Shaligram Interpretive Practice (The Basics)

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.

Vasudev Shaligram with notations

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.

A large collection of small Shaligrams

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.

Shiva Linga Shaligram with very stable “set.”

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!).

Krishna Gopala Shaligram

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.

Matsya Shaligram

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.

Raghunath Shaligram with “sky coloration”

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.

Ugra Narasimha Shaligram

Other Shaligrams, like this Janardhan Shaligram (below), have multiple vadana.

Janardhan Shaligram

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.

Madhusudana Shaligram with white vanamala in a single, contiguous, line around the base of the shila.

Purushottama Shaligrams, however, usually have several.

Purushottama Shaligram with three vanamala

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.

Sudarshan Shaligram

But so is the Surya Shaligram, who’s single chakra appears similarly but in relief.

Surya Shaligram

And then on to this Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram, with its two complete, internally facing, chakra.

Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram

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.)

Trivikrama Shaligram

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.

The Shaligram collection of Janakapur Palace in Nepal

My Policy on Identifying and Verifying Shaligrams


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.
Mahadevi Lakshmi Shaligram (Left) — Mahadevi Sudarshan Shaligram (Right)

“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.