Symbol Tibetan Conch Shell

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From Robert Beers Book Tibetan Symbols and Motifs

Vedic Brahmanism and later Buddhism adopted the conch as a symbol of religious sovereignty and an emblem which fearlessly proclaimed the truth of the dharma. One of the thirty-two major signs of a Buddha’s body is his deep and resonant voice, which is artistically symbolised in images of the Buddha by three conch-like curving lines on his throat. The conch also appears as an auspicious mark on the soles, palms, limbs, breast or forehead of a divinely endowed being.

The natural white conch shell is obtained from the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Ancient conch shells are also unearthed in the Himalayan region and on the Tibetan plateau, as this high altitude region was once an ocean floor. The marine conch belongs to the Strombidea family of gastropod molluscs, occurring as a spiralling white shell with thick walls and usually a wide frontal opening. Shells which spiral to the right in a clockwise direction are considered especially sacred, although they are a rarity in nature. The right-spiralling conch is known as a dakshinamukha, with the lower opening positioned to the right of the spiral tip. The left-spiralling conch, with an opening to the left, is known as a vamavarta. Auspicious blowing-horns are fashioned from the right-spiralling white conch (Tib. dung dkar g.yas ‘khyi), by cutting off the tip of the shell. The right-hand spiralling wind passage thus created acoustically symbolises the true or ‘right-hand’ proclamation of the buddhadharma. As a Tibetan ritual musical instrument the conch is ornamented with a metal mouthpiece, and an ornamental metal casing extending from the shell’s mouth. This copper, bronze, silver or gold casing is embellished with auspicious symbols and designs.

The right-spiralling movement of the conch is echoed in the celestial motion of the sun, moon, planets and stars across the heavens. The hair whorls on Buddha’s head spiral to the right, as do his fine bodily hairs, the long white curl between his eyebrows (urna), and the conch-like swirl of his navel.

Conch-shell earrings and finger rings are worn by certain siddhas or yogins, as astrologically conch shells have an affinity with the moon’s planetary influence. The ears of elephants were frequently adorned with whole hanging conch-shell earrings, which were known as shankhakila, or ‘conch spikes’. The Sanskrit word kundala means both ‘ear- ring’ and ‘spiral coil’, and is derived from the same root as ‘Kundalini’, the coiled serpent goddess.