‘For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush’d blood.’
(John Keats, Isabella. 1818)
At the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, seven war conches are named as their owners sound them at the start of the climactic Kurukshetra battle, including warrior Arjuna’s Devadatta, and his charioteer Krishna’s Panchajanya. War conches are shankha, the same sacred or divine conch that is used in Hindu and Buddhist ritual, Ayurvedic medicine, Indian marriage ceremonies and numerous other occasions.
The conch seems an unlikely candidate to reach the level of reverence it does in India, and in fact in numerous other cultures. It is a large marine gastropod, a big sea snail. The specific animal revered as shankha is Turbinella pyrum, and is common on the southern coasts of India and Sri Lanka. In its living form it is not obviously attractive, the shell being covered by a dark brown mantle of soft tissue. Once processed, it is a shining white symbol of the divine.
There is a two or three thousand year tradition of freediving for shankha from these waters, and I have been on both sides of Palk Strait exploring this history and its contemporary manifestation. I walk, bike, swim and paddle many kilometres along these coasts. When I paddle, the design of the kayak means I am always partly in the water as well as on top of it (and under it several times when I capsize, or when I dive). Salt is always on my skin and in my mouth. I am alternately deep in the moment, rhythmically driving the paddle, water washing over the bow, scanning the sea and horizon; or deep in thought, about my work, my relationships, existential questions, coming travel logistics.
I realise that when I am underwater, when I dive, I am always in the moment. The slight discomfort of the breath-hold, the conscious positioning of my body in the water column, and the various elements of the dive response activating my parasympathetic nervous system, all conspire to keep me centred and aware. In this state, the ocean realm even in shallow water is vividly present. This is what I am looking for: the world of the shankha diver and the world of the shankha itself. Thom Van Dooren and Debbie Rose describe this world as ethos: ‘the product of the differential biosocial becomings—the evolutionary and developmental intra-actions—of organisms and their species in coconstitutive relationship with others’.
The calcium carbonate of the shankha’s exterior shell is shaped inside as a perfect receptacle for its strange body. As humans, as vertebrates, we carry the calcium carbonate of our skeletons inside, our variously hard and soft bodies vulnerably open to the world, just our brain protected inside bone. When we die, both shankha and human, the bone or shell parts of our bodies persist after the detrivores have finished with our flesh.
Everything living survives through the deaths of others, who are all our/their relatives, close or more distant – we all eat our relatives, evolutionarily speaking, sometimes distant (molluscs, plants) and sometimes closer (mammals). Shanka divers traditionally eat the flesh of the shankha, the elements of the living animal diffusing into the muscles of the living diver. Vegans, building from ethicist Peter Singer (who once argued that the evidence for sentience in molluscs was ‘vanishing slight’), have actively debated consumption of molluscs. I have written previously about arguments concerning sentience in abalone, another marine gastropod.
I am personally not in favour of the idea of hierarchies of sentience and suffering, they reflect both colonial concepts and related Cartesian separations. The religions born in India, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, hold a spectrum of views on sentience and suffering, with ahimsa (avoiding harm) a central concept in all three. Many Indigenous cosmologies hold relational rather than hierarchical understandings of our non-human responsibilities and exchanges. As an Inuit activist argues, ‘We’re the same, we’re meat, we are so stupid to think that we are not.’
But our interspecies interdependence is based not just in the biology of food but in the biology of evolutionary reproduction: both eating and sex. It is no accident that we recognise that the warm involuted whorls of the shankha reflect the human birth passage. The reproductive processes of all species are implicated and reflected in our own, including the lowly molluscs. For the shankha, the visual and tactile tension between the smooth internal surface and shape and the mucous slippery salt muscle highlight the strange sensuality of the animal. The creative generation of life on Earth endlessly recycles the available constituents on the planet, from the elements to the forms.
More than five hundred million years ago we shared a common ancestor with marine molluscs: our bodies are composed of the same elements, we come from the same ancient World Ocean. With cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish and squid: also in the large family of molluscs) we share much more. Vertebrates including humans have a camera eye, and so do cephalopods, an example of convergent evolution. Cephalopods also have seriously big neural systems, although structured very differently to human brains, and there has been much recent research on cephalopod intelligence. Humans do not just share the building blocks of our bodies, but the patterns of composition of those building blocks. We share this kinship with shankha and everything else living on the planet, as well as innumerable now extinct species, and they share that kinship with us.
Once sanctified in the Vedic antecedents of Hinduism and Buddhism, as war conch, medicine and ritual instrument, there has likely always been a difference between the divers, who enter the living world of the shankha, see what it sees, feel what it feels, and ingest its body into their own; and the end users of the shankha in its religious form. For shankha divers there are tactile engagements with the living animal in its underwater world, they earn their connection through skill, effort, knowledge. For people who purchase shankha as an emblem of luck, prosperity and peace, the shining shell functions as a mnemonic, a reminder in their daily lives to transcend the mundane. For the ordained users of shanka in Buddhist and Hindu ritual, they put the polished shell to their mouths and see its shining form as an embodiment of the sacred.
I have now one shankha direct from the sea, with the remnants of the soft brown periostracum still encrusting the hard shell; and one refined and polished shankha, with the apex of the initial whorl removed to create a mouthpiece. Hold either shell to your ear and the muted sound of the sea is clear, amplifying the pulse of salt blood through your body. Blow the polished shankha, and the deep sonorous om, the primordial sound of the universe, reverberates through the air.
I am grateful to Asialink Arts for a grant that enabled both fieldwork and writing time in a mobile residency with EarthCoLab in India and Sri Lanka, and to all the friends, colleagues and acquaintances who enabled this work.