Among the natural objects held in extraordinary veneration in India, the salagrama-stones (black stones in which fossil ammonites are embedded) are the most celebrated universally. The worship of these stones is widespread and dates back to a distant past. They are worshipped in temples, monasteries and households all over the country, as visible and natural emblems of Vishnu. The sipping of water in which these stones are bathed is a daily ritual for the pious Hindu belonging to the old and traditional families. The presence of these stones is indispensable while performing daily and occasional ceremonies and festivals of a religious nature. They are also worshipped in quasi-religious functions like house-warming (grha-pravesa, vastu-puja), pacificatory rites of different sorts (santi), marriages and funerary rituals. A salagrama is worshipped by householders as well as by ascetics.
Sri Udupi Krishna
The famous image of Vishnu in the Himalayan Badri-nath is said to be carved out of a salagrama, as also the image of Krishna in Udupi (in Karnataka). During the image-changing ceremony (nava-kalevara) in Puri-Jagannatha, the salagrama-stone is the essence (padaratha) that is concealed within the main wooden icon of Jagannatha. A salagrama-stone officiates as the snapana-murti (icon for bathing) in the shrine of Natha-dvara.
Like the worship of Siva in the form of a linga, the worship of Vishnu in the shape of a Salagrama is aniconic in character. However, the linga may be a natural object like the white quartz (known as bana-linga) found in the river Narmada, or carved in stone by man. Natural stone forms of Linga are called ‘svayambhu’ lingas, while those made by man are ‘manusha’. There is also the practice of making temporary lingas out clay (mrt), cow-dung (go-maya), flowers (pushpa) or grain-flowers (pishta), which are dispensed with when rituals of worship is completed. The stone-lingas are usually found only in temples, and white quartz or crystal emblem represents Siva in household worship.
Salagramas are always only those which are naturally found in the river Gandaki; they are never made by man. And Vishnu has iconic images (like the incarnations, emantory and sportive forms; Rama, Krishna, Narasimha, Varaha, Kesava, Vasudeva, Hayagriva, Venkatesa, Ranganatha and so on), made by human sculptors.
It is interesting to that the great Samkara (632-664 A.D.) mentions in his Vedanata-sutra-bhashya the worship of no other god other than that of Vishnu, and that too in his Salagrama aspect (1,2,7 ‘yatha salagrama harih’; 1,2,14 ‘salagrama iva vishnoh’; 1,3,14 ‘yatha salagrame vishnuh sannihitah, tadvat’), and not in iconic forms. There is a wide-spread belief that the aniconic salagrama must necessarily accompany the iconic representations; and the worship offered to the salagrama takes precedence in the worship offered at home or in temples. It is a fact that in the Vishnu shrines, salagramas are invariably placed in close contact with the ‘mula-murti’, which worship is offered. Even in the celebrated temple of Vengadam (Tirupati-Tirumalai), the group of salagramas always kept at the feet of the main deity in the sanctum partakes of the principal worship daily; administrating a ceremonial bath to the salagramas is an important detail.
The concept of ‘vibhuti’ of godhead is an important one in the philosophy of worship. The expression ‘vibhuti’, which is as old as ‘’Rgveda (1, 8, 9 ‘evahita ibhutayah indram avate’ and 6, 21, 1 ‘raviv vibhutir iyate vachasa’) is used in the sense of might or power, as well as in the manifestations of Godhead in the tenth chapter of Bhagavad-gita. Sayana explains the vibhuti means special powers ‘aisvarya-visehah’, Rgveda 1, 8, 9) which are the cause of all the variety, expanse and glory of the world (Rgveda, 6, 21, 1 ‘vibhutir jagato vibhava-hetuh’). The word has in it the implied sense of spread, abundance or profundity. There is also an element of mystery in it.
Salagramas, Sri Annan Koil
This mysterious divine power manifests itself in many forms. The fullest and most direct manifestation of Vishnu is said to be in his inseparable consort, Lakshmi. This is like the presence of Siva in Shakti. The manifestation here is ‘nita-vibhuti’ (direct). The abiding presence and power of God in the soul of every one (jivantargata-bimba) is innate and continuos manifestation (naija-vibhuti). The manifestation of Divine power in icons which are properly installed and worshipped (pratima), in the milch-cow (go), in the tulasi plant (three months after germination) or in the asvattha-tree (after it is ceremonially wedded) is described as ‘ahita-vibhuti’ (projected, place of effected). And the manifestation of divine might in the salagrama-stone and in the consecrated fire (samskrtagni) is ‘sahaja-vibhuti’ (natural, original, congenital).
The theistic vibhuti-ideology is accepted also in the Vedanta framework. Samkara for instance speaks of vibhutis as manifestations of the one Brahman in diverse ways so as to facilitate the devotees to approach and understand the ultimately real. There is multiplicity of divine appearances, despite absolute unity in Brahman (Vedanta-sutra-bhashya, 3, 2, 23 ‘ekam api brahma vibhuti-bhedair anekadha upasyata’, cf. Also 2,4,10; 3,3,23; 1,4,4 and 3, 3, 43).
Vibhuti also signifies pervasion, penetration and comprehension of the supreme reality. We read in Kaurma: “Whatever is the vibhuti of the one godhead is to be regarded as identical with the godhead, and not as a part thereof or as a mere representation of some principal referring to the godhead. It is no doubt a manifestation (avir-bhuti), but it is manifestation in eternity.”
Salagramas of Sri Ahobila Mutt
Salagramas as vibhutis become worthy of worship. In fact, as objects of worship they are preferred to the man-made iconic representations. The latter suffer from certain disadvantages, like being carved into a shape by sculptors who may not be clean in body or pure in mind., being subjected to violence while carving, and being pushed around and placed on unclean ground. An icon fit for worship must invariably be cleansed of these disadvantages (sodhana) and properly consecrated (pratishtha). Otherwise, the power of Godhead will not be drawn into it. Salagramas, on the other hand, do not require preliminary rituals of purification and consecration. They naturally contain the vibhuti of the Godhead, and may be worshipped straight away.
In the worship of Salagrama, no initiation is required; there is no special hymnology or specific procedure of worship, nor any need for a qualified priest or master of ceremonies. Worshipped anyhow, it will bestowal the benefits; and there is no error of any kind. If, however, it is formally worshipped with all the details scrupulously observed, the benefits procured are boundless.
The worship rituals of an icon in the household necessarily begin with ‘the formal infusion of vital force’ into the icon (technically known as ‘prana-pratishtha’), and making the power incline (‘sammukhi-karana’). Unless these preliminary rituals are gone through, rest of the worship is in vain. The presence of ‘vibhuti’ in the icon is a necessary prerequisite for worship; and this has to be priorly and formally accomplished.
However, these rites are unnecessary in the case of Salagramas, for the ‘vibhuti’ is always present in them. Invoking of life into them is thus a meaningless procedure. An icon in a temple, duly consecrated, is also like a Salagrama: it does not, need formal infusion of life into it or invoking its attention by a formal ritual. These aspects of the worship ritual are taken care of by the procedure of consecration itself.
Salagrama stones are obtained only from the river Gandaki, which is a Himalayan stream, celebrated since antiquity as Narayani, Salagrami, Hiranvati and Hiranyavati. The epic Mahabharata speaks of its sanctity (Bhishma-parva): it contains in itself the waters of all the holy-rivers (Vana-parvan, 84, 113), and it is the abode of Agni, the fire-god (ibid.). Krishna, Arjuna and Bhima are said to have crossed this river on their way from India-prastha to Girivraja (Sabha-parva, 20, 27). The puranas also describe it as a sacred stream in which all the gods and titans abide (‘punyodaka surasura-nishevita’). By merely looking at it, one would eliminate all his mental defilement’s, by touching it his bodily sins are burnt up, and by sipping its water the verbal demerits are thrown out:
One who comes into contact with this sacred stream will be liberated from the cycle of birth and deaths, even if he be a sinner. For the very stones found in this river, marked with discus, are verily the glorious gods themselves. The Salagramas are specifically described as fossil-stones which have taken shape in the Gandaki-river, and as characterized by the presence of discus marks (‘gandakyudbhava-vajra-kita-krta-chakra-samayukta-sila). The legend, related at length in the next chapter, tells us that Gandaki, the lady-devotee, performed penances for long years, and that she got a boon from Vishnu, which made Vishnu reside in her womb (in her depths) as her own offspring; the Salagrama-stones are thus the forms of Vishnu. The presence of divinity in the Salagrama is for the welfare of the devotees.
And for the reason, the river Gandaki became among all the rivers extraordinarily sacred (‘mat-sannidhyan nadiman tvan ati srestha bhavishyasi’). Being a mystic river, looking at it, touching it, bathing in it and sipping its waters will be conductive to eliminate all sins, even the greatest of sins pertaining to the body, speech and mind. In the ancient texts, the river Gandaki is located in the south of the Himalayas, ten yojanas distant; and an area in the river is regarded as the holy Chakra-tirtha.
It is in this part of the river that Salagramas are found. In Varaha-purana (Reva-khanda), a mountain called Salagramagiri) is said to be responsible for the salagrama stones (‘salagramotpadaka – parvata). If this mountain represents Vishnu, there is said to be another mountain close to it (called Somesvara-giri), which provides sacred stones (called siva-nabha-sila) representing Siva. The puranas also claim that in the Avanti country, there is a mountain called Hari-parvata, at the foot of which is a big pond known as chakra-tirtha; and that the Salagrama-stones are produced here.
Salagrama is actually the name of the village on the banks of the river Gandaki, where the holy stones are picked up. The name is derived from the hut (sala) of the sage Salankayana, who beheld the form of Vishnu in a tree outside his hut (cf. Varaha-purana). This hut was on the banks of the Gandaki, and it was in that particular spot that these sacred stones were found in abundance. The stones were therefore called Salagrama.
Shala (or Sala) also means the hardwood tree known to botanists as Shorea robusta or Valica robusta (Sarja), grown in Nepal (known there as Sukhava). It is said that the cluster of these trees in the otherwise barren stretch of the Himalayan foothills called Mukti-sthana, was responsible for the village close to this cluster, being known as Sala-grama. On the banks of the river Kali-Gandaki, the sacred stones were also found in abundance.
The river Gandaki is a very ancient river; and the geologists say that it existed even before the formation of the Himalayan ranges. It rises beyond the Himalayan ranges, probably in Tibet, and flows (in the north-south direction) into Nepal, which is the southern valley of the Himalayas, and India. The situation of the birth of the river is given as North 27 27 and East 83 56’; it courses in the south-western direction, and joins Ganga in a place called Bhavatyapur in Bihar. It is an important tributary of the river Ganga. It is called Salagrami or Narayani in Uttar-pradesh. It was known to the Greek geographers as Kondochetts.
It has abundant water throughout the year, as the rain in the rainy season and melted snow in summer keep it full of water. It courses for about one hundred and ninety miles, making itself useful throughout, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India. It rises on a high peak, and flows down in swift torrents. The area inundated by the rivers in this part of the country has four important rivers: Kosi in the East, Gandaki in the middle, Karanali to the west, and Mahakali in the far-west. Trisula-ganga is its tributary in India; the river Gandaki joins Ganga near Patna (near Sonapur) in Bihar, having coursed through Champaran to Mujafharpur district.
108 waterspouts at Sri Muktinatha Kshetra
There is a lake at the source of the Kali-Gandaki (Krishna-g), called Damodar-kunda, connected in legend with the sage Salankayana, on the Nepal – India border. The lower Gandaki is well known as Mukti-natha-kshetra, also called Salagrama-kshetra. The sacred stones are largely found on the banks of Kali-gandaki near Tukche, between the two mountains Dhavala-giri and Annapurana. Damodara-Kunda is a Saivite place of pilgrimage (Somesvara-kshetra).
Note: The following was an edited excerpt from the late Sri SK Ramachandra Rao’s book titled “Salagram Kosha,” taken from http://www.salagram.net/sstp-salkosh1ch.html