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!
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.)
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).
The “arrow” marking can also appear like this:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Circular marks are much smaller and don’t have much in the way of identifiable features.
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.
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
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.
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.