Sacred Symbols – Shankha: The Sacred Conch

Since the mythological past, the Conch or Shankh has remained as integral part of Hindu socio-religious ethos. It symbolises the cosmic space of which the attribute is sabda or sound. Moreover it symbolises a shape or rupa, rhythm and evolves into an elaborate iconography which dates back to its manifestation of divinities in the Vedas.

The resounding musical notes of sacred conch rent the air when it is blown during religious ceremonies and thus the devouts emotions get expressed. The sacred Sankhais found in abundance along the side of Bay of Bengal or Eastern Ghat of Indian peninsula like in Puri, Madras, Rameshwaram and finally at the coast of Sri Lanka where Indian ocean finds its shore.

Mythologically speaking there are three main types of Shankh: Vamavarta (left side open, it should be counted from the tip) or Uttar Mukhi, the second is Dakshinmukhi or Dakshinavarta (one that opens up on right from the tip); and finally the third type is called Ganesha Shankh. The most common amongst them is Vamavarta. Dakshinmukhi and Canesha all in the rare category. However the Ganesha Shankh distinguishes itself with its vermilion outer and inner surface and its short tail.

According to the Puranasthe Dakshinmukhi Sankhah the weapon or ayudha of Vishnu and thus this Shankh often symbolises as sustainer of the Universe which is the role of God Vishnu in the divine trinity of the Hindus. The Dakshinmukhi Shankh also signifies consciousness inseparable from the mudra. From arts and aesthetics point of view Shankh often symbolises Vishnu himself. Ancient sculptures give this
evidence where one finds Vishnu or Narayana with a Shankh held elegantly in one of his hands.

From the ancient scriptures we find there were two types of Dakshinmukhi Sankhas?one is male or Rurusa and the other is female Scankhinii distinguishable with its characteristic variations. The purusa got a thicker crust than the finer Sankhini.

Structurally the ancient Hindu society was subdivided on caste-lines or varnas. Likewise there are references of Sankhas classified in four varnas?social stradficadons. The pure white Sankhas with finer surface are termed as Brahmanas or twice born. Sankhas having rougher surface with reddish or brownish colour temperatures are called Kshatriyas (the warrior class). The Sankhas with glossy surface and light yellow in colour are known as Vaishyas (the business community). Finally the hard dull grey-coloured Sankhas are categorised as Sudra Sankhas.

Ancient scriptures like the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas/Upa-Ruranas have eulogised Shankh which encapsules the aura of spiritual aspiration and veneration which lived down the ages as symbol aesthetics and theosophy. The Shankh is basically an integral part ofVaishnavite symbology. The practice of wearing tilaks in the shape of Shankh is in vogue since the days of Ramanujam.

In the legendary past we find that during the Samundra Manthana or churning of the ocean the Shankh was used and remained an object of benefaction. The God of Wealth in Hindu mythology is Kuber-who is said to be in possession of eight auspicious jewels and one of them was SankhanidhL On the score of snake worship this Shankh is counted as one of the astangas?serpent gods of eminence.

~ Apart from Shankh being a spiritual symbol it also played a vital role in the warfare of ancient glory and was counted as a marshal factor. In the epic era the Shankh remained an integral part of warfare. And wars used to be restricted to day time only. Thus the blowing of Shankh at sunrise meant that war was on and again Shankh used to be blown at dusk signifying retreat to the camps for night rest. Shankh used to signify victory signal as well. Moreover in the marshal formation Shankh played a very vital role.

In the Mahabharata we find that Shankh or conch shell had different names. The Shankh of Lord Krishna was called Panchajanya. The divine Shankh of Arjuna was Devadutta. Yudhistra’s and Bheema’s sacred Sankhas were known as Anantavijaya and Paundra respectively. The Manipuspaka conch was ofSahadeva, while the divine Shankh of Nakulawas Sughosh.

The Shankh’s varied musical intonation of different pitches and frequency of sound signified particular meaning. On the score of blowing of Shankh there are mainly two processes. One is by holding the mouth of the conch or the drilled tip directly to the lips which is known as dhamana. The second one is by connecting the drilled tip to an ornamental brass pipe which is commonly known as purana. In the process of blowing Shankh one controls his breath and a slower and rhythmic flow of air current produced a harmonic effect which is called Sankhadhvani.

Ritualistically speaking Shankh is an essential part of Hindu way of life. It is customary in a Hindu household specially in a Brahmin’s house to blow Shankh three times a day or Tin Sandhya accompanied by Gayatri Japa. In temple worship also the Shankh is blown during the Nitya puja (daily worship) accompanied by other musical instruments like Kansar (a plate of bronze beaten rhythmically with chandan or sandalwood).

According to hearsay the sound of Shankh produces a frequency which creates an uneasiness or an erratic sensation in animals. So if Shankh is blown none of the deadly animals like snakes can come close to the place of worship and devouts can concentrate on God safely. It is also believed that the sound of Shankh keeps away the evil spirits. On this score the practice of blowing Shankh during earthquake or natural calamities is still in vogue especially in eastern India. This
signifies that a devout is calling upon Vishnu, the sustainer of the Universe and keeping the snakes etc. away from houses.

The Shankh has manifold ayurvedic or medicinal significance too. According to the Vaidya Shastras it has great medicinal value. Its judicious preparation alleviates many ailments.

The Shankh as never encapsulated in spiritual veneration only rather it lived as an auspicious sound which envelops the ceremonies like New Year or Nava-Varsha, birth, Annaprasana, Upanayana, marriage and death too. Since hoary past the practice of blowing Shankh on the occasion of bidding farewell to seafaring kinsmen is prevailing amongst the Sadhaba community of Orissa. During October-November the population of Tanjavur district of Tamil Nadu celebrates Sarnkabhisekarn. On this occasion one thousand and eight conches are taken out in procession. The conch shells are filled with water and assembled at Arnritaghateswar temple for abhishekarn or coronation. The water in the shell is considered as sacred where god dwells.

Shankh filled with water is an essential part of arati during Durga Puja in Bengal. It may not be out of place to mention that Shankh in Puri of Orissa is known as Sarnkha Khetra because there conch shells are found in abundance. During the famous Ratha Yatra, Subhadra, the sister of Jagannath and Baldeva, is seated on Sarnkhanavi MandaL Likewise Shankh has lived down the ages as an embodiment of spiritual aspirations and as socio-cultural ethos of Hinduism. This has remained as musical sensation with its marshal and spiritual intonations. Furthermore the Shankh is part of Hindu aesthetics as we find that from ancient days sculptors and artists made this Shankh a permanent motif in stone carvings and canvases as well.

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