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!


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!


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.

“Shaligrams as Kin”

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 Khanal’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 family’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 home’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 — Sangeeta, her two sisters, Sangeeta’s daughter Meena, and Dinesh’s sister — 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 bride’s head and pile garlands of fragrant local flowers around her neck. Sangeeta offered water in a small teapot.

“Tulsi is in the mandap?” [i] A voice cried from the kitchen. “Yes!” Another voice responded. “The bride has come down.” 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 gods—particularly their primary household Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram —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.

It’s Book Release Day!

Firstly, a sincere thank you to everyone who has helped to make this work possible. It’s been years in the making. But today is the day, and “Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas” has now officially been released!

(Links to read a preview of the book below)

You can read a Preview of the book (TOC and Chapter 1) HERE!

Or, order on Amazon HERE!

Order from AUP! Available to order via https://www.aup.nl/en/book/9789463721721/shaligram-pilgrimage-in-the-nepal-himalayas; and in the US via http://shop.btpubservices.com/Title/9789463721721.

“But What Is It Really?” – Notes on Science, Pseudoscience, and Religion in Fossil Folklores

“Yes, but what is it really?” The man pressed. “A fossil, or God?”

Sitting in the domestic airport in Kathmandu, Nepal waiting on the day’s flights into the Himalayas was, I found, often fertile ground for impromptu research discussions. Since I was usually on my way to Mustang, where I was carrying out fieldwork on Shaligram stones; the sacred fossil ammonites revered by Hindus, Buddhists, and Bonpos the world over, it was not uncommon for trekkers or religious pilgrims to strike up conversations with me on the strange combinations of puja (ritual worship) paraphernalia and high-altitude hiking gear I typically carried.

“I mean,” the young Indian traveler went on to say, “the Vedas say that they (Shaligrams) are gods, but that’s just because they didn’t know what they actually were, right?”

For anyone who spends any amount of time working with sacred fossils, especially Shaligram stones, they will quickly come to understand that in actual ritual practice, the categories of “fossil” and “deity” are not mutually exclusive, as might be anticipated in more Euro-American religious philosophies. In other words, that Shaligram practitioners do not necessarily see the fossil “being” of a Shaligram, along with the immense geological and temporal processes that go with it, as a challenge to the divine nature also present in the stones once they manifest in the Kali Gandaki River. In short, that Shaligrams are equally fossil and god and that these two categories are seen as complementary to one another rather than exclusionary.

But the question of “what are they really?” was a common one. At first, I took it as a revelatory question that demonstrated, for many people, a desire to be seen as modern and rational over superstitious and potentially backward. This was because people questioning me about my work wanted to know not only how I saw the Shaligram stones themselves but how I, and other Americans, saw Shaligram practitioners. For example, questioning whether or not non-Hindus and non-Buddhists could truly understand the divinity of the stones came up routinely as did questions about whether or not Americans thought that Indians and Nepalis were ignorant for “seeing God in the stone.” But then, as I began to think on it more and more, I came to realize that the core of the question, the true underlying implication of the word really, had less to do with fears of appearing uneducated and everything to do with the relationship between Shaligrams as scientific objects of study (i.e., ammonite fossils), as religious objects of worship (i.e., Shaligram deities), and as targets of pseudoscience. Essentially, just as the boundaries between “fossil” and “deity” had become blurry and indistinct, so too were the boundaries between “science,” “religion,” and “myth.” My subversion here of the “real” concepts of fossils and “non-real” concepts of gods and magic is also intentional because the boundaries between the two are what is ultimately at stake in conversations of pseudoscience.

Scholars often refer to the religious use of fossils, both historically and in contemporary periods, as fossil folklores (van der Greer et al, 2008). Generally, fossil folklores tend to refer to the use of otherwise ostensibly scientific phenomena; the preserved remains of prehistoric creatures in this case, for mythical or superstitious (read: fictional) ends. For example, the ways in which Young Earth Creationists and some fundamentalist Christians view the fossil record as devilish trickery rather than as products of deep geological time (IBSS 2019) or how “crystal magic” includes the occasional trilobite or bit of petrified wood along with various rare-earth minerals and salts. But in most cases, author’s, even religious authors, tend to take the overall position that their work is in conversation with the study of fossils and that “fossil” remains the default label. This is to say that, in the literature, they are really fossils first and divine second. But despite what we might argue in terms of taking ethnographic narratives seriously or how we might view this issue through competing cultural ontologies, my goal here isn’t to argue whether or not one side is ultimately correct over the other. Rather, what I note is a growing shift in public discourse from folklore to pseudoscience that is, at its core, a shift in models of knowing. Where myths and folklore once played important roles in social narrative, meaning-making, identity, and experience, they’ve now become the focal point for ontic reality and scientific positivism. Which is to say, that the boundaries between folklore and pseudoscience have been transgressed when the point of inquiry and discovery is no longer “what does it mean?” but “what is it really?” [i]

Crystal Magic and Saffron Science

In his book, The Philosophy of Science and the Occult, Patrick Grim argues that the role of pseudoscience, especially as it related to America and Europe in the Victorian Age, was as a label used to place social constraints on the creation and understanding of what constituted reality (1982: 131). In other words, that by calling something “pseudoscience,” one enacted a kind of cultural authority over an idea so as to regulate it to the fringes of acceptable discourse. To proclaim it “not real.” In modern America, I would argue that many academics continue to use the term similarly (for good and for ill) in what Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry call the “demarcation problem” (2013); a philosophical debate about the division between seeking the empirical reality of an object versus understanding the ways in which we think about the object (2013: 1). But this generally Western scientific approach tends to leave out some important other considerations especially as it relates to religious practices in South Asia. And that is the growing problem of saffron science.

Saffron science, according to Meera Nanda, is the “appropriation of modern scientific concepts and theories for the glories of the Vedas.” (2016: 2). Put another way, it is the drive to view all modern scientific discoveries, from robotics to nuclear physics to genetics and evolution, as having their true origins in Hindu sacred texts. This results, not surprisingly, in a fair amount of pseudoscientific thought designed to align the authority of scientific inquiry with right-wing political ideologies that claim India as an intrinsically Hindu homeland. In the US, many teachers and professionals will likely recognize very similar underlying political threads in the problem of Atlantis, Ancient Aliens, and Biblical literalism.

Shaligram stones are, unfortunately, not immune to either of these problems. I have encountered these rare fossils in a variety of contexts outside of their ritual ones, including in debates about their “true belonging” to specific Hindu traditions (and which proves these tradition’s antiquity and spiritual authority) over the claims of other religious groups as well as in New Age rock shops and in pagan-themed stores in the US and the UK where they are prized for their “magic” characteristics along with various amethyst and quartz crystals or other polished minerals. As such, what was originally a type of divine manifestation rooted in the landscapes of the high Himalayas and the creation stories of a variety of South Asian peoples has transformed into a pseudoscientific community in both America and South Asia that is more concerned with two particular problems. Firstly, that Shaligrams are really fossils (rather than aniconic deities) and secondly, that they are possessed of mystical properties that can bestow blessings on their owners. In other words, what was once a search for meaning in the narratives of the stones has become a debate about their ontological existence. The root of the problem has become, “but what are they really?” Regardless of your ultimate position on this subject, in the end, the point that I want to emphasize here is that science, pseudoscience, and religion are not quite so separate and exclusive as we like to believe. They are deeply, inextricably, intertwined.

What Can We Do?

Pseudoscience is never position neutral. It has an aim, even if that aim seems obscure. This means that combating pseudoscience in the classroom and in public discourse is going to have to take into account that many proponents of these kinds of theories are not necessarily arguing from either a position of good faith or from ignorance, but rather from an ideological or political position seeking social power and cultural control. In the classroom, I often translate this dynamic not into questioning a student’s particular faith-based ideal but into helping them uncover the motivations behind the belief. Where does this belief come from? Who does it serve? What is it about science that is being mistrusted here? And why? Pseudoscience is also not unique to Western discourses or even to Euro-American scientific models. It plays a role in political and social conflicts the world over. This means that an understanding of culture and belief systems, both ours and others, are integral to combating the desire to make into empirical reality what was once faith, community, and meaning. For all of us, it’s time to better ask the question, “what does it mean?” and not “but what is it really?”


Grim, Patrick. 1982. Philosophy of Science and Occult, 1st Ed. SUNY Press.

Institute for Biblical and Scientific Studies (IBSS). “The Bible and Science: How Old is the Earth.” Accessed 6/9/2019. https://www.bibleandscience.com/science/ageofearth.htm

Nanda, Meera. 2016. Science in Saffron: Skeptical Essays on History of Science. Three Essays Collective.

Pigliucci, Massimo and Maarten Boudry eds. 2013. Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. University of Chicago Press.

van der Geer, Alexandra and Michael Dermitzakis and John de Vos. 2008. “Fossil Folklore from India: The Siwalik Hills and the Mahâbhârata.” Folklore, Vol. 119, No. 1 (Apr., 2008), pp. 71-92. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

[i] I am reminded, here, of the debate between Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge who argued similarly.