As day breaks and the skies lighten, from afar, I can hear the sound of a conch shell being blown: three long, deep, resonant peals, followed by its cascading echo in the neighbourhood, as the day is welcomed, in true to Bengali tradition.
The sound is an instant throwback to another time, of walking on a red dust path flanked by lush green paddy fields, the jasmine scented dusk descending quietly, in blues and greys. Far away, in the gathering darkness,a lamp flares in a solitary home, followed by the infinitely calming sound of a conch shell, blown long and thrice. Evening had set in, the age old tradition of completing, ‘shondhye daowa'( the evening puja rituals) ensuring that all negative energies unleashed by darkness were kept at bay and the Lakshmi blessed evening, welcomed into the home, was done.
The significance of the conch shell in India,of course, goes far beyond just romancing the sound or dispelling evil spirits. The Sacred Indian Conch shell or Shankha, as it’s known in India, has intrinsic and ancient connections with Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In Hinduism it’s considered to be an emblem of Vishnu, the Preserver and also his consort, the Goddess Lakshmi, while in Tibetan Buddhism, it’s one of the eight blessed Ashtamangala symbols and in Jainism, is representative of the 22nd Tirthankara.
Historically, too, it’s been part of many ancient civilizations, including the Greeks Romans, Mayan and linked to its blessed feminine aspects but it’s sacred qualities are revered chiefly by Hindus and Buddhists. Mentioned first in the Atharvaveda, the Mahabharata records Krishna using it as a trumpet call to signal the start of the war with each of the Pancha Pandavs, having their own designated conch.The sound of the conch shell, ‘shankhanaad,’ is believed to be symbolic and an echo of the primordial sound OM, forming a protective barrier against any negative energies and heralding in auspiciousness.
Most household or community puja will involve the use of the conch shell and the vamavarti shankha, where the aperture of the shell turns to the right, is the one most commonly used. The madhyavarti conch has the opening in the middle but it’s the priceless and exceedingly rare, dakshinavarti , turning to the left, which can fetch princely sums in today’s market.
These are actually the shells of medium to large, shy sea snails, (marine species, turbinella pyrrum)found deep in the bed of Gulf of Mannar and the Indian Ocean, between India and Sri Lanka. Harvested by the local fisherfolk , these are then sold to traders based principally in Rameshwaram, Tuticorin and Tirunelveli, who supply the bulk of raw conches in India.
The decline in the supply and quality of the conches is a constant worry for the conch shell trade and a temporary ban of a few months by the Indian Wildlife Protection Act on the harvesting of conches in 2001, followed by the tsunami of 2004, didn’t help matters, either. The tsunami, caused extreme damaged to the southern coastline, significantly changing the marine ecosystem of the waters, leading to less fishing and inevitably, higher costs in collecting conches.The global warming of the oceans, climate change and rampant over harvesting, has led to a steady decline in the number of sea snails and while Sri Lanka has reduced the number of licences to harvest them, USA has banned it totally in Florida and Federal waters, since 1980s.
Add to that, a sneaky, Kolkata based industry, which is flooding the market making conches out of conch dust mixed with marble powder and some chemicals, turning out conches which are more often than not, bought by customers as the real thing.
The conch shell craft in India, is an ancient one and can be traced as far back as the Indus Valley Civilization but amongst all the other states, its Bengal and Orissa, which enjoys a very special and ageless relationship with the shankh. In undivided Bengal, the conch shell trade was centred in Dhaka, where there was a strong ‘shakhari’ ( artisans working with shankhas) community believed to have come originally from south India. Post Partition, many of these shakharis re -settled in different pockets of Calcutta and the suburb of Barrackpore, which were named Shakharipara ( localities of shakha traders or artisans) after them. Most of these have died out and Baghbazar and Bara Bazar in Kolkata and Barrackpore, are amongst the major trading hubs now, together with the district of Bankura, the principal centre for the skilled, generational artisans who make the precious, carved shankhs.
Sadly, dwindling resources, have led to the steady decline of this traditional, highly skilled craft of intricate carving on the conch shells, unique to Bengal, forcing the artisans to use their skills on other materials, to preserve their art and livelihoods. The good news is, that despite being plagued by multiple problems, shankh fashioning continues to be an important business, specific to Bengal and Orissa alone.
The shakharis( artisans) work principally on making shakhas,the pristine white, flat bangles carved out of conch shells, which Hindu Bengali women are traditionally expected to wear after marriage, on both wrists. Symbolic of purity and fertility ( because the shankh comes from water, representative of fertility) these are worn with the red pola bangles (originally made of coral or lac resin, now more of bakelite or even plastic) symbolic of protection and happines . Most urban women, now find shakhas outdated and wear them only on special festive days, mostly preferring the more fancier, gold trimmed ones but in the rural areas, the original, classic style,which is cheap, hardy and attractive, to boot, is almost de rigeur.
Ironically, while the demand for the shakha- pola has lessened locally, its steadily gaining in popularity in the Indian diaspora, the more swankier ones bought by Indian women, keen on keeping indigenous cultures alive in their adopted countries and worn on special festival days.
They say that one can hear the hushed roar of the seas if one holds a shankh to the ear. It’s actually the ambient air in the environment reverberating through it but perhaps, embedded deep in the heart of the shell, are memories of its reclusive life in the ocean, the vibrations of the Earth’s cosmic energies and the eternal call of the sea. From sea snail to sacred shankh, from the mundane to the mystic.