The Conch Shell or the ‘Shankha’ – Emanator of Healing Vibrations

Article of the Month - Oct 2021

This article by Manisha Sarade

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The Conch Shell or the ‘Shankha’ – Emanator of Healing Vibrations

Conch shells are beautiful objects from the sea, known for their distinctive pink color. While conch pearls and shell are popular in jewellery and decorative items, the shell itself is a significant symbol in many cultures and religions. Let’s take a look at why the conch shell is considered important and what makes it unique.

What are Conch Shells?

Conches are a species of extremely large mollusc which belong to the Strombidae family. They’re considered ‘shy’ creatures since they usually come out during the night to feed and spend the day buried deep in the sand. If the lip of the conch shell is well flared, it means that the shell is fully developed. The conch uses the lip of its shell to dig itself into the seabed where it usually stays and hides. The meat of the conch is a great source of nutrition since it contains a high amount of protein and the shell is much coveted around the world. Conch shells also produce pearls, but these are extremely rare and very expensive. The surface of a conch shell is hard, shiny and translucent, rather like porcelain. The shape of the shell is oblong and similar to that of a cone, with a bulge in the middle and tapering at the ends. Just like all normal snail shells, the interior of the conch is hollow. The shiny, soft, white conch with the pointed ends is heavier than the others, and is the most desired and sought after.

Mahishasur-Mardini Conch

History of the Conch Shell

The history of conch shells dates far back to about 65 million years ago. There’s also evidence that 3,000 years ago they were used by people as cooking pots, hooks, knives and pendants in various parts of the world. In India, the conch was first mentioned as the ‘shankha’ in the Atharvaveda (an ancient religious text) around 1000 BCE. It’s also stated in the Mahabharata that Lord Krishna blew a conch shell when announcing the start and the end of battles. After this, the conch shell became a commonly used sacred item. Conch shells was used as war trumpets and it’s still used as a trumpet to sound off in almost all Hindu rituals.

Conch Shaped Diya

The conch is also an important feature in Buddhist culture. It’s often seen in certain rituals and marriage ceremonies not only in India but also in Pacific Island countries as well as in Southern Asia and South America.

Symbolism and Meaning

There are many interpretations of the conch shell, depending on the type of shell. Left-turning conch shells have been used by Hindus as objects of prayer and vessels to hold holy water. The right-turning conch, which are typically white in color, is sacred to the Hindus and Buddhists as it symbolizes the Dharma, the teachings of Lord Buddha. Since the conch is seen as a symbol of purity, many Hindu households have one. These are kept very carefully, usually placed on a clean, red cloth or in a clay or silver pot. Some people keep water in the conch, which is sprinkled when performing religious rituals, much like how a Catholic priest would sprinkle holy water.

The Vaishnav Symbol (Conch) Wall Hanging

Conch’s Link with Hindu Deities

According to Hindu mythology, the conch shell is a revered and sacred emblem of the Hindu god Vishnu, known as the Preserver. When blown, the sound heard from the conch shell is said to be symbolic of the sacred ‘Om’ sound and Vishnu, who’s always portrayed holding it in his right hand, is the god of sound. The shell also represents the home of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth who was also the consort of Lord Vishnu.

Vishvarupa Vishnu Conch, A Wall-hanging

The Om Sound

The sound that’s heard from the conch shell is said to be symbolic of the sacred ‘Om’ sound which is believed to be the very first sound of creation. This is why the conch is blown before any ritual or ceremony since it represents good luck and marks the start of any positive or auspicious work. Even today it’s believed that when the conch shell is blown, the environment around it will be purified from all evil and good fortune will enter. Though many comprehend sound as merely something to be heard, its mechanism is a little more complex. Sound is made up of vibrations. These vibrations are produced from a source, travel through the air, and then are picked up by the ear before being interpreted by the brain, which assigns them some value. The number of vibrations per second is known as frequency. Because all matter is composed of atomic material, which is in constant motion, everything and everyone vibrates on some frequency. The word Om is defined by Hindu scripture as being the primordial sound of creation. It is the original vibration of the universe. From this first vibration, all other vibrations are able to manifest.

Conch on Tortoise (Small Statue)

The Conch and Fertility

The conch shell is a symbol of water associated with female fertility since water is a symbol of fertility and the shell is aquatic. Some say that it resembles a vulva, making it an important part of Tantric rites.

Big Fertility Pendant

In Buddhism

In Buddhism, the conch is said to be one of the 8 auspicious symbols (known as the Ashtamangala). It represents the melodious voice of the Buddha. Even today in Tibet, it’s used for religious gatherings, as a musical instrument and a container to hold holy water during rituals. Devotees believe that blowing it can enhance the positive vibrations of the mind such as hope, optimism, willpower, andcourage.

Five Dhyani Buddhas Conch - Tibetan Buddhist

Scientific Theories Involving the Conch Shell

Aside from the religious and mythological aspects of the conch shell, its significance can also be verified by science. If you try holding a conch shell to your ear, you can clearly hear the sound of the ocean waves humming gently. The sound you hear is the vibration of the Earth’s cosmic energy which is magnified once it enters the shell.

The Conch Shell in Ayurveda

The conch shell is popularly used in powder form as an ayurvedic treatment for stomach problems. This is done by soaking the conch in lime juice and heating it to extremely high temperatures in oxygen or air around 10 or 12 times, before it’s reduced to powder ash. The ash, known as ‘shankha bhasma’ in Sanskrit, contains iron, calcium and magnesium and is also said to have digestive and antacid properties.

Other Uses of the Conch Shell

Here are some of the most popular uses for conch shells in different countries.

Conch shells are used in Mayan art as paint or ink holders.

Conch and Chakra for Abhisheka

In some cultures, like in Papua New Guinea, conch shells have been used as a type of shell money to purchase goods. The Japanese use the conch as a type of trumpet in special ceremonies like royal cremations. In Grenada the conch was blown to announce to the public that fish was available for sale. As is obvious, the conch is highly popular and used all over the world for various reasons. However, it’s only in Hinduism and Buddhism that the shell is held so dearly and highly revered as a positive, religious symbol.

The Conch Shell in Jewelry

Nowadays, shell jewelry is a craft on its own and there are numerous types of jewelry made from all kinds of shells. The conch shell is one of the most popular materials used for making bracelets, bangles and other jewelry designs and is in high demand due to its natural and unique look. People wear all types of conch shell jewelry for luck, prosperity, wealth or sometimes just as a fashion trend.

Conch pearls are known for their pink color and unique patterns. They’re highly luxurious products and are often seen in big brand collections. Because conch pearls haven’t been successfully cultured, the only conch pearls on the market are those found naturally. Hence, these pearls are extremely rare and expensive.

What do conch shells mean in Buddhism and Hinduism?

The conch shell (Sanskrit shankha; Tibetan dung dkar) has survived as the original horn trumpet since time immemorial. Ancient Indian epics describe how each hero of mythical warfare carried a mighty white conch shell, which often bore a personal name. It is one of the main emblems of Vishnu, and his conch bears the name of Panchajanya, meaning 'having control over the five classes of beings.' Arjuna's (hero of the Mahabharata) mighty conch was known as Devadatta, whose triumphant blast brought terror to the enemy. As a proclaiming battle horn, the conch is akin to the bugle. It is an emblem of power, authority and sovereignty whose blast is believed to banish evil spirits, avert natural disasters, and scare away poisonous creatures.

An important Buddhist symbol, conch shells are often used to call assemblies together. The white conch shell symbolizes the popularity of the Buddhist teachings spreading around the world, much like the loud sound of the conch shell. Today, in its greatly tamed avatar, the conch is used in Tibetan Buddhism to call together religious assemblies. During the actual practise of rituals, it is used both as a musical instrument and as a container for holy water.

Large vaishnava lamp with chakra and conch Symbols

Ancient Indian belief classifies the conch into male and female varieties. The thicker-shelled bulbous one is thought to be the male (purusha), and the thin-shelled slender conch to be the female (shankhini).

The fourfold division is also applied as follows:

  • The smooth white conch
  • The red conch
  • The yellow conch
  • The grey conch

Additionally, there is a fundamental classification of conch shells occurring in nature: those that turn to the left and those which turn to the right. Shells which spiral to the right in a clockwise direction are a rarity and are considered especially sacred. The right-spiralling movement of such a conch is believed to echo the celestial motion of the sun, moon, planets and stars across the heavens. The hair whorls on Buddha's head spiral to the right, as do his fine body hairs, the long curl between his eyebrows (urna), and also the conch-like swirl of his navel.

Tibetan Buddhist Five Dhyani Buddhas Conch

Vajrayana Buddhism absorbed the conch as a symbol which fearlessly proclaimed the truth of the dharma. Among the eight symbols, it stands for the fame of the Buddha's teaching, which spreads in all directions like the sound of the conch trumpet.

In addition to Buddha's throat, the conch also appears as an auspicious mark on the soles, palms, limbs, breast or forehead of a divinely endowed being.

The Nagas

Because of the association of the shankha with water, nagas are often named after the shankha. The list of Nāgas in the Mahabharata, the Harivamsha and the Bhagavat Purana includes names like Shankha, Mahashankha, Shankhapala and Shankachuda. The last two are also mentioned in the Buddhist Jataka Tales and the Jimutavahana. A legend states that while using Shankha as part of meditative ritual, a sadhu blew his shankha in the forest of village Keoli and a snake crept out of it. The snake directed the sadhu that he should be worshipped as Nāga Devata (Serpent God) and since then it has been known as Shanku Naga. Similar legends are narrated at many other places in Kullu district in Himachal Pradesh.

Naga Kanya Holding Two Conches in upraised Hands (Snake Maiden)

Is a conch shell a seashell?

Yes, a conch is a type of seashell that ranges from medium to large sizes. It’s much more elaborate than most other seashells and is known for its beautiful color, large size and porcelain-like feel.

Is it ok to keep a conch shell at home?

There’s no reason not to keep a conch shell at home. Many people have them as decorative items while others keep them for religious or spiritual reasons. Right-handed conch shells are considered auspicious to have at home and are believed to bring in good fortune and wealth.

How do you blow a conch shell (shankh)?

Blowing a conch shell takes skill and practice. It can be a difficult instrument to blow. The buzzing sound made from a person's lips gets amplified by the conch shell, much like a bugle horn.

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