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


Visitor Writer: James Ormiston
Palaeontology MSci Graduate / Palaeoartist

Ammonites are great issues. Staring into their ribbed spirals could be 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 in the event you accumulate fossils, even solely a bit of, you in all probability have an ammonite in your assortment. They’ve turn out to be a poster baby for fossils worldwide.

There are a lot of historic data of individuals discovering ammonites, baffled by their uncanny natural kind rendered in lifeless stone. Usually their existence was defined with delusion 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 as a consequence of their resemblance to ram’s horns, which Ammon typically sported.

One other such non secular interpretation could be discovered near Bristol. Saint Keyne was mentioned 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 in the present day had been served as proof of it. These so-called “snake-stones” had 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 had 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 by way of Wikimedia Commons)

Gods & Cephalopods

Wherever ammonites had been discovered, totally different tales and makes use of sprang up round them. One notably attention-grabbing instance could 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 the shadows of a few of its highest mountains. The ammonites listed below 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 numerous Hindu scriptures courting again many centuries, there may be point out of stones referred to as shaligram. Shaligram are mentioned to be from the physique of the god Vishnu, who in one among 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 by way of Wikimedia Commons, Holly Waters by way of 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 usually are not used as idols per se, that are introduced right into a home as a car for gods to enter and be worshipped by, however as bodily, non-human manifestations of Vishnu himself. They don’t simply characterize; they’re. So valued are these stones that individuals 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 identification. 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 by way of Wikimedia Commons, Holly Waters by way of Peregrination – The Ethnography of Shaligram Shila)

Not like the snakestones of Keynsham and Whitby, that is an hooked up perception system which has continued and grown in momentum. Additionally in contrast to the snakestone carvings of yore, in the present day 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 an area that it’s extensively recognised…

“That is what science tells us. You assume that we reject this, however we don’t. Science is true, you see…Vishnu comes within the kind 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, at the very least typically, extra 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 achieve. 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 spite of everything, shaligram observe dictates that the stones usually are not allowed to have a financial worth hooked up to them.

Ghosts of the Neotethys

So, this being a palaeontology weblog, what is thought 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 circumstances 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 referred to as the Spiti Shales, which could be discovered uncovered in numerous 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 trendy Indian subcontinent, the Indian Plate, was in a really totally different place to in the present day. It sat south of the equator, neighbouring what would ultimately turn out to be Antarctica and Australia, collectively half of a bigger continent referred to as Gondwana. After the break-up of Gondwana through the Cretaceous, the Indian Plate moved north throughout an historical sea referred to 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 had been organized ~150 million years in the past, through the Late Jurassic. The crimson circle signifies roughly the place the Spiti Shales had been deposited. (Ronald Blakey by way of Deep Time Maps, modified)

When the ammonites within the shaligram stones had been alive, floating round within the sea, they had been on the southern fringe of the Neotethys. Dr Waters notes that shaligram ammonites often belong to one among 4 genera: Blandifordiceras, Haplophylloceras, Aulacosphinctus and Aulacosphinctoides. Stratigraphic surveys point out they had been located in a area referred to as the outer shelf, which means that they had been in comparatively shallow seawater, but additionally not removed from the place the continental plate drops down into the deep ocean. Their fossils had been uplifted to altitudes hundreds of metres above sea stage when the Himalayas fashioned from the buckling of the Indian Plate throughout its collision with Asia (like crumpling up a drinks can) and in the present day they’re being eroded out. Scriptures way back to the 12th Century even establish two distinct kinds 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 cope with totally different facets of life and may due to this fact not cope with one another’s companies an excessive amount of. Science shouldn’t all the time be actively making an attempt 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 completely 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? In that 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 title on it, or is it a cultural piece to be introduced with the story of Vishnu’s curse and the pilgrimages constructed round it? May 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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