A Cultural Zoo: Shaligram Stone in an Ammonite World

Author: Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States. Her work focuses on religion, language, and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. 

There was an article called Preserving Nepal’s Soul that appeared in the March 19th 2015 edition of The Nepali Times. “For many of Nepal’s development partners, the priority is poverty-reduction, health and education,” author Stéphane Huët began, “but as Nepal makes progress in literacy and mother-child survival, some have turned to preserving Nepal’s unique and rich cultural heritage.” 

The gist of Huët’s article was actually about the particular interest the United States has taken in Nepali cultural preservation projects over the past decade or so. For the most part, this interest involves funding for the architectural and artistic restoration of ancient shrines and temples as well as programs for eco-tourism that promote the reinvigoration of cultural performances – such as the Kartik Nach dance that had not been performed in its full form since 1949. Ambassador Bodde said he was touched when he sat through the performance and watched hundreds of young Nepalis proud of a revival of a nearly-lost part of their heritage. “If we can help do that, we’ve done something special,” he said. 

It might be confusing as to why my tone here appears circumspect. After all, doesn’t this sound exactly like the kinds of helpful, culturally-sensitive, partnerships we should be engaging our post-colonial, globalized, dollars in? In light of recent tragedies showing the destruction of museums and artifacts by extremist groups elsewhere in the world, is this not the noble way to ensure the cultural continuity of marginalized peoples? In principle, that would be the hope. Unfortunately, however, this is not always the reality. 

The reality of preservation 

In Sienna Craig’s A Tale of Two Temples: Culture, Capital, and Community in Mustang, Nepal, we’re introduced to a more sobering account of preservation efforts through the case of Thubchen Lhakhang, a temple built in 1472 and located in the heart of Monthang in Mustang District (where I also conducted my fieldwork). Bringing together a veritable Greek chorus of characters (a US-based preservation foundation, a couple of Nepalese conservation and development organizations, a Kathmandu-based international architecture and restoration firm, a host of foreign and Nepali subcontractors, and the “rather nebulous category of “community support”) the project to restore and conserve Thubchen Lhakhang had something of an unanticipated result. The Loba people who once used it, now can’t.

It’s true, the physical monument has been restored (for the time being, at least) and a gripping NOVA documentary has been produced about the project. But that “intangible heritage” so lauded by the Nepali Times just moments ago seems to have gone missing. 

The Loba people of Mustang, the “cultural owners” of the monastery, somehow became antithetical to their own culture in the process of saving it. What I mean by this more plainly is that the crumbling edifice of the building itself had been taken to mean neglect by the people, now culturally-bankrupted by the forces of modern society. In other words, the peoples of Mustang, in their efforts to reconcile their lived realities with pressures to “modernize,” became agents in their own “cultural” demise. 

For the agencies involved, Loba culture needed to be saved from Loba people. As in, what was important was preserving culture; which now only existed within the construct of a 15th century religious complex. As Craig described it, 

“the socio-economic, political, and even aesthetic underpinnings of Thubchen’s neglect – as well as the place of Mustang’s people as agents of this change, is rendered superfluous to the larger mission: to preserve, protect, and restore cultural heritage as a catalyst for what the arbiters of this perspective see as “positive” local practice.”

A Cultural Zoo

While this ideological split is frustrating in and of itself, the final result was that, in the end, new centers of Loba cultural identity and activity now no longer appear in Mustang, but in the urban center of Kathmandu, where many groups located in outlying districts have begun to relocate. As for the preserved centers of “culture” still located in ancestral lands, they’re visited only by tourists. A new kind of “cultural zoo” has thus come about; traditions frozen in time and space, set aside for the paying interests of foreign visitors, donors, and trekking agencies.

By designating specific sites as places of “cultural heritage,” local peoples are often erased or removed from notions of universal belonging, especially in cases where money, government agencies, and international collaboration are centered around an idea that culture is, somehow, going away (even though, ironically, it is as more and more people leave Mustang behind for the less destitute opportunities of urban life). What is more, that which is preserved is no longer produced by the practices and traditions of the peoples located there. Instead, it is produced through an Italian conservationist’s paint brush, an American development specialist’s spreadsheet, and an Indian architect’s blueprint. 

It may not be their intent, but this culture is different than the one that came before it. This is culture for sale.

Eat, Pray, Shop

One might not imagine that physical and digital markets for selling fossils would enter in to a discussion about “cultural preservation,” but the problem of buying and selling Shaligram stones (black-shale ammonite fossils from Mustang, revered as deities in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Bon) in fact highlights exactly the problem I’ve laid out above. 

Selling Shaligrams, as religious objects or as souvenir fossils, is often narrated as the result of both national tensions and economic hardship. In this case, where impoverished local people are selling the stones to wealthier foreign practitioners or rock collectors who cannot access Mustang due to its political restrictions. These narratives, however, also bolster growing concerns about the continued availability of Shaligrams overall. 

“If sellers continue like they have been,” One of my interlocutors, a South Asian woman living in New York City, remarked. “There won’t be any Shaligrams left in Kali Gandaki. 

I only got my Shaligram by chance. I was going down the street to get my groceries when I saw this shop filled with Indian and Nepali items. I thought maybe I should go in and see if they had any puja things since mine are so old and some of my things are missing. But you should imagine my surprise when I saw Shaligram in one of the display cases. 

The shop owner said that he had found some fossils while he was trekking in Nepal and he decided to bring them back for his shop. He had no idea what they were.

“Well, of course I bought it right away and I keep it with my deities for darshan every day. But I worry a lot now. I see so many for sale on the internet and I know sellers take them from the river to sell. Now it is almost like we have to buy them because we won’t be able to get them from Gandaki anymore.” 


“Do you think it is mostly people who cannot go on pilgrimage who buy them?” I asked. She leaned in conspiratorially.

“I asked this of a seller in India once. He told me that he does most of his business with the Hare Krishnas, you know, the Vaishnavas from Bengal? Because so many of them are Westerners and they live here in America or in England and they can’t go on pilgrimage, so they buy Shaligrams. And they have so much money, you know? 

I think it is also because many sacred places will not allow Westerners to come inside. You have to be born of a Hindu family to go to Pashupatinath, otherwise you have to stay outside. It is complicated. They have become Hindu but many see them as not Hindu. So, when they go for Shaligram, some people see them as tourists even if they see themselves as pilgrims. Maybe it is better for them to buy Shaligram if that is what they want.”

Disappearing Shaligrams 

Among many Shaligram practitioners, concerns about the disappearance of Shaligrams from Nepal, and their consequent appearance for sale in shops or on websites, were often couched in competing arguments of cultural appropriation and Hinduism – as an evangelical, global, religion. Stereotypes about young, white, Western women who visited Nepal and India looking for yoga instruction or for spiritual tourism and young, white, Western, men sporting dreadlocks and Buddhist prayer beads featured prominently in many narratives about the blurry lines between serious religious conversion, religious commodification, and cultural appropriation. 

For global religions like Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, which have long operated on a logic of evangelical salvation, conversion rhetoric, and the equal access of all people to the means of liberation, there remains a central tension: how to reconcile universalist theology with a need to preserve specific cultural and ritual practices in the face of persecution, colonialism, and dilution in the world-wide Diaspora. 

Typically, Western converts to Hinduism are often treated as beneficiaries of Vedic theology and viewed as elevated from a culturally and spiritually impoverished homeland (meaning: the modern West) and into a new perspective of meaning and fulfillment due to the charity of teachers and gurus. But Western converts are also sought out for their material and political privileges so that they may be leveraged as allies in advocating for specific political subjectivities (i.e., Free Tibet, preservation of Hindu India, etc.). Or, they are leveraged for purchasing religious objects such that they may remain widely available, further complicating the lines between what is appropriation and what is conversion. 

For Shaligram devotees, the added concerns about the buying and selling of Shaligrams on expansive global markets echoed these issues. At what point could Western converts be considered “Hindu enough” for Shaligram practice to remain authentic? Did new religious movements, such as the Hare Krishnas, who claim wide networks of Western converts as well as Indian and Bangladeshi devotees, have sufficient ties to more ancient traditional contexts to warrant inclusion in Shaligram rituals and exchange? 

If a Shaligram appeared to a non-Hindu, was it not the same as appearing to a practicing Hindu given God’s own agency in Shaligram mobility? What did it mean for Shaligram veneration when it was now all too easy just to buy a sacred stone than to chance the dangers of the Kali Gandaki in the high Himalayas of Mustang? 

Drawing the line

Ultimately, concerns about the buying and selling of Shaligrams outside of South Asia underscore the challenges for Hindus, converts to Hinduism, and tourists (spiritual or otherwise) in further negotiating the links between religion and politics. It is also a struggle to “preserve” a practice that is increasingly becoming harder and harder to do. 

In the end, what is the responsibility of the tourist to the pilgrim and vice versa, or the convert to the native? Is it possible to import beliefs and not their accompanying cultural frameworks and objects? Where does religion or nationality end and “culture” begin? And, is a Shaligram for sale as an ammonite fossil still a Shaligram, or is the ammonite the only part that truly matters once the ritual practice has vanished? 

[Blog image by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash]

[Image of Shaligram stones sourced from Wikimedia Commons: Shaligram (2)]

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