Shaligram Paleontology

In honor of Cephalopod Week, I’ve put together a short discussion on the types of ammonites typically found in Shaligrams. So, here we go!

The Nepal Himalayas contain a wide variety of ammonite species owning to a number of different time periods, from M. bifurcatus and M. apertusmantataranus in the Ferruginous Oolite Formation,[i] to Kimmeridgian[ii] Paraboliceras assemblages, to late Tithonian-Berriasian Blanfordiceras and Proniceras assemblages. Shaligrams, however, are generally comprised of four particular species of Jurassic ammonites: Blandifordiceras, Haplophylloceras, and Perisphinctids (both Aulacosphinctus of the Upper Kimmeridgian/Lower Tithonian and Aulacosphinctoides of the Upper Tithonian). Other Shaligram formations include belemnites (such as the Ram Shaligram) and the bivalve Retroceramus (such as the Anirudda Shaligram) but for the most part, “classic” Shaligram manifestations are, by and large, comprised of various black shale ammonites at assorted levels of erosion and wear.[iii]

Blandfordiceras species (lower Tithonian age) are widely distributed ammonites especially known for their tight but evenly balanced spirals and raised, biplicate (Y-shaped), ridges. Geologist Herwart Helmstaedt (1969)[iv] was one of the first researchers to investigate the ammonites of the Thak Khola region (immediately south of Mustang) and, according to him, some fifty percent of all ammonites collected in Mustang belong to the Blandfordiceras genus. He is also credited with discovering and naming the new species Blandfordiceras muktinathense, though the name does not often appear in common usage (Dhital 2015: 288).

Haplophylloceras, on the other hand, tends to include fewer rings in the formation of its central spiral and sports a distinctive chevron-like ridge pattern along the outer phragmocone (the back edge of the shell). Finally, Perisphinctid ammonites are recognizable by their evolute shell morphology with typically biplicate, simple, or triplicate ribbing. Larger shells may have simple apertures and smooth body chambers while smaller species tend to have lappets and ribbed body chambers (Arkell et. al. 1957). Aulacosphinctoides, a member of the Perisphinctidae family, are also well represented in Shaligrams. These ammonites are characterized by an evolute shell with whorls broadly rounded, ribs sigmoid that mostly bifurcate (and occasionally trifurcate), and clearly defined lappets.[v] Aulacosphinctoides also closely resembles its Indo-Malagasian relative Torquantisphinctes but differs in that it has more rounded or depressed whorls and more sigmoid and frequently triplicate ribbing.[vi]

The Tithonian and Berriasian ammonoid successions of the Himalayas with comparison strata
Left: Perisphinctid, Right: Blandfordiceras (both: Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligrams)
Left: Blandfordiceras, with smooth ventral furrow, Right: Perisphinctid (Sudarshan Shaligram)
Haplophylloceras strigilis (Lakshmi-Narayan and Lakshmi Sudarshan Shaligrams)

The paleontological history of ammonites in the Himalayas is a complex one and despite recent advances in the stratigraphical use of microfossil groups and non-palaeontological laboratory techniques in geological dating, ammonites continue to retain their pre-eminent position as one of the most reliable and accurate correlation tools available for marine Jurassic sequencing (not unlike dendrochronology to the archaeologist and paleo-ecologist). They also have a number of other uses.

Ammonites have been recognized for their value in palaeobiogeography studies and in the study of evolutionary mechanisms and patterns, such as speciation and extinction over vast expanses of geological time. As Kevin Page notes however, these latter studies are often hindered by incomplete understandings of ammonite correlation and taxonomy, from the species level upwards (2008: 54). This situation is then exacerbated by the limited funding available for such research given the preference amongst many funding organizations and media outlets for more mysterious or sensational fossil groups and more fashionable (if transient) scientific theories and hypotheses. This is why the Shaligram traditions of South Asia have something to offer the world of paleontology; adding new dimensions of interpretation and importance to the image of the ammonite, perhaps even to cultural conversations about the modern meanings of fossils as a whole. For Shaligram practitioners, the constant scientific debate and limited amount of concrete detail for describing Shaligram ammonites in Mustang is both taken in stride and as further evidence of the entanglements of different kinds of “storytelling” when it comes to Shaligram origins and ontologies. Or, as my old friend and mentor Prasad Vipul Yash once expressed it, “They don’t know and we don’t know. Not all of it, anyway. They call it one thing, we call it another, but it’s all the same thing. It just depends on what it is you want to know about the world.”

[i] A thin (roughly 3 meter), black shale, marker bed which contains microscopic iron (ferruginous) particles which set it apart from the nearby Spiti Shales.

[ii] In the geologic timescale, the Kimmeridgian is a stage in the Late or Upper Jurassic epoch. It spans the time between 157.3 ± 1.0 Ma and 152.1 ± 0.9 Ma (million years ago). The Kimmeridgian follows the Oxfordian and precedes the Tithonian.

[iii] Similar looking ammonites which occasionally appear in Shaligram discussions (but are not considered Shaligram) are Dactylioceras semicelatum from Whitby, North Yorks England; Toxaceratiode sp. From the Walsh River, Queensland, Australia; Crucilobiceras densinodulum from Charmouth, Dorset UK; Dactylioceras athleticum from Schlaifhausen, Forscheim, near Nuremburg, Germany; and Acanthoceras sp from Agadir, Morocco.

[iv] H. Helmstaedt. 1969. Eine Ammoniten-Fauna aus den Spiti-Schiefern von Muktinath in Nepal. Zitteliana 1:63-88 [W. Kiessling/M. Krause]

[v] These are flanges that protrude from the final chamber at the front of the creature in adult male specimens [the microconch] which some speculate may have been used for sexual display. These features are not present on the larger female ammonites.

[vi] Sepkoski, Jack (2002). “Sepkoski’s Online Genus Database.” Retrieved 2016-09-14 and Phil Eyden (2003). “Ammonites: A General Overview.” Retrieved 2016-09-14.

Perspective: The Many Ways of Shaligram Darshan

Shaligram shrines are each as unique as the households that look after them.

As I move into the planning stage for my second manuscript on Shaligram interpretive traditions, I have become more and more fascinated with the specifics of Shaligram ritual practice in the home shrines of families who venerate them. I have written earlier on a number of aspects of this particular kind of home Shaligram seva (service/worship), including discussing how various family members participate in the care of the Shaligram deities, how parents bequeath specific shilas to children during important milestones (weddings, moving away, acceptance to school or graduation, funerals, etc.), and how second and third children plan their own Shaligram pilgrimages to begin building their home practices when elder children inherit the family’s collection. But what I haven’t spoken much at length about is the unique expressions of devotion built into every home mandir and into every home darshan.

As living members of the family, it should come as no surprise that Shaligrams are treated with much the same level of care and the rest of the household is. This means that their mandir (or shrines) are often reflective of things important to the rest of the family. It is not unusual to therefore include food, clothing, and other accessories for your Shaligrams and other deities to enjoy. But home shrines are very often more complicated than that, so I have posted a series of photos taken from specific home shrines along with a short commentary to better demonstrate what I mean.

Krishna with Hats

I love this Vaishnava home darshan. The story behind it is that the household, in this case, happens to be in a region that gets very cold during the winter. As such, one of the elderly women of the family knitted caps for the deities so that they wouldn’t find the temperature so unpleasant. This mirrors, to some degree, a common practice in temple deity worship wherein sandalwood paste (which is very cooling when placed on the skin) is painted over the deities and Shaligrams during especially hot days in order to make them more comfortable. But this is not the first time I have seen warm clothes for murti. Many temples in colder climates have sweaters and wraps on hand for the deities just as much as they have the kinds of typical dhotis, saris, and tunics which are the standard for dressing icons. Either way, though, the hats are incredibly cute and when added to these Krishna Gopala Shaligrams (Krishna as a young child), they seem even more fitting.

You will also likely notice the eyes (as objects attached to the smaller Shaligrams and painted on to the larger one). Adding eyes, faces, and certain expressions is extremely common in Shaligram worship and is described as assisting practitioners in “taking darshan” (a type of ritualized exchange of gazes where one views the deity and is viewed by the deity in return). This does not mean that Shaligrams without the inclusion of eyes cannot “see” their devotees (they can) but only that they act as a focal point for ritual practice. For many people, it’s just easier to interact with a face.

Lastly, these Shaligrams have recently received their daily offering of tulsi leaves. Tulsi (a type of holy basil) and water are, generally speaking, the two most basic parts of Shaligram worship to such a degree that, if these two things are the only things a family is capable of offering their home deities, it is considered enough and the Shaligrams are content.

Narasimha Jagannatha

Next to Krishna and Shiva, Narasimha is probably the third most commonly sought after Shaligram. Unfortunately, it is also one of the hardest to find. Comprised of two internal chakras and a wide open vadana (mouth) this Shaligram must also demonstrate notable “teeth” in the ridges near the edge of the mouth (formed by the incomplete wearing of the internal structures of the ammonite). I particularly like this Ugra Narasimha Shaligram (which has smoother chakras and a larger vadana than other types of Narasimha Shaligrams) because of the eyes the family has added to his face. To me, he looks both simultaneously fierce and adorable. Or perhaps he just knows that he is adorable and is especially mad about it. In any case, this simpler home shrine keeps the primary household deity, the self-manifest Narasimha Shaligram, at the forefront and in the center, and all other murti, such as the Jagannath icons, along the back.

Smarta Abisheka

One of my fondest memories of fieldwork was participating in a four-hour abisheka (bathing ritual) for a Brahmin household’s Shaligrams. It was an all-day community event with food, conversation, and, of course, talk of Shaligram pilgrimage. This was largely due to the fact that the patriarch of the household in question had just gone on his very first Shaligram pilgrimage to Nepal and was excited to welcome the new family members (seen here) home.

Abishek is one of the typical ways new Shaligrams are welcomed into a household. One of the reasons for this is that Shaligrams are said to “take birth” out of the Kali Gandaki River and, as such, water is an integral part of their worship. Another reason for this is that the bathing ritual and subsequent pujas tend to mirror the river birth of the Shaligrams as a kind of secondary rebirth into the family. In other words, Shaligrams are first born into the world through the Kali Gandaki and then born again into their new households and families through abishek. Unsurprisingly, I have known a great many pilgrims to also collect water from either the Kali Gandaki or from the water spouts at the temple of Muktinath (the high-altitude temple at the end of the Shaligram pilgrimage route in Mustang) to bring back home with them and use for precisely this purpose. The most extreme versions of this even involve pilgrims who keep their newly found Shaligrams in containers of river water, completely immersed until they get home. This way, their Shaligrams are, in effect, born only once and always directly into the family.

Hare Krishna Shaligram Seva

One of the fastest growing groups of Shaligram practitioners the world over are undoubtedly the Hare Krishnas. In fact, many Shaligram sellers I worked with in Nepal and in India described Hare Krishnas as their largest set of clienteles who are usually looking to purchase specific Shaligrams. There are a number of reasons for this, despite the typical ban on buying and selling sacred stones. One reason is that many Hare Krishnas do not live in South Asia and cannot afford to undergo pilgrimage to Nepal. Additionally, as many Hare Krishnas are not of South Asian descent, they might be barred from entering certain shrines or temples or they may face exorbitant permit and travel fees when attempting to access certain sacred landscapes (Mustang being one of them, as there are different permit prices for Indian and Nepali pilgrims versus all other foreign passport holders). Unfortunately, many Hindus and Buddhists in South Asia also have extremely ambiguous feelings about Hare Krishna practice and some have (very founded) concerns about the rate at which foreigners are purchasing Shaligram stones, particularly online. In effect, as more and more foreign practitioners are willing to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a Shaligram, the price of available stones goes up and more stones are collected from the depleted reserves of the Kali Gandaki River Valley, rendering many Shaligrams completely out of reach for poorer devotees.

On the other hand, many practitioners have noted that the spread of Shaligram seva to the Hare Krishnas has meant the preservation and continuation of ritual traditions that were, and very much still are, in danger of going extinct. Hare Krishnas, for example, have been some of the first Shaligram devotees to begin writing down Shaligram descriptions and interpretations or compiling different rules for Shaligram puja and sharing those texts with others. As with most things, popularity has its pros and cons.

Size Doesn’t Matter

Lastly, I want to note that one of my personally favorite things about Shaligram darshan, and really home darshan in general, is the use of miniatures to represent or re-create a variety of divine worlds on the small scale. It is not unusual, for example, for ritual practitioners to include small sets of household objects (almost like doll-house furniture and accessories), miniature animals, and other accoutrements of every day life with their murti right alongside the tiny pairs of shoes, clothes, dishes and water cups, and jewelry present in almost every type of darshan. In one especially elaborate home shrine I had the privilege of experiencing, the family had used a collection of Shopkins (tiny, collectible, toys in the shape of anthropomorphic grocery items) to construct an entire smiling feast for the benefit of the household murti. While one might view this particular set-up as bizarrely indicative of late-stage capitalism, what I want to emphasize here is that the use of such objects as ritual offerings or to create new miniature realms for deities to inhabit has a history that predates Moose Toys and Hasbro by about four thousand years. In this case, the fact that Shopkins miniatures are manufactured and sold widely just means they are more accessible to the average family than more expensive hand-made items might be. In the end, it isn’t the nature of object offered that really counts but the spirit within which it is given. And besides, even deities like to have a little fun, right?