Shells

SEARCH     Home     Site Map    Symbolism    Calendar     Karmapa     News    DONATE
 

Shellfish are hunted for the meat they contain and then their exoskeletons, ie. the shells, can be used for utilitarian, decorative or ritual purposes.  The fact that they are found in prehistoric burial places indicates that people believed their symbolic power continued into the afterlife.  Two gastropod species in particular play a significant cultural role, trumpet shells such as the conch, and the smaller, shiny rounded cowry. 

Left or Right 

Shells usually grow counterclockwise as they grow.  That is, they turn left, so when we hold the siphon (the mouth or opening) pointing downwards they open to the right from a viewer' s perspective.  A few sub-species open in the other direction, and they are termed "sinistral" (left-handed.)   Sinistral snails are termed in English, King Snails.  An extremely rare conch (Skt. shankh) known in Sanskrit as dakshinavarti, grows turning towards the right so that its opening is on the left side of the form.

The Conch

The white conch (Turbinella pyrum) has been used as a libation vessel and a container for precious oils and medicines since at least the time of the Indus Valley civilization.  Slices of the shell were, and are still, used to make bangles and earrings.  With the pointed end sliced off to leave a mouthpiece opening, they have served since earliest times as battle trumpets, to herald auspicious occasions and also as musical instruments.   

The Arabian Sea at Kathiawar is one source of supply for ritual conches. 

Besides the usual mellow note, when a tight embouchure (mouth shape) is used,  high-pitched alarm sounds can be produced from a conch shell. 

The conch is sounded at the beginning of important rituals not just because its presence is auspicious, but also because the sound is believed to have the ability to drown out any negative words or noises that might disturb or disrupt the harmonious  atmosphere.  In north India, a Valampuri (right-turning) conch is used for this purpose and in Polynesia (whose people originated in south Asia) the pu (conch) is still sounded at weddings and other celebrations.  The conch or horogai is also sounded for ritual purposes in Japan. 

In Korea the conch shell trumpet or nagak is mainly associated with martial music.

Examples of the Gigantic Conch, a different species, were found at a sacrificial burial site in Teotihuacan, Mexico. <scroll down to 3rd image.

There is evidence that the Minoans (Cretan precursors of the Greeks) used the shell trumpet for ritual purposes.  According to Hesiod's Theogony, from Amphitrite the sea goddess and Poseidon, loud-thundering earth shaker, was born great Triton who commanded the waves of the sea. Triton is depicted as having the upper body of a man holding his conch, but below the waist he has one, or sometimes two, fish/dolphin tails. When he blows a loud blast, he causes the waves to greatly increase in magnitude.  Both his name and that of his mother, Amphitrite, were given to some of the largest of the shells.  

Vishnu

The most ancient role of Indian deity, Lord Vishnu, stands for Creation as it manifests from the primal waters, and as such he is depicted as dark blue, though later in the evolution of Vaishnava religion, his manifestations or avatars appear in other colors.  He is normally depicted with four arms:  In his inner right hand he holds a lotus (padma,) in the outer right is his discus called Beauteous Display (sudarshan chakra) that always returns to his hand, the outer left holds the conch (panchajanya --five-born, ie. of the 5 elements,) while the fourth carries a mace (gada.)  The discus and mace were prizes in his victorious contests with Indra and Yama, respectively.  

From the battle scene described in Mahabharata:

Standing on their great chariots yoked with white stallions, Krishna and Arjuna, Pandu's son, sounded their divine conches.

Krishna blew Panc[h]ajanya, won from a demon; Arjuna blew Devadetta,
a gift of the gods; fierce wolf-bellied Bhima blew Paundra, his great
conch of the east.          

Yudhishthira, Kunti's son, the king, blew Anantavijaya, conch of
boundless victory; his twin brothers Nakula and Sahadeva blew
conches resonant and jewel toned.

Sound of the Conch

Panchajanya, Vishnu's conch, is a symbol of Dharma in the sense of divine order and righteousness.  Krishna is the avatar of Vishnu, and in The Mahabharata he manifests as a charioteer to stir the hero Arjuna to accomplish his duty.  The sound of his conch signals the start of the terrible battle of Kurukshetra. 

The conch is understood as the source of all existence -- a cosmic womb, for when the conch is blown, it is said to emulate the primordial sound Aum (Om) from which all else emanates.  Its association with Vishnu is explained in the myth which tells how a demon, now known as Shankh'ashura, once managed to defeat the devas but then retreated to the ocean depths.  When the gods appealed to Vishnu for help, he manifested as a great fish and pursued and killed the ashura.

Then Lord Vishnu took the skull and blew through it, and the Om which emanated took the form of the Vedas.  Therefore all primordial knowledge is understood to be the elaboration of that Aum.  The myth is also an explanation as to why the conch is called shankha --  after the demon whose activity instigated the revelation of knowledge.  In south India, it is called sangu.

Shiva

There is also a special relation between the conch (shankha) and Lord Shiva (Skt. Mahadeva, Tib. lha chen, Great God) one of whose epithets is Shankara -- conch-blower.  His first son is elephant-headed Ganesha, who is also associated with the shankh; he is often depicted either seated on one, or holding it in one of his four hands along with his other attributes. 

Shankara (788-820) is also the title of the famous philosopher who, it is said, was defeated in philosophical debate by  a great Vajrayana lama.  When Shankara demonstrated his ability to fly through the air, the lama brought him precipitously to earth by merely pegging down the Indian's shadow with his p'hurba (3-sided ritual implement.) The etymology of his name is shamprosperity and karathi = giver.

  • Adi Shankara (b. 509 BCE) from the perspective of his devotees.

Vishnu once learned that his conch was missing when he heard the characteristic note of his valamburi shankh coming from the direction of Mount Kailash.   He then meditated on Lord Shiva who appeared out of courtesy only to declare that if he wanted the conch back, he would first have to propitiate Valamburi Ganesh (the form of Ganesh in which his trunk is similarly turned to the right.)  When Vishnu performs this puja, Ganesh deigns to send back the conch. 

Here is not only an association of the sound of the conch with the sound of the elephant's trumpeting, but the belief that all auspiciousness is ultimately controlled by Shiva via his son.  And Ganesh's very existence is proof of the Mind's mastery over the world of forms.

The Great Goddess, Durga was given a conch by Vayu, the wind-god, at the time she was formed out of a combination of the powers of all the gods in order to combat the buffalo demon, Mahisha.

Conch-shaped

The form of a conch is special in two different ways.  Its internal structure which is a spiral is considered to be symbolic of the path of death and rebirth, and its graceful triangular form with deep declivity is reminiscent of the female body. 

India is a giant peninsula in the shape of a conch. 

At Kutraalam in South India, there is the temple of Thirukutralanathar that is built on a conch-shaped plan with an ambulatory that is a spiral path within a conch-shaped area. 

White conch in Tibetan is dung-kar. The Drigung Kagyü have a seat founded by Lho Drubchen Tingdzin Sangpo, a great siddha who could pass through solid rock.  In the land ruled by the Drongpa clan, the Dong Mukpo Lharik, there is a slope of the Chitö Sermo Yimön range with the shape of a white conch coiling clockwise.  That was the site chosen for the monastic seat called Dungkar Gön, or White Conch Monastery. Later the name was corrupted to Lungkar Gön. It became the largest monastery in the Drongmey region. 

On a Huaxtec stele from Huilocintla, Veracruz which is in the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, there is a figure that is identified as a priest of Quetzalcoatl/Ehecatl because he wears a conch pectoral (ehecaicoxcatl.)  That adornment links him to the creation myth in which Quetzalcoatl creates life with the aid of a conch.  Another artefact there is a clay figurine depicting a cheerful man poking out of a spiral shell that actually seems more like that of a snail.  Nevertheless, most spiral shells used in Mesoamerican iconography represent a conch which is the standard symbol for wind and for life, and so this piece may represent the emergence of the first human being.  

In  some of the cosmogonies of the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada, human beings emerged from a clamshell.   The baptismal fonts  of many Catholic churches are made of, or are carved in marble in imitation of, a giant clam or oyster shell.  There, the shell is a symbol of Christian rebirth, although the pagan deity Venus was depicted by Botticelli as emerging from a similar shell. 

Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god, is depicted emerging from a conch shell, and both the ordinary conch and the Horse conch were used as trumpets in that culture.  Shell trumpets have been found in many Central and South American pre-Columbian archaeological sites that indicate their ritual use.  Other shells that seem to have had a religious significance include the Thorny Oyster, Giant Eastern Pacific Conch and the Atlantic Winged Oyster. 

Shells are sometimes fetishes or objects of power (sometimes called "medicine") that are venerated and accorded special care as the home or resting place of a deity or its energy.  Many of the North American aboriginal peoples make, or once made, fetishes of shells. The emblem of the Western Cree (Ojibway) Medicine Society is a shell, and of course, wampum is the purple dentalia shell that was used as an ancient medium of exchange all across central North America, and also woven into sashes that mark by their design, certain momentous occasions.

The Dharma Conch

One view of the 8 auspicious symbols that are widely used in Tibetan Buddhism relates each one to a part of the Buddha's body. 

The White Conch Shell stands for his throat that is depicted in traditional images as the three horizontal lines below the chin, a traditional sign of beauty, as "a neck adorned with three lines like those of a conch-shell."   This association is also an allusion to his voice which broadcasts the dharma, just as the conch shell was blown as a call to arms or as an alert.  The Dharma is considered to have the same effect on sentient beings.  In both cases the signal can be heard far and wide.  It is the awakening from a slumber of ignorance. 

In Tibetan, as we have already seen, the ritual conch is called dung-kar or white trumpet. Two days after the birth in June 1985 of Apo Gaga who was to become the 17th Karmapa, the sound of a conch shell was heard by members of the nomadic community, just as was prophesied by the Sixteenth Karmapa in his prediction letter.  Later, a local oracle scrying by means of a mirror, saw the form of a white conch with a clockwise spiral.

The offering of a white conch shell stands for the wish that all beings be free from love, hate, aversion, attachment, and that they can renounce the mind of discrimination (in the sense both of value judgment and of comparison.)

In the 13th century, the original Sakya monastery was the recipient of an immense conch shell.  It was presented by the Mongol lord, Kubilai Khan, to P'hagspa, head of the denomination.  Some believe it is the actual "body" of the Buddha in his former existence as a mollusk.  Others, that it once belonged to Shakyamuni himself.  At the monastery, pilgrims are blessed, one at a time, after a sounding of the conch by the presiding lama. 

This association with righteousness is not only an exotic one.  In William Golding's Lord of the Flies, the conch stands for order versus chaos.  It symbolizes the rules of civilized society.  In chapter 11, Ralph decides to blow the conch shell that was once the symbol of his authority in hopes of reminding Jack's break-away group of their initial unity, but the boys standing guard taunt him and Piggy, pelting them with stones.  When the group of hunters emerges from the forest dragging a dead pig, their leader Jack refuses to use the conch and shatters it.

Conch Code

Leonardo Pisano Fibonacci (1170 -1250) was the European who discovered the rule for the series of numbers that describe spiral development such as is found in nature in, for example, the growth of a conch, the internal structure of the nautilus or the size and arrangement of the petals of a lotus.  [link is to Fibonacci Assoc.]

A Fibonacci sequence is 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8,13, 21, 34, 55, ... .  Each term is the sum of the two preceding terms.  The ratio of each term to the one before gradually converges to a limit of approximately 1.618 which is, not surprisingly, also the Golden Mean.  That ratio is also known as the Divine Proportion, and so the shell is a perfect expression of the order and beauty emanating from the components of this universe. 

Steve Turre, trombonist, at the suggestion of jazz great Rahsaan Roland Kirk, experimented with a series of conches to create interesting music and in 1992 recorded Sanctified Shells (Antilles.)  A single conch can only produce a limited number of tones, so a number of shells must be used to create melody.  The notes depend on the size and number of compartments produced by the animal as it grows.  (When a chamber becomes too small, the conch-animal moves forward and seals off its former room.) 

Cowries

The cowry is primarily a female symbol, and so it is often used as a fertility charm.  In Gujarat they are sewn on the front of tunics at the appropriate place.  They are also sewn around the hems of garments.  The symbol for love, fertility and by extension, life itself, they serve as amulets and talismans on every continent. 

In Nepal, during the autumn festival celebrating goddess Durga that is called Dasain (Hindi: Dasara>dasa-hara="ten-removing") gambling is allowed.  The game turns on how many of a handful of 10 cowrie shells dropped on the table or cloth-covered floor land face up.  The eldest male throws and the others bet.  If there is more than one head-of-household, then each of the possible "up" combinations is assigned to other people in order of traditional rank.  The younger people can bet on one of those.

Lakhpat on the banks of the Kori in Kutch, Gujarat (India) has been devastated by earthquakes more than once, but it used to be a thriving port, where people of the Thar desert traded with their Arabian counterparts.  Lakhpat got its name from the amount of trade it handled --  to the tune of 100, 000 cowry shells (one lakh).

On the South Pacific island of Fiji during a kava-drinking or yaqona (Macropiper methysticum) ceremony, a long fibre cord decorated with cowries leads from the bowl to the guests of honor.  The white cowry at the end of the cord emphasizes the link with ancestral spirits that this cord stands for. 

Since ancient times, the spotted cowry (mainly Cypraeidae, or Erosaria ocellata) was used as a medium of exchange, and was the accepted currency from Africa to China until the sixteenth century.   The cowry that was found in use in the Maldives is yellow, and earned the descriptive name C. moneta for its use as money.  

There is some evidence that the use of cowries as jewelery in Africa was and is an extension of their introduction as currency by Arab and Indian traders. 

Prophecy

Cowries could be cast by seers or prognosticators to determine outcomes.

Lord Atisha (Skt.: Atisha Dipankar Srijnan,) the renowned 11th-century Bengali scholar, had been invited to help restore Buddhism in Tibet after the persecutions under King Langdarma:

". . . Atisha prayed to Avalokiteshvara and Tara, inquiring how far the religion and sentient beings would be benefited, how far the wish of the king could be fulfilled, and whether there would be any danger to his own life. Having prayed on these three matters, that very night he dreamt he heard the words: "Go to where you will find a small Buddhist temple and inquire of the yogini who comes there." 

Having thus dreamt, in the morning he took a handful of flowers and proceeded to a temple where he met a yogini, hair flowing to the ground. To his inquiry, she replied, "There will be benefit if you set forth for Tibet, especially with the help of an upasaka [Tib: genyen]." 

Still desiring to pray at Buddha Gaya and make great offerings there, he approached the abbot Jnana Shri Metri, by whom he was given a handful of cowries to deliver to an old white-haired woman who was living at Buddha Gaya. When Atisha reached that city the old woman demanded: "Give me the cowries that were sent to me." Atisha, having paid homage mentally and questioned her in his mind, got the same answers as he had received before (from the yogini). But when he inquired about physical danger, she replied that if Atisha did not set forth for Tibet, he would live to the age of ninety-two years, whereas if he did set forth, he would live to be only seventy-three. 

At this, Atisha courageously decided that he would not care about his health if his journey would benefit Tibet."

~ LamaYeshe.com

Gift of the Seven Shells

At Tingri, "by the Chuwar road going through Peykhu," Milarepa was given seven shells as an offering and by way of an apology by one of a group of pretty girls bedecked in jewels on their way to Nokme.

Seeing my emaciated body, one of them said, 'Look! What misery! May I never be reborn as such a creature.' Another one said, 'How pitiful! A sight like that depresses me.' I thought to myself, 'I have compassion for these ignorant beings.' And, feeling pity, I stood up and said to them, 'Daughters, do not speak in this way. There is no reason for you to be so distressed. You could not be born like me, even if you wished. It is astonishing that you feel compassion, but your compassion comes from pride and a wrong understanding. 

In thanks, the Yogi sang:

'I invoke the Compassionate Lama, 
I offer the sacred Dharma in brief song. 

Above, in the celestial mansion of the Devas, 
Conventional Doctrine is preferred; true Doctrine is ignored. 

Below, in the palace of the serpent gods, 
Worldliness is preferred; the profound teaching is ignored. 

In the middle, on man's Earth, 
False teachers are preferred; authentic teachers are ignored. 

In the four regions of U and Tsang 
Teaching is preferred; meditation is ignored. 

In the dark days of Kali Yuga 
Wicked people are preferred; the good are ignored. 

In the eyes of these beautiful girls 
The handsome man is preferred; the hermit is ignored. 

In the ears of these young girls 
This brief song sounds pleasant; the profound Dharma unpleasant. 
These are my instructions in song. 
This is my response to the gift of the seven shells
This is the celebration of your forgiveness.' 

~Lhalungpa's Life of Milarepa.

Gaming

Cowries were retained as the traditional "dice" for playing the ancient game of Parcheesi or Pachisi (corruption of an Indian word for 25 -- the highest score in a throw of 6 shells.)  Though mainly a children's board game today, it is authentically played on an cloth embroidered with two intersecting three-laddered staircases that divide the cloth into quarters.  Small carved beehive-shaped "men" move up the steps of the arms of the cross.  

Each arm of the cross has three columns of eight squares. Three of the squares on each arm are distinctively marked with a dot or other emblem that is called a castle: the middle step at the end of each arm plus the fourth squares on the outer ladders (counting inwards from the end of each arm.)  The very centre of the cross (where the ladders intersect) is the large square called the charkoni.

Sixteen beehive-shaped pieces are used: four each of black, green, red and yellow.  Although in the city the usual cube dice are used, the traditional way is to determine chance by tossing 6 small cowry shells that land either mouth up or down.  The number of moves: 

2 cowries with mouths up = 2 
3 cowries with mouths up = 3 
4 cowries with mouths up = 4 
5 cowries with mouths up = 5 
6 cowries with mouths up = 6 + grace 
1 cowries with mouths up = 10 + grace 
0 cowries with mouths up = 25 + grace 

A grace is a special condition crucial to the game.

Parcheesi is played by two pairs of people, each person sitting opposite his or her partner; Yellow and Black play against Red and Green. (Two can also play, but then each person has to play both sets of men that "belong", ie. one plays Yellow and Black, and the other Red and Green.

To begin, all the pieces are placed in the charkoni. Each player throws the cowries and the person with the highest score goes first. Turns go counter clockwise, ie."right-turning." 

The objective is to move all four pieces in a set down the middle of the nearest arm, around the edge of the board going counter-clockwise and then back up the same arm to finish in the charkoni.  To distinguish starting pieces from those that are on their way back up to finish, the pieces moving up the final leg are placed on their sides.

Pachisi is won only when both partners get all eight pieces in the charkoni. 

The moves:  The high score player throws the cowries, and moves a piece the number of steps indicated.  When you get a grace, it indicates that a piece may be played out of the charkoni onto the board (if so desired,) then the player also gets a free throw until a 2, 3, 4 or 5 is obtained.

The first piece can leave the charkoni on any number, but any  subsequent pieces are only allowed to start (or re-enter) using a grace.

More than one piece from the same side can occupy the same step or square, but a piece is not allowed to end up on a castle square that is occupied by any enemy pieces.  If a piece finishes on a non-castle square inhabited by one or more enemy pieces, the enemy pieces are captured and returned to the charkoni where they can start again only on a grace.  A player making a capture is allowed another immediate throw of the cowries.

Moving is not compulsory and a player may decide not to move even having thrown the cowries. That tactic is used to remain safely on a castle, or to help a partner. A common strategy is for a piece to remain on the castle at the end of the third arm until a 25 is thrown so that the piece can finish without any risk.

In order to assist a lagging partner, a piece may continue around the board a second time.  Pieces finish the game by re-entering the charkoni having completed a circuit of the board, but they can only do so on a throw of the exact number required. 

Pachisi can vary from place to place.  Here are some alternate rules:

Seven cowry shells can be used instead of six. Different amounts can be allocated to the different permutations. Sometimes there are only 2 grace numbers: 10 and 25. 

Sometimes men are only allowed to enter the charkoni on a grace throw. 

If you get 3 graces in a row, there is a penalty, eg. lose a turn and/or  any pieces that have moved must be returned. 

"A square occupied by two or more pieces cannot be passed by an opposing piece. This rule, which is possibly a non-Indian modern invention, naturally changes tactics significantly since, whereas in the basic rules outlined above it is inadvisable to put two pieces from the same side on the same square, under this variation putting two pieces from the same side together is a good defensive strategy. " ~ Master Games

Some versions use the graces differently. Instead of using the actual amounts of 6, 10 and 25 to enter or re-enter a piece, the amount of a throw can only be used to move a piece already on the board in the normal way. Then the grace is played separately and allows a single piece to be moved one square, or allows a single piece to be moved out of the charkoni onto the first square of an arm. 

If the game seems too simple, try Chaupar in which you play with two-part turns. First the cowries are tossed one or more times according to the numbers.  Then, only once the throwing is completed, are the piece or pieces moved according to the cowry throws.  So to begin a turn, the player throws the cowries.  If a grace turns up, the player is allowed another throw and so on until a 2, 3, 4 or 5 is thrown. Then for each throw, the player moves one piece as indicated by the amount on the cowries. So if three throws were made, the player might move:  1 piece 3 times or 1 piece twice and another once, or  3 pieces once each. 

The Scallop

The Giant European scallop shell is the badge of a pilgrim who has traveled to Santiago-de-Campostela, Spain to pray at the shrine of St. James or Santiago.  Since the Middle Ages, scallops have been worn tucked into pilgrims' hatbands, and we can identify an image as that of Santiago by the mere presence of a scallop or cockle shell.  

_______________________________________________________________

Vishnu: The All-pervasive, is also called Narayana which means Unmoving or Immobile. Some find the etymology to indicate by the water.

existence as a mollusk: Quoted by Schoening in Lee Feigon's Demystifying Tibet (Chicago:  Ivan R. Dee, 1996.)

three lines:  as in description of Hindu deity, Krishna, in Book XI, ch. 20 of The Mahabharata

Back ] Home ] Up ] Next ]

Knots ] Canopy and Parasol ] [ Shells ] Skeletons, Skulls and Bones ] Staff and Trident ] The Swastika ]

Copyright 1998-2016 Khandro.Net  All rights reserved.  This Web site is designed with Firefox as browser but should be accessible to others.  However,  if you eliminate underlining in your Preferences you could miss some of our  many links.