Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sri Sangaalwar

Panchajanya – The Conch or Shanka of Lord Vishnu:

Panchajanya is the divine conch or Shanka that emerged from the ocean of milk during the Samudra Mantha (the churning of ocean) by the gods and demons for Amrut (Ambrosia). Lord Vishnu received the Panchajanya, which is considered to be a divinity in its own right.

There is lot of symbolism attributed to Panchajanya. Lord Vishnu himself is said to be represented in the Shamka (Conch). Sun and Moon are said to reside in it, Varuna, the god of waters is said to rest in the middle portion; Prajapati, the first born and the progenitor of all beings in its tail portion; and River Goddess Ganga and Saraswathi in its front portion.

In Hindu religion, Shankh, or Samkha, is of great importance and symbolizes luster, brilliance, purity and auspicious beginning. It is a pious article and is used in all religious rituals. The most famous Shankha is the Panchajanaya of Lord Vishnu. In the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna and the five Pandavas had a separate conch shell and it is referred in the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita. In religious rituals, Shankh is used to announce the beginning of a prayer or arrival of deity and in some places sacred water is collected and distributed in it.

Shankh literally means ‘pacifying the inauspicious.’ In Hinduism, origin of the conch shell took place during the Samudra Manthan or churning of ocean. There are two types of Shankh – left handed conch shell and right handed conch shell. Valampiri Shankh or Lakshmi Shankh is the right handed conch shell and is considered auspicious.

Shankha is blown at every festival and auspicious beginning and the sound ushers in freshness and new hope. Right handed conch shell is kept at home by many people as it is believed to bring wealth and prosperity. It is also associated with Kubera, god of wealth. Many institutions and organizations employ conch shell as their symbol.

Shankha is closely associated with Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi. Image of Lord Vishnu always has him holding a conch shell. It is believed that during the Samdura Manthan, first conch shell appeared and it was followed by Goddess Lakshmi.

Usually, right handed conch shell is used for worship. The shell is thoroughly cleaned and is placed on a clean cloth, usually red cloth. Normal puja is performed. In some places, conch shell is placed on a silver or clay pot. A cloth is used to cover the mouth of the pot and it is placed on it.
People usually collect and keep water in conch shell and is sprinkled while performing pujas. While performing Lakshmi Puja, conch shell is filled with milk and then it is poured over the idol. Water collected in Shankh is offered while worshipping sun.

Shankh is also part of classical Indian musical instruments and there is also a mudra based on it in classical dance. There are also numerous legends and myths associated with the conch shell in the vast Hindu literature.

He is normally depicted with four arms: In his inner right hand he holds a lotus (padma,) in the outer right is his discus called Beauteous Display (sudarshan chakra) that always returns to his hand, the outer left holds the conch (panchajanya --five-born, ie. of the 5elements,) while the fourth carries a mace (gada.) The discus and mace were prizes in his victorious contests with Indra and Yama, respectively.

From the battle scene described in Mahabharata:

Standing on their great chariots yoked with white stallions, Krishna and Arjuna, Pandu's son, sounded their divine conches.

Krishna blew Panc[h]ajanya, won from a demon; Arjuna blew Devadetta, a gift of the gods; fierce wolf-bellied Bhima blew Paundra, his great conch of the east.

Yudhishthira, Kunti's son, the king, blew Anantavijaya, conch of boundless victory; his twin brothers Nakula and Sahadeva blew conches resonant and jewel toned.

More insight about the conch:           

Intimately associated with the salagramas are the sacred conch-shells known as samkhas, which are also geological and biological specimens of great antiquity. Like the salagramas which are ammonite fossils, the samkhas are marine fossil remains of the large gastropods (stomach footed), especially ‘strombus gigas’. They are shells of bivalve mollusc (conchifera division of the molluscs). Molluscs are animals of the sea-shore, with soft bodies devoid of any bones but having hard shells. The gastropods crawl along on a broad foot (viz., stomachs) carrying shells on their bodies; and into these shells they pull themselves when threatened. Different molluscs have different plans in making their shells, like the moon-shells, cowry-shells, tooth-shells and ordinary bivalves (Lamelli-branchiata) like oysters. Conchifera (the spiral prominent mussels (cavities), with conchi-spires on the outside.

Since 1776, a separate discipline known as Conchology has grown for the study of conch-shells. In 1828, and instrument known as Conchometer was also designed to measure the spiral arrangements on the fossil–shell, the angles of the spire, and so on.

Since antiquity these marine shells have been credited with mystic ort occult powerk,k even in Greece and Rome. The Greeks, for instance, are known to have held in great reverence conchites, which were stones resembling the fossil-shells (conches). The conch-shells have also been employed since ancient times as a martial instrument. The conch-shell is perforated at one end, and blown as a wind-instrument, as a horn or trumpet. The use of these shells to announce the commencement of an encounter on the battlefield has been mentioned in the great epic Mahabharata. In Bhagavad-gita, the loud roar of the conch-shells blown by the Pandava army is said to have unnerved the Kauravas (1:19). The Romans and Tritons are also recorded to have used the trumpet like the Indian heroes. They also had their own names given to their favourite conch-shells.

In Bhagavad-gita, we read that Krsna’s conch-shell was named ‘Panchajanya’, Arjuna’s ‘Devadatta’, Bhima’s ‘Paundra’. Yudhisthira’s ‘Ananta-vijaya’, Nakula’s ‘Sughosha’ amd Sahadeva’s “Mani-pushpaka’ (1:15-16). Each of the other prominent warriors (Dhrshtadyumna, Satyaki, Sikhandi, Drupada etc) had his own conch-shell trumpet. The loud sound from the conch-shell is described as ‘ghosha’, ‘samkha-rava’, or ‘samkha-svana’.

In India, a conch-shell horn is regarded as one of the classical pentad of musical instruments (pancha-vadya) of folk character : horn (srnga or kombu), kettle-drum (tammata), conch-shell trumpet (samkha or davala), large drum (bheri) and bronce gong (jayaghanta or jagata). The conch-shell trumpet can be very melodic and is employed in processions and on auspicious occasions. There are two ways of blowing it : (1) dhamana or blowing by holding the perforated end directly to the lips, and (2) purana or filling the air-current into the conch-shell through a small cavity in the shell (symophonic).

The conch-shells in ancient maritime civilizations have also been used as containers of articles like oil and salt; the conch-shells have provided material and form for ornaments like bracelets and armbands (samkha-valaya), ear-pieces (samkha-patra), and necklace-beads (samkha-mani).

The convolutions of the conch-shell (the spiral curves) have inspired a large number of designs and decorative motifs. In Rome, an architectural style was modelled after the shell-convolution: domed roof with semi-circular apse. The spiral forms in art and architecture have directly been taken from the conch-shell.

And in religious lore, especially in Buddhism, it is one of the eight auspicious signs (astha-mangala), the other seven being a parasol (chhatra), vase (kalasa), flower (pushpa), the sacred knot (granthi), wheel (charka), banner (Pataka), and a pair of fish (mina). The conch-shell here symbolizes the dharma-teaching (dharma-smakha), even as the parasol stands for the divine protection, vase for immortality, flower for mercy, knot for eternity, wheel for truth, and banner for victory.

The form of the conch-shell is imitated in a particular hand-gesture (mudra) employed in classical dance as well as in ritualistic worship. It is known as ‘samkha-mudra’, belonging to the ‘samyuta’ variety (where both the hands are used together). The right thumb is placed in the middle of the left palm, and the left thimb is raised in the sikhara-manner (like the superstructure on the sanctum in a temple), while the other four fingers of the left hand engfold the right thumb. The four fingers of the right hand are enclosed in the left fist, the tip of the right fore-finger touching the tip of the upraised left thumb. The hand posture resembles the conch-shell convolution (samkhavarta). In the religious context, it symbolizes the presence of a conch which is dear to Vishnu.

Samkha in Indian mythology is also the anme given to one of the nine treasures held by the god of wealth, Kubera. It represents a bundred billion (or 100,000 koti or crore). An attendant of Kubera is called Samkha-nidhi, and he is shown as a corpulent dwarf in an easy posure holding a conch-shell in one of his two hands. His companion is Padma-nidhi, who resembles Samkha-nidhi in all particulars except that he holds a lotus in his hand instead of conch-shell. Another attendant of Kubera bears the name Samkha-chuda (or Samkha-sirsha), which is also the name of a dragon (naga).

The conch-shell motif is employed for branding cows and buffaloes (samkha-mudrankana). The branding seal is a small metallic plate carrying the cut-out design of a conch-shell (or of a discus, charka), with a handle. It is a curative device that branding is done, when the animals are ill. More often, the conch-shell is sued for pouring out libations of water (samkhodaka_ before an icon; or for giving a ceremonial bath to a monarch (samkha-snana).

The Sanskrit word “Samkha’ has the tymological meaning of pacifying the inauspicious (sam, Unadi-sutra, 1:104, ‘samyati asuubham asmat’). It is most characteristically associated with Vishnu, and is one of the four ‘ayudhas’ (literally ‘weapon’, but employed in the sense of whatever is held in the hand) usually found in his hands; the discus (chakra), the mace (gada) and the lotus (padma) being the other three. The conch held by Vishnu is named Panca-janya, even as the discus in his hand is Sudarsana and the mace Kaumodaki. Among the other weapons in Vishnu’s hands, the bow is called Sarnga and the sword Nandaka.

There is a legend which associated the conch-shell with Vishnu. The conch-shell is supposed to have appeared on earth from the bones of a demon called Samkha-chuda. Owing to a curse from Radha (in Goloka), the chief of Krishna’s attendants (parshada), whose name was Sudama, had to be born on the earth among mortals. He took the form of a mighty monster, who was lustrous and pompous. He. However, performed austerities in the Badari-hermitage on the Himalayan ranges, and obtained from Brahma the boon of an invincible armour (kavacha). The armour would without fail protect his life, until the armour was damaged, and the armour would be damaged only when the chastity of his spouse was violated.

This was sufficient assurance and encouragement for the wicked titan, whose new name was samkha-chuda, and he began tormenting the three worlds. No one knew how this formidable giant could be overcome; and even the gods were unable to encounter and contain his attacks.

This story, given in Brahma-vaivarta-purana (Prakrtikhanda), brings out the close relationship that obtains between salagrama stones, tulasi leaves and the conch-shell. There are slight variations in the story, as for instance, in Padma-purana, where Samkha-chuda and Tulasi become Jalandhara and Vrnda. But the involvement of Vishnu in the story is prominent, and the prohibition against the use of conch-shell in the worship of Siva is explained by the fight that Samkha-chuda had with Siva and the subsequent assassination of Samkha-chuda by Siva. The conch-shell is sacred for all other gods, and it especially signified the presence of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.

The conch-shells are of many kinds, because the boes of Smakha-chuda’s body were of many shapes. Water in the conch-shell is dear to all the gods (except Siva), and is extremely holy. Whoever is bathed with the water from the conch-shell has the merit of taking a bath in all sacred streams in the country. In the conch-shell dwells Vishnu, and wherever the conch-shell is, Visnhu too is there; and there resides Lakshmi, warding off all evil.

This is also why the conch-shell which is used in worship is never placed on the unconsecrated ground. It is always kept on a special seat, known as ‘samkhadhara’. It is usually a metallic tripod, round in shape, with a hollow on top to accommodate and hold the bottom portion of the conch0-shell. It may have three or four legs (tripado va chatushpadah), lotus shaped (padmakaro) or triangular in shape (trikonah).


Salagrams are prescribed to be bathed in water or milk from the conch-shell; and tulasi leaves are then placed not only on the salagrama but on the conch-shell also. Before the worship of Vishnu begins, the conch-shell is duly installed (samkha-sthapana) and after the main worship is over, the conch-shell is now waved three times in front of the worshipped icon (samkha-bhramana) in order to eradicate the ill effects of the shadow of the icon (‘bimba=chhaya-dosha-pariharartham’). The conch-shell is filled with water, and the dhenu-mudra is assumed by the hands, while the eight-lettered mantra (om namo narayanaya’, ashtakshara) is recited. The first waving should be from the feet of the icon to the crown (padadi-mukuta-paryanta), the second from the navel to the crown (nabhyadi-nukuta-paryanta), and the third from the heart to the crown (hrdyadi-mukuta-paryanta). A verse is also uttered to signify that the water in the conch-shell (samhka-tirtha) has now acquired beneficial curative and protective properties.

The following translation of the Samkha-Sthapana-Vidhi in Meru-Tantra describes the several sequences involved in the installation of the conch-shell during the worship-ritual.

The procedure for the installation of the conch-shell during the worship ritual, which is itself a minor ritual, is given in the texts like Meru-tantra. The procedure is more or less uniform in the several cultic traditions.

After the installation of sacred pot (kalasa-sthapana), the sacred conch-shell must be installed for purpose of worship. The procedure is called ‘Samkha-sthapana’. The conch-shell must be located to the right of the kalasa and to the left of the worshipper.

1. The earth (ground) must be sprinkled with consecrated water (argha-jala), and a mandala involving triangular, square and circular shapes must be dram with matsya-mudra. While doing this, ‘astraya phat’ is to be recited.

2. The mandala drawn is worshipped with sandal-paste and flowers (gandha-pushpa); and then the area is protected with the utterance of ‘phat’ after worshipping the agneya-corner of the mandala and the other directions with ‘shadanga-mantra’.

3. The conch-shell-seat (samkhadhara) is then placed on the mandala. The conch-shell seat is a metallic one standing on three or four legs and circular, triangular or square in shape. It has a depression on top to receive the lower portion of the conch-shell. The mantra that is uttered while the seat is placed on the mandala takes this form ‘amuka (name of the deity is mentioned) devata-samkhadharam sthapayami namah’.

4. The conch-shell-seat is worshipped, along with the ten aspects (kalas) of fire in the circumambulatory order (pradakshinya-krama).

‘mam ram dharma-prada-dasa-kalatmane

vahni-mandalayam amuka-devata-samkhadharaya namah’

The ten aspects of the fire are worshipped as follows:

(i) yam dhumrarchishe namah

(ii) ram ushmayai namah

(iii) lam jvalinyai namah

(iv) vam jvalinyai namah

(v) sam vishphulinginyai namah

(vi) sham su-sriyai namah

(vii) sam surupayai namah

(viii) hum skilayai namah

(ix) lam havya-vahayai namah

(x) ksham kavya-vahayai namah

If one is unable to make these ten rounds of worship separately, he may recite ‘vahner dhumarchir adi dasa-kalarmane namah’.

5. The the conch-shell is cleaned with water, reciting the mantra ‘phat’, and placed on the sea (adhara) meant for it, reciting ‘amuka-devata-samkham sthapayami-namah’.

6. The conch-shell thus placed is worshipped, visualizing in it the six-angled figure of earth (shat-kona bhu-bimba), and mentally adoring the six angles with the ‘shadanga-mantra’; the twelve aspects of the solar deity (‘suryasya dvadasa-kalah’) are worshipped beginning with the eastern direction and going in pradakshinya-order.

(i) kam bham tapinyai namah

(ii) kham vam tapinyai namah

(iii) gam pham dhumrayai namah

(iv) gham pam marichyai namah

(v) nam nam jvalinyai namah

(vi) cham dham ruchyai namah

(vii) chham dham sushumnayai namah

(viii) jam tham bhogadayai namah

(ix) jham tam visvayai namah

(x) nam nam bodhinyai namah

(xi) tam dham dharinyai namah

(xii) tham dam kshmayai namah

If, however, one is unable to recite the twelve mantras separately, he may recite ‘suryasya tapinyadi-dadasa-kalabhyo namah’.

7. The seed-letters (matrka-varna) are then uttered in the reverse order, beginning with ‘ksham’, ‘ham’, ‘sam’, and so on, and ending with ‘am’.

8. The conch-shell is then filled with pure water and worshipped with sandal-paste, flower etc, reciting the mantra:

‘amuka-devata-samkham amrtena purayami namah’ and ‘um sam kama-prada-shodasa-kalatmane chandra-mandalaya namah’.

The sixteen aspects of the lunar orb mentioned here:

(i) am amrtayai namah

(ii) am manadayai namah

(iii) im pushayai namah

(iv) im pushtyai namah

(v) um tushtyai namah

(vi) um ratyai namah

(vii) rim dhrtyai namah

(viii) rim sasinyai namah

(ix) lrm chandrikayai namah

(x) lrm kantyai namah

(xi) em jyotsnayai namah

(xii) aim sriyai namah

(xiii) om prityai namah

(xiv) aum angadayai namah

(xv) am purnayai namah

(xvi) ah purnamrtayai namah

If one is unable to recite the mantras separately, he may recite ‘chandrasya-amrtadi-shodasa-kalabhyo namah’.

The idea is that the sixteen vowels representing the lunar orb (chandra-mandala) symbolize the conch-shell, whereas the twelve groups of consonants representing the solar orb (surya-mandala) symbolize the seat of the conch-shell (samkhadhara).

9. Sandal-paste, flowers, conscrated rice, sesamum seeds, tips of kusa-grass and durva-grass, and sarshapa are offered to the conch-shell (viz. placed on the conch-shell), and the Tirtha is invoked from the solar orb with ankusa-mudra, reciting the following mantra:

‘gange cha yamune chaiva godavari-sarasvati

narmade sindhu-kaveri jalesmin sannidhim kuru’

To confirm this invocation of all the sacred streams in the water contained in the conch-shell, ‘vaushat’ is uttered, and flowers are put into this water. Galini-mudra is assumed and ‘vashat’ is uttered; assuming the dhenu-mudra, the water is transformed into nectar (amrti-karana).

10. The specific deity chosen for worship is then invoked to come out of the worshipper’s heart and reside in the conch-shell; while assuming the mudras of avahana etc., the water in the conch-shell is made wholesome (sakali-karana) by the shadanga-mantra, protected in all the directions by the astra-mantra, and covered by the kavacha-mantra. Finally, uttered ‘vaushat’, he looks at the conch-shell and assumed the sankha-mudra, and then places flowers, etc on the conch-shell. He worships his chosen deity; covers the conch-shell with his right hand, assuming matsya-mudra and recites the mula-mantra eight times.


The conch-shells that are worship-worthy are obtained on the sea coasts of Madras, Puri (Jagannatha), Ramesvaram and Sri Lanka. Broadly, there are two varieties: (1) those with right-ward convolution (dhaksinavarta) and (2) those with left-ward convolution (vamavarta). The former are said to be rare, and are supposed to occur in two sub-varieties (i) male (purusha), the conch-shells which have thick and coarse crust, and (ii) female (samkhini), the conch-shells which have thinner and finer crust. The right-oriented conch-shells called in Tamil ‘valam-puri’ and in Kannada ‘bala-muri’, are held exceedingly holy, and are themselves worshipped. Varaha-purana (the chapter on Prabhodhini-mahatmya) tells us that water from this conch when sprinkled on one’s head and sipped will eliminate all sins.

The latter (viz, left-priented ones) are more frequently found, as they occur abundantly on snady beaches. There is also a third variety, known as ganesa-samkha, which are extremely rare in the Indian sea-coasts. It is vermillion-hued on the outer surface as well as in the inner, and has a very short tail-end (quite unlike the usual conch-shells). Because of its rarity, it is also very costly in the market. Its shape resembles the basic form of Ganapati, the elephant-headed deity with the curved trunk; and hence its name.

There are conch-shells with different colouts (varna) and the colours are related to the classes (jati) of the people in our society. Accordingly, there is a classification of conch-shells into the Brahmana-variety (which are white in colour, smooth in texture and light), the Kshatriya-variety (red-coloured, or brown-hued, heavy, rough and course), the Vaisya-variety (yellowish in hue, glossy, thick and light) and the Sudra-variety (dull gray or dark brown in colour, hard and heavy).

This classification, however, is neither exhaustive nor accurate. The conch-shells that are available can never be accommodated in these four varieties. It is therefore more textual than actual. Most of the conch-shells are described as white (dhavala), some dazzling, some dull, some of mixed hue. But the preferred variety is milk-white (go-kshira-dhavala).

According to Skanda-purana, the sacred conch-shell must be dazzling white in colour, like cow’s milk, and must have a long neck and broad body; it must be long in the front portion. When blown, it should emit a long, loud and sonorous sound like ‘om’. On the back of it, there must be a long central line. The right convoluted shell is meritorious.

Not all forms of conch-shell obtained from the sea are suitable to be used in worship. They are all bivalve shells (sambula), and many occur in many colour. The wise folk will discern the acceptable characteristics (lakshana) in them. The good conch-shells are got only in some places, and not everywhere in the ocean.

If Skanda-purana lauds the left-oriented conch-shells, as all accomplishing, there are many texts like Samkha-kalpa, which claim that the right-oriented conch-shells are most auspicious and beneficent, and also that it’s worship will bring forth all bebefits.

The Skanda-purana (setu-mahatmya section) eulogizes the seaside in Ramesvaram in the extreme South and the neighbouring coastal regions, where good conch-shells are obtained. The main stretch of the sea caost for this purpose is said to be five yojanas. The text gives names to the conches obtained in different site: Paudra, where the river Kaveri joins the sea, Ananta-vijaya in the eastern coast near Somanath, Mani-pushpa in Agni-tirtha to the west of ramesvaram in the South, Su-ghosha in Samkha-tirtha in the region between the Vata (a collection of sixteen vata-trees in Vajra-mandala on the banks of the Yamuna) and the sea, Pancha-janya in Kusa-sthali (another name for Dvaraka, more particularly Chakra-tirtha), and Deva-datta in the region where the river Tamra-parni flows and the shrine to Sangamesvara is located. Of these varieties, the text says that Pancha-janya is the best.

Hari-vamsi (89:15-17) associated Pancha-janya with Vishnu, because Krishna killed the whale-demon called Pancha-jana in the seas, and the conch-shells were formed out of the bones of this demon )’pancha-jane daitya-visishe bhavah pancha-janyah’; ‘pancha-jano nama daityah samudre timira-rupa asit; tad asthi-jatam’ etc). Amara-Kosha gives Vishnu-samkha as the synonym of panch-janya. Sometimes, the name Pnacha-janya is given to a rare and freak formation of a conch-shell in which the cavity contains within it another smaller conch-shell attached to it. A specimen preserved in the Chamundesvari temple atop the hill in Mysore contains still another (third) conch-shell. All good samkhas are said to be pancha-janyas, and the standard verse eulogizing a conch-shell is therefore:

The conch-shell is said to have the preserve of all the gods and goddesses: Brahma on the seat (samkha-pitha or samkhadhara), Surya in the middle of the conch-shell, and Chandra at the tip. On the right side of the conch-shell are seated Aditya, Varuna, Soma, Vayu and Agni. Samkha is presided over by the twin gods Sun and Moon, and Varuna is it’s deity; at the back of the conch-shell is Prajapati, and in front the river goddesses Ganga and Sarasvati (Vaikhanasagama). So even to look at a conch-shell, or to touch it, would mean eradication of sins, like darkness disappearing on sunrise.

The bow before the conch-shell, holding it in the hand, and bathing the icon of Vishnu with water from the conch-shell, would secure endless merits.

Worship of Vishnu without the employment of conch-shell and without adoring it, would take away all the advantages of such worship; and this is the boon that Vishnu himself has bestowed on the conch-shell. Even before the worship of Vishnu commences, one should bow before the conch-shell and worship it briefly. This would secure the fulfilment of all desires and the obtainment of Vishnu’s own realm. Vishnu must be bathed in water through the conch-shell. The use of the conch-shell is prescribed in the worship of all the gods except Siva and Surya.

Sri Sangaalwar thiruvadigale saranam...!!!


  1. Are these conch shells still being crafted into trumpets today? If so who is now
    doing this beautiful work? How can anyone tell the difference between a very old decorated conch shell and one recently decorated? Why are so many now
    showing up in N America? Google: "stupa rock Utah and "Mexican hat rock Utah". Is it possible that ancient stupas in the India style have been located at
    several locations in N America?

  2. Dr.Chandrashekhar Phadke, The information given in the blog is very interesting and not easily available at one place like in this wonderful blog. I liked the blog very much. If allowed, I am ready to share few pictures of rare Valampuri shells of my personal collection for the website. I am much interested to see the picture of the Panchjanya shankh of Chamunda Hill Temple, Mysore.

    With personal regards,

    Dr. Chandrashekhar Phadke, Pune, India.

  3. really a wonderful article. very useful to readers

  4. Hi, I'm from Malaysia. Our sultanate of perak regalia conch-shell was missing when the English brought them to London(might be stolen). Its interesting that one of his regalia is an ancient sword called Chorek Si Mandakini with sanskrit inscription on it. its old, maybe around 2000 years old. Some says it from Greek but I doubt that. However unfortunately the conch-shell was lost :(