Living Fossils

Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist whose work focuses on religious experience and ritual practice in South Asia. As a PhD candidate, she spent 16 months researching sacred stones, ritual practices, pilgrimage, and the politics of mobility in India and Nepal. Her current post-doctoral research focuses on ongoing conflicts between sacred and political landscapes in South Asia, the interpretive practices of fossils as texts, and the challenges of post-colonial Shaligram religious revival in digital and virtual spaces.


One of the most popular jokes among anthropologists is how often our work is mistaken for palaeontology. Almost every one of my colleagues and even a few of my students can relate an anecdote involving a situation where they were asked if they “dug up dinosaurs.” Imagine the difficulty I now face in my own work where the answer is effectively, “Yes, but not for the reasons you’re thinking.”

For more than two thousand years, the veneration of sacred fossil ammonites (an extinct type of cephalopod, or ancient shellfish), called Shaligrams, has been an integral part of Hindu ritual practice throughout Nepal and India. Originating from a single remote region of Himalayan Nepal, in the Kali Gandaki River Valley of Mustang, ritual use of these stones today has become a significant focus of pilgrimage, religious co-participation, and exchange throughout South Asia and among the global Hindu Diaspora.

Not Your Average Artifact

I found that wandering the mountainsides and river banks looking for Shaligram stones was the perfect activity for meeting Hindu pilgrims, sadhus (ascetics), and gurus (ritual specialists and teachers). And ever since my first few months of fieldwork in India in the summer of 2012, I have been documenting and learning about the wide variety of Shaligram rituals and interpretive traditions; where the characteristics of each fossil stone are literally read (as one might a text) to determine which deities have made themselves manifest in a body that was once living and is now alive again.

Viewed primarily as natural manifestations of the Hindu god Vishnu, Shaligrams are considered inherently sacred not only because they are not man-made but because the workings of the landscape (i.e., the processes of geological formation) have imbued them with a living essence of their own. Therefore, Shaligrams require no rites of consecration or invocation when brought into homes or temples as presiding deities over the family and the community. In other words, the gods do not come to inhabit them, they are them.

Shaligrams are also deeply intertwined with understandings of divine movement, either through a geologically and mythologically formative journey down the sacred river, or transnationally in the hands of devout pilgrims. Pouring out into the river each year following the summer melt high in the mountains, Shaligrams are gathered up by pilgrims, tourists, and merchants alike. On their way out of the mountains, they travel through forests and cities, into temples and homes, across great expanses of time and space, carried by the indescribable forces of nature or the complex networks of pilgrimage and kinship exchange that eventually come to define their “lives” as gods and as family members. Shaligrams are therefore described as a kind of divine person; and one who is often in the habit of making pilgrimages throughout Nepal, into India, and across the world.

A Long Story Short

Visiting the fossil beds located high in the mountains of the Annapurna region in Mustang, Nepal also allowed me to observe some of the earlier geological forms that might eventually result in a few of the ammonites becoming Shaligram (after they have been born out of the water) while also giving me a chance to see “raw” unmodified fossils that, given a few thousand years rolling through river silts, would become the characteristics of deities as read in the stones’ final manifestations. I brought with me one of my favorite Shaligrams, called Krishna Govinda (Krishna the Cowherder). It’s a palm-sized, smooth, and perfectly round black Shaligram with a  white “cow hoof” impression on one side (an effect created by the cross-sectional breakage of a concentric quartz ring inside a belemnite shell). And as luck would have it, I was able to find the same structure in one of the “raw” ammonites in one of the fossil wash-outs as well.

Taking Shape

When I returned to my lodgings later that day, with both Shaligram and ammonite in hand, I brought them to a man named Sriram Bhavyesh. He had spent decades of his life studying Shaligrams in the temples of South India and was now in Mustang on his seventh personal Shaligram pilgrimage. He took the two stones, touched them to his forehead, and set them on the table before us. He pointed to my Shaligram, “Do you remember this one?” he asked. “Yes,” I responded, “Krishna Govinda. The cow-hoof makes it clear.” “And this one?” He pointed to the ammonite. Though heavily fractured and dark-orange with iron oxidization, the white hoof-like quartz structure was still easily discernable. “It is still the cow-hoof,” I answered. “But it is not Shaligram, correct?” He smiled. “It is.” He patted my hand. “But it is different. It is still Dasavatara, just changing. Just moving. Not quite there yet. But we can still see what it will be, can’t we?”

A large portion of active Shaligram devotees are Vaishnava Hindus and one of the defining characteristics of Vishnu’s story is the theology of the Dasavatara, or the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. In this particular aspect of Vishnu’s lengthy mythological history, he has appeared on Earth in some form on 10 particularly notable occasions (or will, given that we are currently only up to 9 in the 10-avatar stretch). This does not mean, however, that each avatar was human; rather each avatar took on a specific form and function designed to accomplish some particular set of tasks necessary for the given time in which the avatar appeared. Given this, it was not difficult for me to imagine that becoming a stone shouldn’t be all that difficult in the grand scheme of Vishnu’s divine omnipotence, but I was not entirely sure at that moment what he meant in saying that the ammonite was “moving.”

“The Dasavatara are in Shaligrams,” he responded. “There are Matsya Shaligrams and Kurma Shaligrams, Ram Shaligrams and Krishna Shaligrams, each appearing according to the characteristics laid out in the Puranas and in the Epic stories. You call this one ammonite.” He held the fossil in his palm. “This is what science tells us. You think that we reject this, but we do not. Science is right, you see. We live in the age of Kali Yuga. In Kali Yuga, people are very far away from God and it is very hard to understand things we used to understand in ancient times. Science tries to explain it. Religion tries to explain it. But you see, this is an age of science. Vishnu comes in the form that is needed most, so this one comes in the form of science. He is God moving as fossil, hiding in fossil, because that is how people are going to come to understand this now.”

Many Pasts, One Present

In Shaligrams, science and religion meet, blend, and become comparable methods designed for a singular purpose: to narrate the past so that it explains the present. In fact, many Shaligram practitioners often refer to both science and their own religious stories as “mythology.” Or conversely, to both as factual truth if only from slightly different perspectives. Shaligrams as both fossils and deities then challenge us to question many of the taken-for-granted ways we connect the past and the present and what we think of as science versus religion. In the end, these questions might help us to come to better understand our own ways of being in the world, both physically and spiritually. Or what is more, in a world where ‘living fossil’ no longer simply refers to the living and breathing simulacra of a more ancient creature petrified in stone, it may be possible for us to imagine, for a time, that a stone that has once lived and died, has come alive again.

Find more about Dr Walters’ work on Shaligrams, and specifically about her upcoming book on her blog, Peregrination.

[Image courtesy of the author]

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