Sunday Article: Seashells

Sunday article by Mohan Pai

About Seashells

The Sacred Conch of Lord Vishnu

Lord Vishnu, is said to hold a special conch, Panchajanya, that represents life, as it has come out of life-giving waters.

In India the sound of the conch is associated with the sacred syllable AUM, the first sound of creation. Conches that spiral clockwise are said to symbolize the expansion of infinite space. These conches belong to Lord Vishnu, the preserver god. Conches that spiral counterclockwise are said to defy the “laws of nature,” and belong to the destroyer/transformation god, Lord Shiva. The conch is one of the five principle weapons of Vishnu. Followers of Vishnu believe the conch shell was given to us to destroy all evil. Arjuna, the hero of India’s epic Mahabharata, blew a particularly powerful conch as a battle horn.

A Shankh shell (the shell of a Turbinella pyrum, a species in the gastropod family Turbinellidae) is often referred to in the West as a conch shell, or a chank shell. This shell is used as an important ritual object in Hinduism. The shell is used as a ceremonial trumpet, as part of religious practices, for example puja. The chank trumpet is sounded during worship at specific points, accompanied by ceremonial bells and singing. The warriors of ancient India blew conch shells to announce battle, as is described in the beginning of the war of Kurukshetra, in the Mahabharata, the famous Hindu epic. Lord Vishnu, is said to hold a special conch, Panchajanya, that represents life, as it has come out of life-giving waters.

A Hindu priest blowing a Shankh (a shell of Turbinella pyrum) during a puja.
 Shells are lovely natural objects, equals in beauty to any flower or butterfly, they are more than just pretty baubles found on beaches. They are the exterior skeletons (exoskeletons) of a group of animals called mollusks. The word “mollusk” means “soft-bodied;” an exterior skeleton is very important to these creatures, providing them with shape and rigidity, and also with protection, and sometimes camouflage, from predators.Mollusks are classified into major groupings according to the characteristics of their shells. Snails (Gastropoda) have a single shell which spirals outward and to one side as it grows. Most Cephalopoda (octopi and squid) have no shell, but the Chambered Nautilus of that group has a shell. This shell does coil, but it coils flatly, in a single plane. Tusk shells (Scaphopoda) also have a single shell, but it does not coil at all; it grows in a narrow and very slightly curved cone shape. Bivalves (Bivalvia), including oysters, clams, scallops and mussels, have two parts to their shells that enclose their tender bodies like the two halves of a hinged box. Chitons (Polyplacophora) are little armored tanks, with a row of eight overlapping plates protecting them. The Neopilina (Monoplacophora), are deep-sea “living fossils;” they have a single shell which hardly coils at all, but fits over their bodies like a protective cup.

While many sea animals produce exoskeletons, usually only those of molluscs (also spelt “mollusk”) are normally considered to be “sea shells”. The majority of shells are made of nacre, an organic mixture of outer layers of horny conchiolin (a scleroprotein), followed by an intermediate layer of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) as either calcite or aragonite in the form of platy crystals. Shells of the class Polyplacophora are made of a softer calcium carbonate compound called chiton. Mollusc shells (especially those formed by marine species) are very durable and outlast the otherwise soft-bodied animals that produce them by a very long time (sometimes thousands of years). They fossilise easily, and fossil mollusc shells date all the way back to the Cambrian period. Large amounts of shells may form sediment and become compressed into limestone.

1742 drawing of shells of the money cowry, Cypraea moneta

Shell money (money cowry)
Seashells have been used as a medium of exchange in various places, including many Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean islands, also in North America, Africa and the Caribbean.The most common species of shells to be used as currency have been Cypraea moneta, the “money cowry”, and certain tusk shells or Dentalium, such as those used in North Western North America for many centuries. The Dutch East India Company, a major force in the colonization of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, amassed a large portion of its vast fortune via trading shell money of the species Cypraea moneta and Cypraea annulus, in exchange for commodities such as spices, exotic animals, and gemstones, all of which were considered valuable in Europe at the time.

Seashells in personal adornment
Seashells have been used as jewelry or in other forms of adornment since prehistoric times. Mother of pearl was historically primarily a seashell product although more recently some mother of pearl comes from freshwater mussels.Shell necklaces have been found in Stone Age graves as far inland as the Dordogne Valley in France. Seashells are often used whole and drilled, so that they can be threaded like beads, or cut into pieces of various shapes. Naturally-occurring, beachworn, cone shell “tops” (the broken-off spire of the shell, which often has a hole worn at the tip) can function as beads without any further modification. In Hawaii these natural beads were traditionally collected from the beach drift in order to make puka shell jewelry. Since it is hard to obtain large quantities of naturally-occurring beachworn cone tops, almost all modern puka shell jewelry uses cheaper imitations, cut from thin shells of other species of mollusk, or even made of plastic. Shells have been formed into, or incorporated into pendants, beads, buttons, brooches, rings, and hair combs, among other uses. The shell of the large “bullmouth helmet” sea snail, scientific name Cypraecassis rufa, was historically, and still is, used to make cameos. Mother of pearl from many seashells including species in the family Trochidae, Turbinidae, Haliotidae, and various pearly bivalves, has often been used in jewelry, buttons, etc. In London, Pearly Kings and Queens traditionally wear clothing covered in patterns made up of hundreds of “pearl buttons”, in other words, buttons made of mother-of-pearl or nacre.

Use of gastropod shells, specifically cowries, in traditional dress of the Kikuyu people of Kenya, Africa.

References: Wikipedia

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