Natural Sculptures: Ten Thousand Shalagrama-shilas

by Choghakate Kazarian

I had heard about the Ordre Monastique Vaisnava for some time. The members of the congregation, whose temple of Vraja Bhavan is in the suburb of Rouen (near Paris), are followers of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a branch of Hinduism initiated by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534) in Bengal. Their practice is focused on devotional worship, also known as bhakti yoga, directed toward Krishna/Vishnu and his multiple avataras. A few months ago, when I joined family and friends on a trip to the monastery, I was excited and curious to see the place and meet with the monks known for their exemplary spiritual lifestyle and their independence. My interest and own (on and off) practice of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, combined with a more general fascination for monastic communities, led me to join this trip to Normandy. I learned later that the place had been founded by the monk Yashoda Dulal and a former skinhead who progressively distanced himself from his life of gang violence to become Swami Bhakti Svarupa Damodara and spend his life sharing the love of God. (He tells his story in his recently published autobiography, Un skinhead repenti devenu swami.)

The temple of Vraja Bhavan has two rooms with several deities sculpted or cast in various materials, including Radha Madan Mohan, Nitai Vishvambhar, Prahlad Nrisimhadeva, and Nanda Yashoda Krishna Balaram. The presence of deities, whether in a temple or at a domestic altar, is of particular importance in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a spiritual movement based on the devotional relationship between the devotee and God. The main temple rooms are public spaces where devotees gather to chant, dance, meditate, or hear the scriptures. At some point in the visit, the monks brought us into a small room upstairs, away from the public spaces. The room was filled with what appeared as an infinite number of Shalagrama-shilas (more than ten thousand).

Shalagrama-shilas at the temple of Vraja Bhavan (photo by the author)

These ammonite fossils, of various shapes and markings (chakras), are collected from the beds of the Kali Gandaki River in Himalayan Nepal (Mustang District) and adored throughout the Indian subcontinent as divine incarnations in the various branches of Hinduism. They are mostly shiny black and bear spiral shell reliefs and holes. These marks determine which deity has made their presence available in the stone. The Skanda Purana enumerates twenty-four varieties of Shalagrama-shilas, each of them a different avatara of Vishnu. They are usually worshipped non-exclusively with other anthropomorphic deities.

Shalagrama-shilas at the temple of Vraja Bhavan (photo by the author)

I had already seen a few Shalagrama-shilas in various temples and domestic altars, but I had never encountered so many. Ten thousand! It is the largest number outside of India (with the exception of the Karuna Bhavan Temple in Scotland). I could only be impressed by the monks who had collected them and carried them in their backpacks from Nepal to France. They have been serving the Shalagrama-shilas with various offerings and bathing them daily ever since.

Although the worship of Shalagrama-shilas is thousands of years old, they have grown in popularity recently and become common not only in temples but also in homes, and their images have circulated extensively on Instagram (several Shalagrama-shilas have their own dedicated Instagram pages where devotees display them with their daily outfits and adornments). I believe this media exposure has its foundations in the growing practice in the twenty-first century of painting faces on Shalagrama-shilas.

The 10,400 Shaligram Shilas of the Vraja Bhavan Temple have no such decorations; they are bare except for a few leaves of tulsi (holy basil). I cannot forget the overwhelming and powerful energy I felt in the room where they are housed. An expert could spend hours there identifying the various stones. Although some consider them iconic godly manifestations, in Gaudiya Vaisnavism they are distinctive manifestations of God (through various avataras such as Narasimha – who is part lion and part man – and Varahadeva – who has the form of a boar).

Shalagrama-shilas at the temple of Vraja Bhavan (photo by the author)

The representation of God was the first function of sculpture but has also been the most problematic one. Somehow we became accustomed to separating art and religious practice. This estrangement is visible in the changes we see in Catholic churches in Europe, where old masterpieces have slowly left places of worship to be displayed in museums. We have grown to distinguish the museum as a place of contemplation from the church as a place of worship. This estrangement has made us forget that contemplation is meditation and thus a form of worship, especially in Hinduism’s various branches. Yoga and religion both mean bonding, creating a link between the beholder (the devotee) and the object of contemplation (God).

 Shalagrama-shilas are even more challenging to the category of sculpture since they are not artifacts. Contrary to the usual deities that are carved or cast (murti), Shalagrama-shilas are swayambhu (self-manifested). They do not represent deities, they are deities—and thus do not involve human agency in their manifestation. The Skanda Purana states, “That same Lord, the primordial one, is personified through these twenty-four (forms). He alone is termed Samvatsara. That Lord is present in the stone.” Their markings may be affiliated with an almost iconological practice aimed at identification through signs. Human agency is evident in the process of collecting (through pilgrimage, a practice that has become even more difficult today due to political conflicts surrounding the region of Mustang), recognition of the the marks on, and worship of, the Shalagrama-shilas, which implies an active relationship with them.

The overwhelming presence of thousands of Shalagrama-shilas only awoke other questions. Why have so many when the Absolute is embodied in each? On the other hand, the energetic concentration I felt in the small room was unmistakable. Like the infinite repetition of a mantra, the multiplication of Shalagrama-shilas had the same enveloping feeling. Even though each stone has its own personality, all of them together somehow acquire an accumulated collective power. Without any decorations, the stones expose their organic materiality— the traces of fossilized shells and the geological transformation behind their current appearance. Despite their “alreadymade” status, the Shalagrama-shilas reveal the process of their making, their birthing, their mineral surface still bearing traces of their organic life. Their slow formation (by fossilization), and the even slower polishing of their surface by water, is something Brancusi tried to achieve in his work through human agency.

The long temporality of the Shalagrama-shilas questions the idea of finish as an endpoint. The stones can be collected at any time, bringing a halt to their evolution. Then devotees’ painting and embellishment of the Shalagrama-shilas again modifies their appearance. Some of these challenges are common for other sculptures “in use” and have for a long time contributed to the stigmatization of non-Western art (as mere ritualistic objects more fitted for anthropological and ethnological studies than art history). Many African sculptures, for example, still bear traces of the various libations that were poured over them. In these examples, the changes do not corrupt the efficacy or the value of the sculpture. That is something uncommon in the world of Western art, where accusations of mis-restorations and modifications can haunt not only the authenticity of an artwork but also its conceptual integrity. The possibility that hands other than the artist’s and her or his mandated assistants’ own can add something to the finished work is unthinkable. In art we value objects frozen in time, while in worship it is all about active agency.

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