Reverence for natural objects has long been a feature of Brahminism : be it mountains, hillocks, caves, rivers, jungles, trees, plants, animals or stones. The underlying concept being that Nature’s creations are far superior to those man-made.
The Shaligrama stone which represents Vishnu is one such brilliant work of Nature. According to the Brahmvaivarta Purana’s Prakriti Kanda, Saraswati, Ganga and Lakshmi were Vishnu’s three wives. Quite naturally they were jealous of each other and once a major fight broke out between them, culminating in their cursing each other. Ganga and Saraswati cursed that they would, each turn into a river, and that Lakshmi would have to leave her husband’s abode and go down to the world of mortals.
Now it so happened that at that precise time the Earth was being ruled by King Dharmadhvaja along with his wife Madhavi. Being childless they were praying to God for a child. Upon which Lakshmi was born to them as a grown woman of unsurpassed beauty and was named Tulasi or ‘the matchless one’. Desirous of marrying Vishnu she went to Badrikashrama to do penance which continued for many thousands of years.
At long last, pleased with her penance, Lord Brahma appeared and asked what she desired. When he heard that Tulasi wanted to marry Vishnu, Brahma said that she would first have to marry demon Shankhachuda and then later on could be Vishnu’s wife. Shankhachuda was a very valorous king. When he heard of Tulasi’s exquisite beauty he wanted to marry her and to fulfill his desire went to Badrikashrama to undertake penance. Pleased by his prayers, Brahma granted him two boons. First was a Vishnu-kavacha or protective armour and the second was the hand of Tulasi in marriage. He also added that as long as his wife remained faithful to him, the kavacha would remain on his body making him undefeatable and immortal. Vastly pleased with himself, he returned to his kingdom and married Tulasi.
Possession of these new powers however made him arrogant. He defeated devas and started ruling over devaloka. Driven from their kingdom, devas called upon Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva for help. Hearing devas’ woes, the gods worked out a plan. Accordingly, Shiva and other gods went to war with Shankhachuda. While the demon was kept occupied on the battlefield, Vishnu took the form of the demon and made love to Tulasi. She did not realise it was a trick at first – but when she did, being the virtuous woman she was furious and cursed Vishnu to turn into stone. Vishnu accepted her curse in all humility but reminded her that actually she was Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu, and became a mortal because of a curse. Now it was time to return to their abode.
Back in Vishnu-dhama (the abode of Vishnu), her mortal body turned into the river Gandaki and her hair became the tulasi plant. Vishnu became the Shaligrama stone found only on the bank of the Gandaki which flows from Nepal to Bihar and turns into a tributary of the Ganga. Meanwhile, Sankhachuda lost his Vishnu-kavacha and was killed on the battlefield. Devas got their kingdom back.
To this day, tulasi leaves are a must in worshipping the Shaligrama. After Diwali, on the 11th day of the full moon fortnight of the Kartik month (Oct/Nov) Tulasi is wedded to Shaligrama which is celebrated with great pomp and splendour by devout Vaishnavas. In Vadodara (Gujarat) there is a Narasimha Shaligram temple at Char Darwaja, with a 270-year old idol. After various pre-wedding rituals, the bridegroom’s grand procession starts from this temple accompanied by music, and reaches the doorstep of the bride – Tulasi – where the marriage is performed with all the customary ceremonies. The wedding season starts after this divine union.
Fig. 1: Tulasi plant gets married to Shaligrama, courtesy Rajshree Tapuriah
The Varaha Purana’s version is entirely different. According to it the river goddess Gandaki wanted god Vishnu to be born from her womb. To please her, Vishnu agreed to her request and came to be born in the river in the form of Shaligrama.
The Shaligrama stones are but flintified ammonite shell, river-worn and polished. They normally display swirls, each configuration being equated to Vishnu’s manifestations. According to Brahminical religion, Shaligrama represents Vishnu in the linga form.
The Puranas mention 19 types and nine colours of Shaligrama. Normally the Narasimha Shaligrama is supposed to be brownish black, but at times red and other colours are found, the red ones denoting his wrathful aspect. Worship of such Shaligramas begets misery and at times death too.
Some texts mention 24 types of Shaligrama representing different incarnations of Vishnu. They are known by names such as Sudarsana, Vamana, Shridhara Vasudeva, and many more. Also, Narasimha Shaligrama, is of two types, one Narasimha and second Lakshmi-Narasimha.
The Narasimha Shaligrama has a wide opening (Fig. 2), two discs and is terrible in shape to look at. The Lakshmi-Narasimha is similarly patterned but with a vanamala added. The Agni Purana mentions that the Narasimha Shaligrama has five dots. These designs are natural and not fashioned by human hand.
Fig. 2: Lakshmi-Narasimha Shaligrama – the wide opening can be observed on the lower portion of the Shaligram, courtesy K N Tapuriah, Kolkata
Some Shaligramas have marks which are said to bestow prosperity on the worshipper. The Rakta-Raudra Narasimha Shaligrama has a distinct red colour and has a lion-like design on it (Fig. 3) which is truly a remarkable piece.
Fig. 3: Rakta-Raudra Narasimha Shaligrama, Fig. 4: Line drawing of Narasimha on Fig. 3 courtesy Vishnuchitra Shashtri, Vrindavan
Fig 5: Narasimha Shaligram, Ahobalam, Andhra Pradesh
The rules for worshipping the Shaligrama are very strict. In Vaishnava temples, the Shaligrama is placed at the feet of the main deity and is worshipped as many times during the day as is the main idol. According to the Puranas, Shaligrama worship is banned for women, immaterial of whether they are married, virgins or widows. Even shudras are not permitted to worship Shaligrama. According to the text, if they even touch the stone they will go to hell and will remain there.
But then some texts like the Skanda Purana say that these prohibitions are only meant for immoral shudras and low caste women. However, even they can see the idol from a distance and request some sanctioned person to do the puja on their behalf. The Padma Purana is more illiberal: it says that if a woman offers sandalwood paste to the Shaligrama, the paste turns into poisoned rice. If she offers food, it will be like the poison emitted by the Vasuki snake!
The Ghisundi (Chittorgarh, Rajasthan) inscription of the first century BCE describes the construction of a stone-enclosure for Shaligrama worship. It mentions that a bhagwat (worshipper of Vishnu) built it.
The method of venerating the Shaligrama is more or less like any other rituals followed in Brahminical worship. It includes bathing, offering of flowers and eatables, burning of incense and so on. But most important is the offering of tulasi leaves as it is beloved of Vishnu. If a devotee drinks the water used for bathing the idol, he will attain heaven.
By and large, Narasimha is considered a wrathful deity and so it is not advised to keep such a Shaligrama in the family. Worshipping the Narasimha Shaligrama will cause instant self-destruction. The worshipper must be celibate otherwise it will create havoc in his life. According to the Pancharatra religious movement (which later merged with Vaishnavism), the Shaligrama stone, though sanctified as an emblem of God Vishnu, should not be enshrined in the main sanctum sanctorum.
However, the Padma Purana praises worship of the Narasimha Shaligrama saying it bestows salvation from misery and other sins of the worshipper. Those who worship Lakshmi-Narasimha will be content as it bestows happiness.
Near Jaipur (Rajasthan) there is a small village known by the name of Hasampur, the site of a temple of Narasimha Shaligram which according to legend is swayambhu or self-manifested. The story goes that about 500 years ago a boy had taken his cattle to the forest. While they were grazing, the boy had a vision in which he heard Narasimha say that he is under the stone slab in the forest. The slab was lifted to find an icon of Narasimha Shaligrama and a temple was accordingly raised on the spot. It is said that the village became robbery-free since the icon would roar if a robber dared enter the vicinity. According to the copper-plate in the temple, this icon was worshipped by Emperor Akbar.
Fig. 6: Lakshmi-Shaligrama in Shri Lakshmi Narain Mandir, Jaipur
Fig. 7: Lakshmi-Narasimha Shaligrama of Fig.5 after abhishek in all its glory