Sound the mystical sound full of spirituality: Conch in Himalayan Art.

Sound the mystical sound full of spirituality: Conch in Himalayan Art.

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"Sagya Monastery Auspicious Right-Turning White Conch Shell"

- a blessing card issued by the monastery.

Many classics claim that the conch shell originally belonged to Shakyamuni Buddha, and was presented by Indra (or some say a celestial king) when the Buddha first turned the wheel of Dharma.

It was given as a gift from South Asia to East Asian monarchs, and eventually offered by Kublai Khan to Pakpa (or some say Khutughtu offered it to Sakya Pandita).

Sakya sect monks and laypeople use the conch shell to demonstrate Pakpa's dual identity as the heir to the orthodox teachings and the controller of the military and political affairs in Tibetan regions.

Partial: The Brahma offering the golden wheel, Indra offering the conch shell.
From "The Twelve Deeds of Shakyamuni Buddha."
Mid-19th century, Rubin Museum Collection.

"Right-turning white conch shell with seed syllables," private collection.









At first, the King of the Gods, Indra, presented a right-turning conch shell
as an offering to the fully awakened and perfect Buddha, Shakyamuni.
Thus, the conch shell came to be seen as an auspicious object
The sound of the Dharma resounds through the conch,
and the ocean of wisdom is thus created,
revealing the true nature of all things without error,
praying to receive the teachings of good speech.

Excerpt from "The Offering Ritual of the Eight Auspicious Objects and Seven Royal Emblems"


Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo


Dölpopa (1292-1361), the core master of the Jonang tradition, was a highly controversial scholar and classical writer in Tibet. One of Dölpopa's disciples, born in the eastern region of Kham, came to be known as Chökyap Kawa Che (14th century). When this student was asked by his teacher to return to his homeland to spread the teachings, he was gifted with a conch shell that originated from South Asia. Dölpopa also prophesied that Chökyap Kawa Che would receive special guidance from the conch shell.

Following the prophecy, on his journey back home, the student first received a donkey from a blue-robed woman (an emanation of the Dakini). He placed his teacher's writings on the donkey. When the donkey lay down to rest, the student blew the conch shell, and from it came the voices of the deities and Dölpopa, guiding him to the perfect site to build a temple.

In 1380, Rinchen Pel (1350-1435), a high monk of the Jonang tradition, was also informed by his teacher that the master Dölpopa had prophesied his journey to spread the teachings in the regions of Kham and Amdo. As a blessing for Rinchen Pel's upcoming journey, the monastic community of Jonang Monastery presented him with a conch shell and a donkey carrying a stupa.

In the classic narratives of these prophecies, the conch shell is said to sound by itself when the donkey lies down to rest, indicating the best location for building a temple. It is noteworthy that the Jonang monasteries continuously expanded by Rinchen Pel and his successors would later become shelters for the tradition in the 17th century.

In these stories of the "origins of temple building" in the Jonang tradition (similar motifs can be found in other traditions), the conch shell always plays a significant role. In the first story, the conch shell symbolizes the Buddha's relics, the scriptures symbolize the teachings, and the donkey and the student represent the Dharma protectors and the Sangha respectively. In the second story, the conch shell symbolizes the teachings, while the stupa on the donkey's back represents the Buddha's relics.

Why can the conch shell (especially the white conch shell) represent both the Buddha and the Buddha's teachings? Furthermore, as the conch shell is considered one of the auspicious offerings (along with the eight auspicious symbols and offerings to the goddesses), it is also seen as a symbol for practitioners and devotees.

"Longing for Gaali: The White Conch"
Late 19th century, snow humble archives collection.


The Long Scroll of Mandala Offerings:
Offering Incense to the Heavenly Conch Maidens
Stored in the Rubin Museum in the mid to late 19th century.

There are three common types of celestial maidens using conch shells for offerings:
The Heavenly Conch Maidens who use conch shells filled with fragrant spices (དྲི་ཆབ་མ་)
The Conch Maidens playing the conch (དུང་མ་)
The Conch Maidens holding nectar beverages in conch shells (བདུད་རྩི་མ་)
They respectively represent the "Five Sensory Pleasures" (འདོད་ཡོན་ལྔ་) with a focus on:
The Pleasure of Fragrance (most prominent) - The Pleasure of Sound - The Pleasure of Taste

The Four-armed Vajrasattva Statue,
mid-11th century, housed in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

Vajrasattva's left hand holds the flaming conch shell (མེ་འབར་དུང་དཀར་;पाञ्चजन्य).
The conch shell held in the right-turning position in the left hand symbolizes infinite time and space.
The flaming conch shell has special control over the "five aggregates" (སྐྱེ་བ་ལྔ་).
The sound of the conch shell can awaken people's perception of "original creation."

The Benzhu deity Weiseang Bazha Gali: Attendant with a Conch CrownIn the mid
-15th century, created by Navin Kumar.

Not only is the conch-shaped helmet (a special decoration of deities)
common in Tibet, there are also earrings and bracelets made of conch shells
It is related to the essence of the water element and treasures of the water realm
and the spiral pattern is considered an auspicious symbol inherited from ancient times


Without a doubt, the Dragon Clan is the master of all aquatic realms in the Buddhist worldview, while the Capricorn (referring to all water monsters) and the conch form the two most important spiritual tribes in the aquatic realm. In the descriptions of classical literature and religious rituals, these two tribes, each possessing secret wisdom and vast wealth, are enemies of each other, and Tibetan scholars are accustomed to referring to the conch as the "enemy of the Capricorn" (ཆུ་སྲིན་གཤེད་).

In the combination image commonly used by Buddhists of the "three beasts not in harmony" (མི་མཐུན་གཡུལ་རྒྱལ་གསུམ་), the hybrid offspring of the Capricorn and the conch are used to symbolize philosophical insights related to "opposition and coexistence." The common reasons for the enmity between the two tribes are threefold: 1. The master of the conch is unwilling to provide his palace to help the Capricorn seek shelter; 2. The master of the Capricorn is annoyed by the sound made by the conch; 3. Both sides vie for control of the treasures and disasters of the seabed.

In the concept of royal power in South Asia, both the Capricorn and the conch are symbols of supreme significance. The Capricorn is used to decorate palaces and gates, while the conch is related to the clothing and regalia of the king (see the Tibetan term sourced from South Asia ཤཾ་ཁ་; शङ्ख). The appearance of the conch often heralds the arrival of a "critical moment."

Whether blowing the conch horn on the battlefield (the Tibetan term for conch also refers to various horns or commands) or using the conch in ceremonies to showcase a special form of power (undoubtedly the authority of sound), the conch is always associated with "supreme perfection." In ancient times in Tibetan Buddhism, shells may have been more important than conches. Shells (མགྲོན་བུ་; especially fossilized shells) symbolize the origin of time and life and are also used as currency and talismans.

When the conch appears in Tibetan classics as the "recording machine of the Buddha" (from the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa), people see it as a sign of action. The conch helps people to awaken from unconscious sleep and engage in sublime spiritual activities. In the narratives of ancient Tibet, the conch produces a kind of subtle sound that ordinary people cannot hear, and the conch sounds in the world are rough imitations of this subtle sound (even various types of conch used as musical instruments).

In addition to its spiritual sound, the conch is also considered to be closest in form to white bones (དུང་ཁྲག་), the pure appearance of the mundane body. When practitioners blow the white conch at the cliffs, their sound can transcend the boundaries of life and death, and bring the laws of cause and effect into the daily lives of people who are closed off from it.

"The Incompatible Trio: Conch Shell and Capricorn"
Late 20th century, Rubin Museum collection


"Turquoise-Inlaid Dragon-Design Gold-Winged Conch Shell"
18th century, private collection


"Gem-Inlaid Seven-Jeweled Copper-Winged Conch Shell"
17th century, private collection


Author of this article: Sangwang Tsering

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