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Conch shells are beautiful objects from the sea, known for their distinctive pink color. While conch pearls and shell are popular in jewelry 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.
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.
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.
Notice the beautiful pink hue of this extremely large and rare conch pearl.
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 Association of the Conch 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.
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.
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.
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, and courage.
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.
- 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.
FAQs About Conch Shells
- Are conch shells illegal to harvest?
In many countries and US states, such as Florida, it’s illegal to harvest conch shells. This is because the number of conchs in the wild has dwindled down alarmingly. While you can collect conch shells and keep them in your home, you shouldn’t harm a living conch.
- What do conch shells mean in Buddhism?
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.
- 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. This video shows how to blow a conch shell.
Nowadays, conch shells are elaborately decorated for ritualistic purposes and used as trumpets or kept as sacred temples. The shells are still blown at the beginning of certain sacred rituals with the belief that they dispel all negative energy, purify your surroundings, bringing you good luck and fortune throughout the day. Outside of these beliefs, the conch is used in beautiful shell jewelry or simply kept as decorative objects in many homes.