiblio Archives. http://www.ibiblio.org/sripedia/srirangasri/archives/dec03/msg00007.html. Accessed 2 Dec 2016).
[iv] The Pranatoshini Tantra is one of the two largest and most comprehensive scriptural compendia of tantric practices from northeast India, along with the 16th century BrÍŽhat Tantrasara. See: Hugh B. Urban. 2009. The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies. I. B. Tauris Publishers.
Pranatoshini Tantra. à¤ªà¥à¤°à¤¾à¤£à¤¤à¥‹à¤·à¤¿à¤£à¥€. 1983. Ramatoá¹£aá¹‡a Bhaá¹á¹a and Ramadatta Shukla, trans. Prayaga: Shakta Sadhana Piá¹ha Publishers.
The second of the six main identifying characteristics in Shaligram interpretive practice is shape. I realize that this might, at least initially, seem relatively self-explanatory but shape, like set and color, is as complex as any other trait. The Puranas, especially, have a wide variety of potential shapes that Shaligrams might appear in. They range from the simple, such as round or triangular, to esoteric, such as cow-shaped, fish-shaped, umbrella-shaped, and layered (meaning that the Shaligram has multiple stacked surfaces).
Shape can also refer to the variety of bumps, rises, and indentations on the body of the Shaligram that form its â€œmarkings.â€ Iâ€™ll go into markings more in-depth in another post later but what should suffice to say for now is that shapes that appear in various places on a Shaligram also add nuance to its identification. The most common of these shape-markings are referred to in the texts as â€œarrows/bows,â€ â€œthe neck of a peacock,â€ â€œgada,â€ â€œconch,â€ and â€œlotus.â€ As such, using shape as a characteristic of identifying a Shaligram includes both the overall shape of the shila as well as the shapes that appear on its surfaces.
This is also where Shaligram interpretation starts to get complicated. Most Shaligrams fall into one of some 90 available name-types that determine which deity manifestation is present in the shila but there is also a large degree of room for combinations. What I mean by this is that most Shaligrams have a primary manifestation, such as Lakshmi-Narayan or Krishna or Shiva, but they can then also include other secondary presences, such as Devi consorts, sages, or other figures. All of which is generally determined by reading the shape of the Shaligram and the shapes that appear on the Shaligram.
Hereâ€™s a basic example.
The Shaligram below is the deity Anirudda. Anirudda (â€œThe one who cannot be obstructed or resisted by anyoneâ€), is a form of Bhagavan Vishnu (the Supreme God), a son of Pradyumna, and the grandson of Krishna. Along with Pradyumna, Sankarshan, and Vasudev, Anirudda is considered one of Vishnuâ€™s four vyuha avatars who received specific attributes or functions of Vishnu but not his entire incarnation.
Itâ€™s a pretty distinctive Shaligram, essentially determined by itâ€™s recognizable scooped shape (formed by the bivalve Retroceramus) and pointed end. But Anirudda doesnâ€™t always appear alone.
This shila is a Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram. Itâ€™s also readily identifiable by itâ€™s single, large, dominating chakra, smooth nodular center, and partially interrupted spiral (at the base). But you will hopefully also notice the presence of Anirudda as well in the impression in the center. This shila is, therefore, identified as a Narayan-Anirudda Shaligram.
Which then differs from the classic Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram which looks like this:
But thatâ€™s not what most people are thinking when they think â€œshape.â€ Generally, what most Shaligram practitioners first learn to recognize is the overall shape of the Shaligram and the ways in which these distinctive forms give us clues to the presence of the deity.
For example, the Matsya Shaligram (the first avatar of Vishnu who appears in the form of a fish) is broadly fish-shaped with at least one, but often two, â€œfins.â€
The Kamadhenu Shaligram, a manifestation of the â€œCow of Plentyâ€ is, unsurprisingly, described as â€œshaped like a kneeling cow.â€
Less iconic Shaligrams still have significant shapes, though. Sudarshan Shaligrams (manifestations of Vishnuâ€™s discus weapon) are clean and clear spirals. The Trivikrama Shaligram, conversely, has three distinct â€œstepsâ€ on the body of shila* and the Yagnamurti Shaligram (a Shaligram most often used in yajna fire rituals) always has the impressions of two sacrificial sticks (sruk and sruva) along with a wide, flat, body and at least one (but occasionally two or three) large holes or depressions.
*Trivikrama is a manifestation of Vamana, the fifth incarnation of Vishnu and the first incarnation to have appeared in Tretayuga (the third age). The name Trivikrama comes from the giant form Vamana took when he conquered the three worlds â€“ sky, earth and underworld â€“ by taking three giant steps.
As such, shape, as you can see, is complicated. Most of the time, Shaligram shapes act as key indicators of the deity manifestation within the shila but they also link back to a wide variety of stories, histories, and personalities present throughout Hindu and Buddhist traditions. For this reason, even though the Puranas have set up a relatively standard set of naming conventions and lists of characteristics, Shaligram themselves can be quite unruly. There are nearly infinite combinations of possible forms or patterns that might appear in Shaligram interpretation and hence why this practice is a skill that many specialists hone over years and years of study and experience.
Even now, I am humbled by the varieties and the deep knowledge of so many of the elders I have had the privilege to learn from.
For this reason, allow me to end with a related story about my own journey to this point; an excerpt taken from my second manuscript in-progress:
“One of my long-term teachers explained is thusly: â€œYou first look at the shape.â€ Sriram Bhavyesh placed a Shaligram in the palm of his right hand. â€œItâ€™s smooth, black, and almost perfectly round, but it has this one chakra on the bottom here which forms a ridge all along the edge. It makes the bottom flat, the top rounded, and there is this little protrusion here on the end, sort of pointed. This is a Mahavishnu Shaligram. Others call it Dasavatara. It is Sri Kurma, the turtle incarnation of Vishnu as you see that it is shaped like a turtle. But you see this indentation here in the center of the shell?â€
He turned the Shaligram to show me the small, rounded, impression with a small amount of iron pyrites glittering in the center. â€œIt is golden in color. This is the mark of Mount Mandara where it rested upon Kurmaâ€™s back. From here the gods churned the ocean of milk and so this is Sri Kurma Mandar Parvat, the turtle who carries the mountain. This we find in Bhagavata Purana, in Vishnu Purana, and in Mahabharata.â€
â€œWould everyone agree?â€ I asked. â€œIf I were to take this to another temple, would they say the same?â€
Sriram laughed. â€œI am Sri Vaishnava, so I know it in this way. A Shaiva might say the same. So would a Smarta. They would know that it is Mahavishnu because this is what the scriptures tell us. They would also know that it is Kurma; that can be read no other way. But maybe they would see some other manifestation in the small things. Each tradition is different and different teachers can see different things. It depends on who you are when the Shaligram speaks to you.â€
Reading a Shaligram may begin with scriptural texts, but it ends with the final divination of the deity by way of each Shaligramâ€™s unique characteristics. For ritual specialists, interpreting a Shaligram typically follows three general steps: determining the name-type of the Shaligram (from the scriptures at hand), determining the specific deity manifested, and then determining the particular mood or stance (bhava) the deity happens to be in. As I noted in my previous post, Shaligram Interpretive Practice (The Basics), this is accomplished with the observation of six types of characteristics: set (how the Shaligram rests on a flat surface), shape, color, chakra (number and type of spirals), vadana (number and type of â€œmouthsâ€/holes), and vanamala (number of white lines).
This post will focus on the first of these characteristics: set.
Numerous Puranic descriptions of Shaligrams reference markings that appear on the top, bottom, right or left sides of the shila (stone). But, if one cannot determine which way the Shaligram is sitting, these descriptions arenâ€™t of much use since everything would be completely relative. Set therefore refers to the way a Shaligram naturally comes to rest when placed on a flat, stable, surface. Once the resting position is then achieved, the practitioner can observe where the Shaligramâ€™s top and base are as well as what constitutes the shilaâ€™s general point-of-view. More specifically, this involves a sense of how the Shaligram is the most balanced, where it tends to display most of its other surface characteristics, and, sometimes, just where it looks the best.
This is not meant, however, to imply that all Shaligrams have a clear â€œface.â€ In fact, many donâ€™t. But all of this is part of their interpretation and the variations in Shaligram set is typically the first characteristic practitioners look at when reading a Shaligramâ€™s bhava. Many Shaligrams, for example, have very obvious set and these Shaligrams in turn are often described as manifestations who are also solid, steady, and stable. Shaligrams with less defined set are then often described as mischievous, fickle, or harder to please.
To demonstrate what I mean, take a look at this Shiva Linga Shaligram. Among many notable characteristics, one of its most prominent is its strong set. It immediately comes to rest sitting upright, has an even, flat, base, and is difficult to tip over.
This is a characteristic quite typical of Shiva-type Shaligrams, actually. Look at the Harihara Shaligram (Vishnu-Shiva) pictured below. The Shiva Linga appears on the top of the stone, the Vishnu Sudarshan chakra appears on the bottom, but the set of the Lingam remains upwards-facing, balanced, and secure.
Even this Shiva-Parvati Shaligram (below) demonstrates an almost uncanny degree of set such that it might make one think it was intentionally carved by a person to look this way. I assure you; it was not! This is one of the Shaligrams that I, myself, found in the Kali Gandaki river during my two years in Nepal. This is precisely how it came out of the water.
This is in quite obvious contrast, on the other hand, to many Krishna-type Shaligrams, who are notorious for having very little, if any, stable set. The most obvious example of this is the Krishna Gopala Shaligram (Krishna as a young child). These Shaligrams (also called Laddu Gopalas for their perfectly round, ball-like, shape) have no set what-so-ever and freely roll about no matter where you put them.
Unsurprisingly, other Krishna Shaligrams are similar in this respect. Krishna Govinda Shaligrams (Krishna as Cowherder) are virtually identical to Krishna Gopala Shaligrams except for the fact that they also display a visible white cow-hoof marking.
The point here is that Krishna Shaligrams overall have characteristically low set and, as a result, are often described as being playful, naughty, or troublesome in ways that Krishna himself is equally described. This makes set (or, more specifically, their lack of it) one of the defining traits of Krishna Shaligrams broadly as well as for the Shiva Shaligrams above, if for the reverse reason.
Other Shaligram types then tend to fall along some point of the spectrum in between these two extremes. Sudarshan Shaligrams, for example, tend to face their large, single, chakra upwards (resting on a flattened or even slightly rounded back) but have a notable wobble or spin to them unless sitting on a cushion or pillow. Kurma Shaligrams, on the other hand, rarely wobble and generally sit on a wide, flat, bottom that shows off their turtle-like shapes.
But all in all, the larger point of understanding the characteristic of set is in understanding how the Shaligram exists in relation to itself and then, how each of its other defining traits exist in relation to the position of its body. Therefore, when Puranic descriptions simply state where markings may appear on a Shaligram as â€œtop,â€ â€œbottom,â€ â€œright side,â€ or â€œhead;â€ set helps you to determine precisely where that is on any given shila. This is especially important then for devotees who give their Shaligrams painted faces, clothing, and crowns. Adding eyes, tilaks, garlands, hats, and other accoutrements to your Shaligram practice generally means seeking some understanding of how your Shaligram normally sits and in which direction it is actually looking. Otherwise the practice of darshan might be come unneccesarily confusing.
It recently occurred to me that I haven’t spoken very much about the specifics of Shaligram identification. As such, I think I will start a series here on the basics of Shaligram interpretation. This post will outline the foundations of Shaligram reading as I was taught it in Mustang, Nepal (and to a degree in West Bengal, India). My caveat is, as with all my discussions of Shaligrams, is that I can only convey what I know and what I know is largely drawn from Vaishnava and Smarta Hindu traditions. There are variations to these practices, of course, that I am aware of in Shaiva Shaligram traditions, in Jain traditions, and in Buddhist traditions but, for the most part, what I will lay out for you below comes from the Puranic Shaligram commentaries as they are used by Vaishnava and Smarta Hindus.
Following this post, I will then begin a series of blog discussions related to specific characteristics, such as color, shape, and chakra. But for now, let’s get to the fundamentals.
How do you identify a Shaligram manifestation? It’s complicated, of course. But I’ll take a moment delineate the steps and give you a sense of the process.
There are roughly 90 different name-types of Shaligrams (between 89 – 92 depending on the tradition). From Krishna Shaligrams to Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligrams to Shiva Shaligrams and Devi Shaligrams. But even within these categories, there are variations — each corresponding to a different deity and a different mood (bhava).
As such, learning to identify specific Shaligrams takes quite a long time and involves a complicated combination of texts, oral traditions, and ritual experiences meant to teach you how to recognize specific characteristics.
There are, however, about 6 primary characteristics that we’ll start off with. Set, Shape, Color, Vadana, Vanamala, and Chakra.
(Note: All manifestations, even combination manifestations, are usually subsumed under one of the Puranic name-types. For example, the texts describe “Krishna” Shaligrams. But within that category is a huge variety of Krishna’s manifestations: Krishna-Balaram, Krishna Gopala, Radha-Krishna, etc. Each of which is a different Shaligram. But that’s a bit beyond the scope of this post, so let’s start with the most recognizable features.)
Also note that each of these characteristics exists on a spectrum and how a particular Shaligram displays the characteristic is integral to understanding the nuance of its identification.
SET: Essentially, how the Shaligram sits when placed on a stable, flat, surface. How does the Shaligram naturally come to rest? This then helps you to gauge what is “top,” “bottom,” “front,” and “back” relative to the rest of the Shaligram.
Some Shaligrams have very good set and it is obvious as to how they should normally be sitting. Others, like the Krishna Gopala Shaligram, have no set at all and roll around freely (which is part of their charm!).
SHAPE: Pretty obvious. What is the Shaligram’s overall shape? The variety of shapes possible in Shaligrams is endless, of course, but the general shape of the Shaligram tells you something about its manifestation. For example, the Khamdenu Shaligram is typically in the shape of a cow, while the Matsya Shaligram (below) looks like a fish.
COLOR: Most Shaligrams are black, but this is not always the case. The Pitambara Shaligram, for example, is described as being yellow or as having yellow chakras. And the Raghunath Shaligram (below) is always “sky colored.” (Meaning grey or bluish). There are also green Shaligrams and, in very rare cases, red ones which are not suitable for home worship.
VADANA: Vadana means “mouth,” and it refers to the type, number, and appearance of openings in the Shaligram. The most popular version of this is the Narasimha Shaligram, which has one large vadana with prominent teeth.
Other Shaligrams, like this Janardhan Shaligram (below), have multiple vadana.
VANAMALA: Vanamala refers to the sacred thread that sometimes appears as white quartz lines on the body of a Shaligram. As with other characteristics, a Shaligram may have one, none, or many vanamala. This Madhusudana Shaligram has one vanamala around its base.
Purushottama Shaligrams, however, usually have several.
CHAKRA: Last, but certainly not least, is the most popular characteristic of them all: the chakra-spiral. How many? How complete? And in what position do they lay? There are all questions that change the understanding of the Shaligram in question.
The most obvious, and most classic, Shaligram is Sudarshan: the manifestation of Vishnu’s chakra weapon. With it’s single, clear, and complete chakra spiral, it is easy to identify.
But so is the Surya Shaligram, who’s single chakra appears similarly but in relief.
And then on to this Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram, with its two complete, internally facing, chakra.
Eventually to the Multi-Chakra Shaligrams, like this Trivikrama Shaligram with three chakra in a step formation. (Multi-Chakra Shaligrams can have up to a dozen or so chakra, however.)
So there you have it. The basics of Shaligram identification. There is, of course, a lot more to say and the near-infinite combinations of Shaligram characteristics can often make identification complicated, especially in cases where more than one deity is present.
Which is why, as much as we can, we should seek to preserve these oral traditions and support ritual specialists. It would be a shame to lose this unique understanding of the world.
As this blog has grown, I have been getting more and more requests to identify or verify Shaligram stones; to make a determination of their manifestation or their authenticity. This is something I have always been happy to help with. However, the number of requests has grown to such a degree where I have to formalize my policy.
My policy on performing this service is:
- I will identify or verify one or two Shaligrams for free. It takes about 10-15 minutes per shila to make a full evaluation and I am happy to answer questions when I can.
- If you would like me to identify more than two Shaligrams, I ask for $5 (US) per identification to cover time and the textual work involved.(Up to 10 shilas).
- If you would like me to identify more than 10 Shaligrams, we can discuss the amount of time the collection is likely to take and negotiate accordingly.
My newest article, called “Cornerstones: Shaligrams as Kin” will be coming out from the Journal of Religion early next year.
Here’s a preview:
“The courtyard of Dinesh and Sangeeta Khanalâ€™s three-story concrete Kathmandu home was decorated for a wedding. Garlands of marigolds and lotus blossoms were strung across the top of the main gate as well as over every door and threshold. Banners of red cloth were draped over every surface, with gold trim and bangles jingling quietly in the breeze. The courtyard between the main door and a smaller, secondary door to the familyâ€™s primary living room was filled with clay pots of rice, yogurt, and curries. Leaf plates piled high with fruit; apples, oranges, and pomelos, had been carefully arranged on the benches along the garden wall. All of the homeâ€™s deities and photos of deceased parents and grandparents had been brought down from the third-floor puja room to attend the festivities. The kitchen bustled with activity as everyone took their turns in cooking massive pots of potatoes and dal bhat (lentils and rice) for the wedding feast or in arranging trays of sweets and pastries to lay out before the deities as honored guests. The bride was brought out first and placed in the center of a brightly-colored woven mat at the far end of the marble yard. The women of the household â€” Sangeeta, her two sisters, Sangeetaâ€™s daughter Meena, and Dineshâ€™s sister â€” all rushed out to apply welcoming forehead tikkas using mixtures of red and yellow rice paste. Meena began to wrap a beaded red wedding shawl over the brideâ€™s head and pile garlands of fragrant local flowers around her neck. Sangeeta offered water in a small teapot.
â€œTulsi is in the mandap?â€ [i] A voice cried from the kitchen. â€œYes!â€ Another voice responded. â€œThe bride has come down.â€ The bride, however, was not just named Tulsi, she was Tulsi.[ii] — a five-foot-tall Tulsi (holy basil) plant growing out of a wide clay pot, the finery of a new bride draped over her leaves and woven around her stems, with gold bangles and earrings artfully arranged on either side of her branches. Her husband-to-be was likewise non-human; an object of devotional reverence rather than a traditional groom. A few minutes later, a great cheer would rise up throughout the Khanal household as the senior men of the family processed from the upstairs puja room, bearing a large silver tray upon which sat the expectant groom, a Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram.
Shaligrams are a specific type of smooth, black ammonite fossil found in the Kali Gandaki region of the Nepal Himalayas, commonly worshipped by Hindus as a manifest form (murti) [iii] of the god Vishnu. As such, Shaligrams are ritual objects often found in Hindu homes where they act as aniconic deity forms that many devotees consider themselves to be ‘in relationship with,’ particularly denoting various kinds of kinship relationships. To understand then how Shaligrams become kin, it is therefore vital to unravel the complicated webs of relations and interactions that characterize Shaligram social life. To begin, the most readily accessible ways in which to demonstrate the kinship of Shaligram stones is by attending to the actual social relationships themselves. Ethnographically, this is to attend to the ritual events, rites of passage, and life milestones celebrated concurrently with both human and divine persons – Shaligrams participating as involved family members – as well as the ways in which people speak about, speak to, and speak of divine persons in their everyday lives.
Viewing Shaligram relationships through the medium of kinship is also helpful partly because Shaligram practitioners themselves refer to them in this way. By staging an elaborate wedding between a basil-daughter and a fossil-son-in-law, the Khanal family was creating a kinship bond between their household and the deities they worship. They were making their godsâ€”particularly their primary household Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram â€”into literal members of their family: a ritual action that will be repeated again and again later through daily care in puja rituals and in the practice of darshan. In many ways these ritualized kinship relationships demonstrate what Marshall Sahlins calls a “mutuality of being;” where human persons and nonhuman persons share family ties apart from genetic relationships, are “intrinsic to one another’s existence,” and who “belong to one another” (Sahlins 2013). Shaligrams as kin therefore expand potential fields of symbols and perspectives regarding personhood, the body, and gender as they inform cultural kinship ideas and practices.”
[i] A Hindu wedding booth
[ii] Ocimum tenuiflorum or Holy Basil
[iii] A word typically translated as “image” and relating to any number of different types of sacred icons and images.