This topic of “Shaligrams- Why Preserve these Stones?” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.
What are Shaligrams?
Shaligram stones, ammonite fossils revered for over 2,000 years by Hinduism, Buddhism, and the shamanic Himalayan religion of Bon, are facing grave challenges due to climate change and human activities. These unique, naturally formed stones hail from the Kali Gandaki River Valley of Mustang, northern Nepal, and are deemed to embody the Hindu god Vishnu.
The Significance of Shaligrams
Shaligram Stones and their Intrinsic Consciousness
Shaligram stones hold a unique position in the beliefs of their followers. They are not created by humans, but by the landscape, leading to a belief that they possess an inherent consciousness. Treated as living deities and active community members, Shaligrams are kept in homes and temples, bestowing a sense of divine presence.
The Shaligram Pilgrimage
Embarking on the Shaligram pilgrimage is a spiritual journey that involves a search for these sacred stones in their natural habitat. The trek through the river passage between towering mountains and the gathering of Shaligrams from the river’s waters is an experience cherished by devotees. This spiritual journey serves as a testament to the importance of Shaligrams in the devotees’ lives.
The Myths Surrounding Shaligrams
First Legend: The Transformation of Vishnu
Shaligram mythology is linked with two legends. The first of these originates from three Hindu scriptures: the Varaha, Padma, and Brahmavaivarta Puranas. The story narrates how the goddess Tulsi, angered by the deception of Vishnu, transformed him into a river stone – a Shaligram, and herself into the Kali Gandaki river. This symbolic transformation signifies a karmic repayment, with the landscape of Mustang and the Shaligram stones seen as divine manifestations of Tulsi and Vishnu.
Second Legend: The Role of Vajra-Kita
The second legend, described in the Skanda Purana, attributes the formation of Shaligrams to the celestial worm, vajra-kita. The worm’s actions of carving holes and coiled spirals into the stones are thought to give Shaligrams their distinct shape and features.
The Shaligram Pilgrimage: Route and Rituals
The Shaligram pilgrimage is a journey marked by distinct geographical and ritualistic stages, typically undertaken during April-June and late August-November to avoid harsh weather conditions. The present route does not include the Damodar Kund, a high-altitude glacial lake that produces Shaligrams, due to restrictions on crossing into Upper Mustang.
Kagbeni: The Boundary Village
Kagbeni, sitting on the banks of the Kali Gandaki, marks the principal division between the Upper and Lower Mustang regions. The village serves as one of the primary stops on the Shaligram pilgrimage, where devotees have a high chance of finding Shaligrams by wading through the river and observing the river bed.
Muktinath: The Final Destination
The pilgrimage culminates at Muktinath, a temple site of religious significance for Hindus, Buddhists, and followers of Bon. With elements that embody the key facets of these religions, Muktinath offers a platform for pilgrims to ritually welcome their newly acquired Shaligrams into their spiritual lives.
Threats to Shaligrams and the Pilgrimage
The Shaligram pilgrimage, however, is facing an existential threat due to climate change and human activities. These phenomena are causing the Kali Gandaki River to change course, and are accelerating the glacial melt that feeds the river, leading to fewer Shaligrams appearing each year. This situation has made the collection of Shaligrams increasingly difficult for pilgrims.
With climate change and gravel mining threatening the very existence of Shaligrams, it becomes essential to reconsider our impact on these natural resources and the environment. Possible measures could include stricter regulations on gravel mining, investment in sustainable practices, and active efforts to combat climate change at the global level. Moreover, greater awareness and education about the importance of Shaligrams and the challenges they face could also play a crucial role in their preservation.
Shaligrams, as ancient ammonite fossils, have been venerated for thousands of years by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Bon. They hold a unique place in these cultures and religions, not only as symbols of divine manifestation but also as a key element of religious pilgrimages. However, the current environmental challenges threaten the very existence of these fossils and the associated practices. It is crucial for us to recognize the gravity of the situation and work towards sustainable solutions to ensure that these divine manifestations continue to inspire and guide their followers for generations to come.
Practice Question for Mains
What are Shaligrams? Discuss their significance and threats. (250 words)