Name of the ritual
Conch shell is known as Shankha in Sanskrit. It is one of the important instruments (Puja Upakarana) included in the worship of deities. In India a conch is blown in the temples or home sanctum during worship.
When it is performed
Normally conch is blown during worship as an auspicious act. During regular as well as all the major worships the conch is worshipped and then blown. It is said in Varaha Purana that before opening the door of the sanctum priest should make the sound of conch shell. This is for informing the deity about opening of the door. Bruhannaradiya Purana says, the one who blows conch shell in the temple becomes free from all types of sin. Hence, as an auspicious act conch shell is blown in the temple.
How it is performed
The conch is worshipped during worship called Shodashopachara, worship by sixteen measures.
साधारं शङ्खमपि च संपूज्य कुसुमादिभिः । निःक्षिपेदस्रवर्णाभ्यां शोधितं तत्र सज्जलम् ॥ (Shiva P. 6.18.19)
Sadharam shankhamapi cha sampujya kusumadibhih nihkshipedasravarnabhyam shodhitam tatra sajjalam
(The conch should be rested on a support and flower, etc are to be offered to it. In it pure water after getting it strained should be put, conch is to be covered with protective measures.)
Gandha and flowers should be offered to conch shell. Normally water is stored in the hollow part of the conch shell. After worship of conch, a person who performs worship sprinkles that water on all the material kept for worship and on himself. Then conch shell is blown as an auspicious act.
दक्षिणावर्तशङ्खेन कृत्वा चैव करे जलम् । शिरसा तद् गृहीत्वा तु विप्रो हृष्टमना शुचिः । तस्य जन्मकृतं पापं तत्क्षणादेव नश्यति ॥
(Varaha P. 211.23)
Shirasa tad gruhitva tu vipro hrushtamana shuchih tasya janmakrutam papam tatkshanadeva nashyati
(If person takes water from a conch having an opening on right, then pours it on his head all the sins committed in life gets destroyed.)
Following verse should be recited during the sprinkling act,
पाञ्चजन्याय विद्महे पावमानाय धीमहि । तं नः शङ्खः प्रचोदयात् ॥
Panchajanyaya vidmahe pavamanaya dhimahi tm nah shankhah prachodayat
At some places following verse is narrated which gives the information of the origin of conch shell.
शङ्खादौ चन्द्रदैवत्यं कुक्षौ वरुणदेवता । पृष्ठे प्रजापतिश्चैव अग्रे गङ्गा सरस्वती ॥ त्वं पुरा सागरोत्पन्ना विष्णुना विधुतः करे । अग्रतः सर्वदेवानां पाञ्चजन्य नमोस्तुते ॥
Shankhadou chandradaivatyam kukshou varunadevata prushthe prajapatishchaiva agre ganga saraswati tvam pura sagarotpanna vishnuna vidhutah kare agratah sarvadevanam panchajanya namostute
(Moon dwells at the base of conch shell, Varuna in the Kukshi, Prajapati on the back of the conch and Ganga – Saraswati at the mouth. O Panchajanya, you arose from the ocean and lord Vishnu has held you in his hand. You are ahead among the gods, hence I salute you.)
The Conch is used during the worship of all gods and goddesses, except Shiva and Surya.
Origin of the conch according to scriptures
A Conch named Panchajanya arose from ocean during the performance of Samudramanthana, the churning of the great ocean.
लक्ष्मी कौस्तुभपारिजातकसुरा धन्वन्तरिश्चन्द्रमाः । गावः कामदुधाः सुरेश्वरगजो रम्भादिदेवाङ्गना ॥ अश्वः सप्तमुखो विषं हरिधनुः शङ्खोऽमृतं चाम्बुधः । रत्नानीह चतुर्द्श प्रतिदिनं कुर्वन्तु वो मङ्गलम् ॥
Lakshmi koustubhaparijatakasura dhanvantarishchandrama gavah kamadudhah sureshwaragajo rambhadidevangana ashwah saptamukho visham haridhanuh shankhomrutam chambudhah ratnaniha chaturdasha pratidinam kurvantu vo mangalam
When it arose, lord Vishnu took it and accepted it. Hence he received an epithet Shankhadhari, the one who holds a conch.
Another story from Devi Bhagvata says, there was a demon namely Shankhachuda who had Gandharva marriage with tulasi (plant). Then he attacked the heaven. It was very difficult for gods to defeat him as his wife was a strong Pativrata. She was praying hard for his long life. Then Vishnu, appearing in the form of Shankhchuda destroyed her pativratya and finally killed that demon. His bones converted into the conch shells.
अस्थिभिः शङ्खचूडस्य शङ्खजातिर्बभूव ह । नानाप्रकाररूपा च श्रेष्ठा पूता सुरार्चने ॥ (Brahmavaivarta P. 20.26)
Asthibhih shankhachudasya shankhajatirbhababhuva ha nanaprakararupa cha shreshtha puta surarchane
Knowing the truth Tulasi cursed Vishnu that ‘he will become a stone’. Then Vishnu replied, ‘I will become a stone and your husband will be worshiped during my worship’. Hence Shaligram stone is considered as a form of Vishnu and scriptures suggest offering the tulasi leaf to the conch during worship.
Why it is performed
In Shathapatha Brahmana, it is mentioned that ‘evil should be driven out by making good quality sound. This good quality sound is that of a bell or a conch. The sound of a conch is believed to be auspicious in the scriptures. Mainly the sound of auspicious instruments such as conch or metal bell is made during worship to remove the bad vibrations in the atmosphere.
The sound of conch makes the atmosphere auspicious hence it is blown during worship. Also conch has importance in Hinduism due to its acceptance by lord Vishnu. Scientifically the sound of conch creates positivity in the air which leads to good things.
आलोकनेन द्रव्याणि शुद्धिं यान्ति न संशयः । (Garuda P. 1.48.23)
Alokanena dravyani shuddhim yanti na samshayah
By the gaze at the conch a person becomes pure.
सौवर्णे राजते वा ताम्रे वा शङ्ख एव वा । (Skanda P. 6. 18.19)
Souvarne rajate va tamre va shankha eva va
Oblation or offering should be offered in a container made up of gold, silver, copper or in conch.
शालग्रामं च तुलसीं शङ्खमेकत्र एव च । यो रक्षति महाज्ञानी स भवेच्छ्रीहरिप्रियः ॥ (Brahmavaivarta P. 21.97)
Shalagramam cha tulasim shankhamekatra eva cha
yo rakshati mahadyani sa bhavechchriharipriya
The wise person who protects Shaligram stone, tulasi plant and conch shell together, he becomes beloved of Hari.
शङ्खशब्दो भवेद्यत्र तत्र लक्ष्मीश्च सुस्थिरा । सुस्नातः सर्वतीर्थेषु यस्नातः शङ्खवारिणः ॥ (Brahmavaivarta P. 20.28)
Shankhashbdo bhavedyatra tatra lakshmishcha susthira susnatah sarvatirtheshu yasnatah shankhavarinah
The sound of conch is conductive to gaining wealth and the one who takes bath with the water from conch earns the merit of taking bath at all holy places.
स्त्रीणां च शङ्खध्वनीभिः शूद्राणां च विशेषतः । भिता रुष्टा याति लक्ष्मीः स्थलमन्यत्स्थलात्ततः ॥
(Brahmavaivarta P. 21.30)
Strinam cha shankhadhvanibhih shudranam cha visheshatah bhita rushta yati lakshmih sthalamanyatsthalattatah
The sound of conch should not be made by woman or Shudra, the goddess Lakshmi being anxious and enraged moves to another place.
Other related information
Conches were also used by kings to issue some order. Normally it was blown during the wars to inform the enemy. During Mahabharata war all the leading warriors blew their personal conch shells to begin the war.
पाञ्चजन्यं हृषीकेषो देवदत्तं धनञ्जयः । पौण्ड्रं दध्मौ महाशङ्खं भीमकर्मा वृकोदरः ॥ अनन्तविजयं राजा कुन्तीपुत्रो युधिष्ठिरः । नकुलः सहदेवश्व सुघोषमणिपुष्पकौ ॥
Panchajanyam hrushikesho devadattam dhananjayah poundram dadhmou mahashankham bhimakarma vrukodarah anantavijayam raja kuntiputro yudhishthirah nakulah sahadevashcha sughoshamanipushpakou.
(Shri Krishna blew Panchajanya conch and Arjuna Devadatta. Poundra conch was blown by Bhima, Anantavijaya by Yudhishthira, Sughosha by Nakula and Manipushpaka by Sahadeva.)
How to select a good conch shell
Traditionally conch shell is included as a jewel. As sea is the best source of conch shells, coastal regions are famous for shell activity and sale. Famous centers are Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. Rameshwara is famous for the quality of conch shell.
Pure white or yellowish white coloured shell is considered as the best conch shell. Again narrow mouth, bulbous body, oily and glossy texture are other criteria for choosing quality conch shell. Mainly conch shells are of two types; Vamavarta and Dakshinavarta. This is decided on the basis of point and lines on the body of conch shell curved to right or left. Dakshinavarta conch shells are very rare and auspicious.
शङ्खश्च दक्षिणार्वतः लक्ष्मीनारायणात्मकः । (Skanda P. 6.255.26)
Shankhashcha dakshinavartah lakshminarayanatmakah
The conch shell having a curve to the right represents Lakshmi and Narayana.
Hollow conches give a sound like waves. The good and continuous sound is normally given as the criteria for a good conch shell.