Sacred Ammonites – The Shaligram Stones of Nepal – The Bristol Dinosaur Undertaking

Visitor Creator: James Ormiston
Palaeontology MSci Graduate / Palaeoartist

Ammonites are fantastic issues. Staring into their ribbed spirals is usually a hypnotic expertise. A form that’s vaguely acquainted…but additionally alien and historical. Geometrically satisfying, chronologically dizzying. Though being quite common, it’s this slight “otherness” which all however ensures that should you gather fossils, even solely a little bit, you most likely have an ammonite in your assortment. They’ve develop into a poster youngster for fossils worldwide.

There are numerous historic data of individuals discovering ammonites, baffled by their uncanny natural type rendered in lifeless stone. Typically their existence was defined with fantasy and faith because the science of palaeontology didn’t start in earnest till across the 18th century. In 79 AD the origin of the phrase “ammonite” got here from Pliny the Elder, who named them after the Egyptian god Ammon resulting from their resemblance to ram’s horns, which Ammon typically sported.

One other such non secular interpretation might be discovered near Bristol. Saint Keyne was stated to have as soon as lived close to the River Avon, which turned infested with snakes. She turned the snakes to stone, and the ammonite fossils nonetheless discovered at Keynsham at present have been served as proof of it. These so-called “snake-stones” have been additionally discovered on the well-known gothic haven of Whitby, Yorkshire, the place Saint Hilda carried out the identical feat. So well-told was the snake story that all through the years snake heads have been carved into ammonites.

Ammonite with a snake head carved into it.
A Whitby “snake-stone”; a Dactylioceras ammonite with a snake’s head carved into it. (James St. John through Wikimedia Commons)

Gods & Cephalopods

Wherever ammonites have been discovered, completely different tales and makes use of sprang up round them. One notably fascinating instance might be discovered within the Himalayas of Nepal. So far as landscapes go, it doesn’t get a lot farther from Whitby than the world’s deepest river gorge, the place ammonites are rolled by means of the shadows of a few of its highest mountains. The ammonites listed here are Jet-black (although not fabricated from Jet; Jet comes from plant materials) and their surrounding nodules rounded by the Gandaki River, a tributary of the Ganges.

In various Hindu scriptures courting again many centuries, there may be point out of stones known as shaligram. Shaligram are stated to be from the physique of the god Vishnu, who in certainly one of his incarnations was cursed to show to stone on the banks of the Gandaki (the Gandaki being fashioned from the goddess Tulsi, who positioned the curse on him and was cursed herself).

Kali Gandaki Gorge and black ammonites (“shaligram”) from the river. (Jean-Marie Hullot through Wikimedia Commons, Holly Waters through Peregrination – The Ethnography of Shaligram Shila)

Fossil bivalves and belemnites are additionally discovered within the river, and since they’re preserved in the identical rock because the ammonites, they too are thought-about shaligram stones and thus sought-after sacred objects. The stones are usually not used as idols per se, that are introduced right into a home as a automobile for gods to enter and be worshipped by means of, however as bodily, non-human manifestations of Vishnu himself. They don’t simply symbolize; they’re. So valued are these stones that folks make prolonged pilgrimages to the distant Gandaki and the close by hillside temple, Muktinath, to see and purchase them.

And simply as each fossil tells a narrative of its previous, so shaligram stones are studied by practitioners who search their surfaces and cross-reference their options with Hindu symbology to assign every stone its personal id. A palaeontologist sees suture traces and siphuncles; the practitioners see wheels, flowers and different symbols of the scriptures.

Muktinath Temple and a Shaligram interpretation. (Ironicfreak through Wikimedia Commons, Holly Waters through Peregrination – The Ethnography of Shaligram Shila)

In contrast to the snakestones of Keynsham and Whitby, that is an connected perception system which has continued and grown in momentum. Additionally not like the snakestone carvings of yore, at present it isn’t merely individuals assigning non secular explanations to fossils as a result of they don’t know what they’re. Whereas on expedition within the area, ethnographer Dr Holly Waters (of Wellesley Faculty, Massachusetts, USA – a number one voice in western analysis of shaligram traditions) was instructed by a neighborhood that it’s broadly recognised…

“That is what science tells us. You suppose that we reject this, however we don’t. Science is true, you see…Vishnu comes within the type that’s wanted most, so this one comes within the type of science. He’s God shifting as fossil, hiding in fossil…”  

…the assumption in them being manifestations of a god is, not less than typically, further to the understanding of them being the stays of historical sea creatures, not as an alternative of it.

The stones are additionally sadly the topic of questionable practices for business acquire. Their non secular significance has been cross-pollinated into westernised esoterica like crystal therapeutic which has pushed up demand, fuelled the unfold of fakes, and sparked issues over appropriation. In any case, shaligram observe dictates that the stones are usually not allowed to have a financial worth connected to them.

Ghosts of the Neotethys

So, this being a palaeontology weblog, what is understood in regards to the pure origin of the shaligram stones? As talked about, the stone containing the fossils is black. Particularly, it’s a black shale. Black shale is fashioned in extraordinarily low-oxygen situations underwater, known as anoxia, leading to a excessive focus of natural carbon which produces the black color. Black shales are what many petroleum and gasoline reserves come from.

This black shale lies amongst a wider group of rocks known as the Spiti Shales, which might be discovered uncovered in various locations throughout the Himalayas, deposited from the Center Jurassic to the Early Cretaceous (~166 – 140 million years in the past). Throughout this time the land mass forming a lot of the fashionable Indian subcontinent, the Indian Plate, was in a really completely different place to at present. It sat south of the equator, neighbouring what would finally develop into Antarctica and Australia, collectively half of a bigger continent known as Gondwana. After the break-up of Gondwana through the Cretaceous, the Indian Plate moved north throughout an historical sea known as the Neotethys. It moved in a short time (geologically talking!) and smashed into Asia about 50 million years in the past, starting the formation of the Himalayas.

A map of the continents as they were arranged ~150 million years ago, during the Late Jurassic. The red circle indicates roughly where the Spiti Shales were deposited. (Ronald Blakey via Deep Time Maps, modified)
A map of the continents as they have been organized ~150 million years in the past, through the Late Jurassic. The crimson circle signifies roughly the place the Spiti Shales have been deposited. (Ronald Blakey through Deep Time Maps, modified)

When the ammonites within the shaligram stones have been alive, floating round within the sea, they have been on the southern fringe of the Neotethys. Dr Waters notes that shaligram ammonites normally belong to certainly one of 4 genera: Blandifordiceras, Haplophylloceras, Aulacosphinctus and Aulacosphinctoides. Stratigraphic surveys point out they have been located in a area known as the outer shelf, which means that they have been in comparatively shallow seawater, but additionally not removed from the place the continental plate drops down into the deep ocean. Their fossils have been uplifted to altitudes 1000’s of metres above sea degree when the Himalayas fashioned from the buckling of the Indian Plate throughout its collision with Asia (like crumpling up a drinks can) and at present they’re being eroded out. Scriptures way back to the 12th Century even establish two distinct forms of shaligram – the graceful ones discovered within the river and the tough ones discovered on the hillsides, freshly eroded however un-rounded by water motion.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria

The well-known evolutionary biologist and science author, Stephen Jay Gould, promoted the argument that science and faith take care of completely different points of life and may subsequently not take care of one another’s companies an excessive amount of. Science shouldn’t at all times be actively attempting to disprove faith, and faith shouldn’t deny observations made by science. The measurable vs the which means. Appreciable debate has been had over this idea, and within the case of the shaligram stones we discover ourselves in a little bit of a gray space…as a result of they occupy either side of the coin, with the perimeters apparently not being solely at odds within the minds of their followers.

Let’s say you’re in Oxford, and occur throughout a Nepalese black ammonite in a store of curios. You purchase it, and after some analysis you realise its significance each as a fossil and a shaligram. Would you donate it to a museum? If that’s the case, which one? The Oxford Museum of Pure Historical past and the anthropological collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum are proper subsequent to one another, and the Ashmolean Museum of Artwork and Archaeology is simply down the street. Is it a mineralogical specimen to be given little greater than a label with its species identify on it, or is it a cultural piece to be introduced with the story of Vishnu’s curse and the pilgrimages constructed round it? Might it’s each? Would you even donate it in any respect? Would you as an alternative ship it again to Nepal for repatriation? Or would you retain it as a result of ammonites look cool?


Waters, H. “Residing Fossils

Waters, H. Peregrination – The Ethnography of Shaligram Shila

Fürsich, F. T. et al. (2021) Facies evaluation and palaeoecology of the Jurassic Spiti Shale Formation within the Spiti space, Northern India. Journal of Palaeogeography 10, 438 – 462

James Ormiston graduated from the Palaeontology & Evolution MSci on the College of Bristol in 2016. He’s now a palaeoartist (@notsimro) and lab technician.

Edited by Rhys Charles

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