In the presence of the gods
Shaligram pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalaya.
I found my first fossil in the Himalaya in the 1960s while trekking high in the hills on the west side of the Kali Gandaki River Valley. It was so unexpected that I kept it as a talisman. Later, while walking the riverside trail on my way to the mountainside temple of Muktinath, I met Hindu pilgrims who showed me black, round, spiralled fossils they had found along the Kali Gandaki riverbank. "Shaligrams," they said. "Very old. Very sacred." They knew where to look for them from stories their elders told, of trekking north up the pilgrim trail toward Nepal's border with Tibet, years before. Muktinath, the destination of countless pilgrims over more than two thousand years, is the principal site for the veneration of shaligrams, and finding the sacred fossils along the way fulfills one of the main objectives of each pilgrim's yatra.
After discovering my first shaligram, I could find little that described its cultural, mythological, or religious significance until I discovered an entertaining old glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases called Hobson-Jobson, the second edition of which was published by two British colonial scholars in 1903. From a few quotes they collected from notations in obscure writings, some as early as the 16th century, I read that a shaligram is "A pebble having mystic virtues… usually marked by containing a fossil… often adopted as the representative of some god… considered a representative of Vishnoo… found in the Gunduk River," and – most alluring – "it is the only stone that is naturally divine; all others being rendered sacred by incantation."
Beyond such curious ramblings and speculative rumours, however, little else about the shaligram pilgrimage was available to a larger readership until, in recent decades, a few of us anthropologists and others began to write a little more about them.
When I came across Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas, by anthropologist Holly Walters, published in late 2020, I was intrigued and pleased. Her meticulously researched book provides deep insight into the culture of these sacred fossils and of the age-old pilgrimage to Muktinath. Shaligram Pilgrimage is the most comprehensive study of the "living fossils" written to date.
Walters' book represents almost a decade of in-depth study in India and Nepal in search of the meaning of shaligram worship. Her understanding of the importance of the fossils in Southasian culture was gained through careful inquiry and observation, far-reaching conversations, and personal narratives of local residents and temple priests, Hindu pundits, Buddhist nuns, and other devotees at home and on pilgrimage. Some of her pilgrim companions and acquaintances continued their trailside discussions with her by sending videos of local practices from home, along with photos and recordings of festivals and temple celebrations. She also relied on primary sources such as Hindu scriptures, including the Mahabharata (dated to 300 BC) and the Puranas (written between 300 AD and 1000 AD). Her secondary sources included a variety of scholarly writings on fossils and associated topics.
Shaligrams are recognised as prehistoric fossils by science, and as both fossils and sacred deities by religious devotees. Palaeontologists, who study the history of early life on Earth, point out that shaligram ammonites are the fossilised forms of prehistoric molluscs, now extinct, that lived in the shallow mirk of the primordial Tethys Sea between 400 million and 65 million years ago. The Tethys Sea (named after a mythical Greek titan), lay between two ancient supercontinents that scientists have named Gondwana and Laurasia. How Tethys Sea fossils came to be found in the high Himalaya is revealed in the geological story of plate tectonics and continental drift.
Sometime around 50 million years ago, as the two old continents began to merge in a slow but steady tectonic collision, the sea between them gradually disappeared. Over time, the ammonites and other seabed fossils were slowly pushed up as the Himalaya rose along the line where the continents converged to form what we know today as the Indian Subcontinent and Tibetan Plateau.
Several kinds of fossils occur high in the Himalaya, but shaligram ammonites are found only along the Kali Gandaki River and its tributaries, the highest of them in shale outcrops above the river up to around 5000 metres (16,400 feet) in elevation. In the past, little was known about them beyond what Nepali and Indian Hindu devotees told others after returning home from pilgrimage to this part of Nepal. Once the fossils arrived 'home' with the pilgrims, they became a focal point of daily worship on household altars and in neighbourhood shrines all across Southasia.
Holly Walters came to India in 2012 to study the construction of Hindu deity altars in homes and temples in a West Bengal city north of Kolkata. It was not long before she saw strange (to her) black stones reverently placed on silver puja trays during devotions. When asked about them, her hosts told her they were 'shaligrams' brought by people returning from pilgrimage in the Himalaya. Shaligrams, she learned, are passed down in each generation "from elderly men, attentive sons, devout mothers, and ascetic widows", who believed in the 'lives' of shaligrams as gods and who sometimes thought of them as family members. The more she learned, the more she wondered how she could "arrive at the scene" and assess such deep-rooted beliefs, so full of spiritual meaning and value.
What she learned in the first weeks and months of her study surprised and dismayed her, for nowhere in her scrutiny of Southasian religions had she read about fossils being an integral part of the long-distance pilgrimage and daily worship. She also learned that shaligrams are venerated by millions of followers of Hinduism's Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shakti, and Smarta doctrines, as well as by devotees of India's Jain Dharma and adherents of the Buddhist and Bon religions of Tibet and the Himalaya.
The ultimate goal of the shaligram pilgrimage is worshipping at the main temple and associated shrines within the sacred complex of Muktinath high in the mountains of Nepal's Mustang District. At all such sacred places, Hindus seek darshan – a blessing fulfilled by observing a deity or by merely being in the presence of the divine. For Hindus, the main temple at Muktinath is dedicated to Vishnu, the Lord of Salvation (mukti). Buddhists recognise the same deity as the Buddha of Compassion, known as Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit, and Chenrezig in Tibetan. Darshan is powerfully felt while worshipping at the Vishnu Mandir (temple), which houses a large black shaligram. Darshan also occurs when finding a shaligram, and during puja back home at the household shrine – and at any other time when a sacred ammonite fossil is at the centre of reverent attention. The awesome sacerdotal powers of Muktinath remain with each shaligram brought home and placed on an altar or passed on to others over time.
In Shaligram Pilgrimage, Walters reveals many beliefs, myths, facts, and historical practices regarding shaligrams and the Muktinath pilgrimage. They include awareness of the divine movement of shaligrams through time and space, the belief that each pilgrim's quest to experience the sacred is achieved by visiting sacred sites, that this sometimes requires transcending government-imposed (ie, secular) constraints on access, and, ultimately, that shaligrams are god.
Walters writes at length about the movement of shaligrams, beginning with their geologically and mythologically formative journey measured in millennia of time. Their movement in space, however, is more complex. While it may seem at first that the locus of shaligram worship is India, Walters assures us that shaligrams tend to journey much farther and with more complexity of meaning. Created under the Tethys Sea, the fossils first moved imperceptibly slowly over aeons of geologic time and action, culminating with the formation of the Himalaya, including the shaligram-laden northern reaches of the Kali Gandaki River and its surrounds. Pilgrims find them there, and only there, and ultimately carry them home all across Southasia, and around the world through the Hindu and Buddhist diaspora.
For the last several thousand years, shaligrams have been characterised by the movements of people, such as "the pilgrims and ritual practitioners who travel to Mustang to seek them out and take them home." To understand this phenomenon ethnographically, she says, requires the researcher to take mobility, time, place, and access into account. The physical movement of shaligrams "begins with the stones' geological and mythological travels down the sacred river and includes their equally divine transnational mobility in the hands of devout pilgrims returning to homes in regions and countries throughout the world."
For a very long time, measured on the scale of human history in the Himalaya, the movement of shaligrams has been directly influenced by pilgrimage, just as the pilgrimage to Muktinath is directly influenced by the presence of shaligrams. Walters describes her own pilgrimage experiences and what she learned from others along the way in some detail, including how they affect the perception of shaligrams among devotees. This includes the desire among pilgrims to search for the sacred fossils in a restricted area north of Muktinath in upper Mustang.
Borders and sacred land
In their quest to find shaligrams, zealous pilgrims will go anywhere they are found, often pitting their spiritual pursuits against restrictive government rules. Though shaligram fossils have travelled far and wide throughout the world, the ability of the faithful to search for them in the politically contentious area of upper Mustang, close to Nepal's border with Tibet, is limited. Because of ongoing concern over international incidents that have occurred there in the past, the Nepal government requires each foreigner wishing to visit upper Mustang, including pilgrims, to apply for a costly entrance permit and engage the services of a registered trekking agency, all of which is financially beyond the abilities of the vast majority of the pilgrims. Access is not entirely out of bounds for everyone, however, as many foreign trekkers pay the fees to visit this exotic region without hesitation.
Understandably, however, pilgrims tend to express frustration toward anything that limits access to sacred areas, regardless of the reason. "I'm going to burn my passport," an angry pilgrim told Walters. "I'm going to destroy all my documents and go to Damodar. I came here (on pilgrimage) to find Shaligram and I will find Shaligram. You can't put borders on sacred land."
Damodar is a sacred glacial kunda (lake) high in the Damodar Himal, a northern extension of the Annapurna massif. After visiting Muktinath, many pilgrims hope to go to Damodar Kunda to bathe, commune with the gods, and find shaligrams in the nearby shale outcrops. The lake is only 7.25 kilometres (4.50 miles) from the international border with the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China, which for the Nepal government is too close for comfort.
Furthermore, to trek from Muktinath at 3800 metres (12,467 feet) up through the mountains to Damodar Kunda, at 4890 m (16,000 ft) and back can take up to two weeks of arduous trekking, high and cold, is beyond the ability of many pilgrims.
Several angry pilgrims who felt that sanctity should outrank political contingency told Walters how they intended to "hide their passports in a mountain crevasse, strip off their clothes and travel as mute hermits (so that their accents would not give them away) and steal across the border [between lower and upper Mustang] late at night or in an area where there were no roads for government jeeps to travel."
Religious devotees believe that secular limitations on access to spiritual spaces often conflict with pilgrim goals. Transgressing border area access rules are "really matters of politics and not matters of spirituality," she writes. But as one Hindu devotee described it to her, "people are much the same as plants. Plants grow where they grow. They don't pay attention to government borders. Neither do people really."
The most powerful takeaway from Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas is that because shaligrams are natural forms (svarupa in Sanskrit), they are inherently sacred. Or, as Holly Walters observes, they are imbued "with a living essence and agency of their own." As unbounded forms of the divine, they are unlike such man-made objects as idols, images or statues (murtis). And because they require no rites of incantation to consecrate them, each shaligram is the deity. Therefore, she concludes, "to be in the presence of a Shaligram is to be in the constant presence of the gods themselves."
Insider versus outsider
Shortly after Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas went to press in 2020, Walters received a message on social media questioning how a foreign scholar, a non-Hindu, could comprehend such deep and sensitive religious beliefs and practices as those she has so compellingly described. Her interlocutor's principal observation was, in Holly Walters' words, that "no real Hindu (specifically Vaishnava in his argument) would ever allow a scholar to enter into their communal practice and if they did, they were not a real Hindu."
The discussion took several turns but came down to whether or not it was a gender issue, or a difference in religious traditions and fundamentals, or politics viewed against the historical legacy of colonial academics.
"You shouldn't be touching or teaching anything about shalagrams." her critic wrote, to which Walters replied, "I presume you mean because I am a woman? …"
"It's definitely not because you are a woman," was the response. "It's because you are not a vaisnava… "
"The beauty of Shaligram," a Shaivite sadhu told Walters at Muktinath (in the book), "is that it can be many things to many people. … [and] whatever Shaligram is to you may not be what Shaligram is to me. And that is ok because Shaligram always is what it must be."
Ultimately, after considering the role of an ethnographer and several other issues, in a blog post on this episode, Walters suggests that no one dispute or alleged fault is conclusive: