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Hand of Vishnu
Muktinath saligram

World Folklore 3

Such is the importance of ammonites in Indian culture that at least one substantial book has been written about them (Rao 1996). In Hindu culture, ammonites found in concretions of black limestone are known as saligrams, shaligrams or salagramas.

True saligrams are found only in the valley of the Gandaki River in Nepal and northern India, close to the village of Salagrama and the town of Muktinath. Saligrams bear markings called 'chakras' supposedly resembling the discus held in one of the six hands of the god Vishnu. Vishnu's chakra is a Hindu symbol of absolute completeness, with the eight spokes indicating the eightfold path of deliverance. The radial chakra markings in saligrams are actually ribs of the ammonites variously exposed by breakage and erosion of the concretions.

The exact positioning of the chakras in the stone is very important to Hindus, signifying the different forms taken by Vishnu. Names such as Lakshmi-Narayana, Padmanabda and Visvambhara have been applied to different shaped saligrams (Rao1996).

Saligrams are mentioned in Sanskrit texts dating back to the second century BC.

The stones are kept in temples, monasteries and households as natural symbols of Vishnu and water in which they have been bathed is drunk daily. In addition, saligrams are used in marriages, funerals and house-warmings. If a dying person sips water in which a saligram has been steeped, it is believed that they will be freed from all sins and will reach the heavenly abode of Vishnu.

Although forbidden, saligrams were once sold for large sums of money. Also, fake saligrams were made by carving chakra marks onto black pebbles.

Some Sanskrit poetical works recognize saligrams as fossils of marine creatures known as admantine worms, which created the chakra markings in the rock.