Conchs

It is called a shell or its facsimile in which one blows. It is one of the attributes of the god Viṣṇu (photos 1a & 2a). On the bas-reliefs of Bayon and Angkor Wat, the conchs are mostly presented in scenes of battles, commemorative or fictitious, in the Reamker and the Mahābhārata as well as in the rituals. The sculpture doesn't allow to define the material. In contemporary India and Nepal, the gastropod Turbinella pyrum, of which the apex is cut, is preferably used. It is used either as a sound tool or as a ripple container for pouring lustrous water. But other species of gastropods are used too. The representations reveal ornamentations.

Concerning the conch to blow, two types of instruments seem to have cohabited:

  1. A marine gastropod ornamented or not of a metal frame made of copper alloy, silver or gold as it exists in Tibet (3).
  2. A substitute of gastropod made of terracotta.

1a. Viṣṇu holding a senestrogyre conch. On the detail below, we see clearly the beginning of the winding at the level of the apex and its end near the thumb. Prasat Kravan. 921 AD.
1a. Viṣṇu holding a sinister conch. On the detail below, we see clearly the beginning of the winding at the level of the apex and its end near the thumb. Prasat Kravan. 921 AD.
1b. Detail.
1b. Detail.
3. Tibetan conch.
3. Tibetan conch.
2a. Viṣṇu holding a dexter conch. Prasat Kravan. 921 A.D.
2a. Viṣṇu holding a dexter conch. Prasat Kravan. 921 A.D.
2b. Détail.
2b. Détail.

Conch trough iconography

Martial use

On the martial bas-reliefs, the conchs are used in solo or in duet. The latter is still played by Tibetan Buddhists. Their instruments use the gastropod Turbinella pyrum designated by the Tibetan term dung-dkar (3), literally "white shell". It is often engraved and adorned with a metallic wing inlaid with precious stones.

 

The position of the characters blowing into the conchs varies: face downward, profile down or upward, back with head upside down blowing upward. In Angkor Wat, when two conch players operate side by side, one breath down and the other up except the scenes of the Historical Parade or the monkeys of the Reamker. All the sound space is thus invested. As for the cheeks, they show a real prominence under the action of the air accumulated in the buccal cavity.

Conch for martial use blown down. Angkor Wat, Battle of Kurukshetra. 12th c.
4. Conch for martial use blown down. Angkor Wat, Battle of Kurukshetra. 12th c.
Conch for martial use blown upwards. Angkor Wat, Battle of Kurukshetra. 12th c.
5. Conch for martial use blown upwards. Angkor Wat, Battle of Kurukshetra. 12th c.
6. Pair of conchs. Angkor Wat, Historical Parade. 12th c.
6. Pair of conchs. Angkor Wat, Historical Parade. 12th c.
7. This conch for martial use, blown upwards, is one of the most beautiful that it is given to see. Angkor Wat, Combat of Asura and Deva. 12th c.
7. This conch for martial use, blown upwards, is one of the most beautiful that it is given to see. Angkor Wat, Combat of Asura and Deva. 12th c.

Ritual use

Conchs are also use in temples. Two bas-reliefs from Bayon show an officiant blowing into a conch while another strikes a tree with five bells.

The second character from the left blows into a conch while the one behind him hits a bell tree with five bells. Bayon. Exterior gallery south.
The second character from the left blows into a conch while the one behind him hits a bell tree with five bells. Bayon. Exterior south gallery.

Today conch shells are still used at the Royal Court of Cambodia in Phnom Penh by Hindu priests (baku) during important ceremonies. They blow in a pair of Charonia tritonis gastropods called kchong seang in Khmer. Their first windings are covered of silver. Eight of these were seen during the funeral procession of King Norodom Sihanouk in 2012.

Two priests of the Royal Court of Cambodia holding a conch during the holy furrow festival in 2012.
Two priests of the Royal Court of Cambodia holding a conch during the holy furrow festival in 2012.
The left character blows into a conch while the one behind him hits a bell tree with five bells. Bayon. Exterior east gallery.
The left character blows into a conch while the one behind him hits a bell tree with five bells. Bayon. Exterior east gallery.
Conch with dextrous winding.
Conch with dextrous winding.

Conch trough epigraphy

The Old Khmer term designating the conch is similar to the Sanskrit śaṅkha. But this term can refer to four different elements: the conch to be blown, the one to lustral water offering, one of the attributes of Viṣṇu and mother-of-pearl. Śaṅkha is one of the rare words to have passed through times without modification. The inscriptions corroborate iconography: the conch is present both in the temple and on the battlefield. It is frequently cited as material property offered to temples. However, the texts don't specify whether it is conch to blow or to offer lustral water.

Conchs (without precision of their nature) were once objects of great value because of their rarity. There are two variants: one, dexter, most common, the other, sinister, extremely rare for a species normally dexter, around one in a million to give an order of idea. It can then be understood that this type of conch could have reached very hight prices. There is however a gastropod, Busycon contrarium, whose characteristic is to be always sinister. The lapidary inscriptions, however, make no mention of this detail.

In the stele of Prasat Komphus, there is a list of musical instruments, some of which are accompanied by aesthetic characteristics. It is specified in connection with the donation of the seven conchs: "śaṅkha nu kānti" or, according to the translation of G. Coedes: "conchs with kānti". The term kānti remains indeterminate. It could be, as a hypothesis, a metallic frame, as can be seen on certain war shells of the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat (certainly later than this inscription) or as they are on the Tibetan conchs.

Conch in clay. National Museum of Cambodia.
Conch in clay. National Museum of Cambodia.
Conch for lustral water offering in bronze. Private collection.
Conch for lustral water offering in bronze. Private collection.

The Old Khmer term designating the conch is similar to the Sanskrit śaṅkha. But this term can refer to four different elements: the conch to be blown, the one to undulating, the conch attribute of Viṣṇu and mother-of-pearl. Śaṅkha is one of the rare words to have passed through times without modification. The inscriptions corroborate iconography: the conch is present both in the temple and on the battlefield. It is frequently cited as material property offered to temples. However, the texts don't specify whether it is conch to blow or to offer lustral water.

Conchs (without precision of their nature) were once objects of great value because of their rarity. There are two variants: one, dexter, most common, the other, sinister, extremely rare for a species normally dexter, around one in a million to give an order of idea. It can then be understood that this type of conch could have reached very hight prices. There is however a gastropod, Busycon contrarium, whose characteristic is to be always sinister. The lapidary inscriptions, however, make no mention of this important detail.

In another inscription - stele of Prasat Komphus - there is a list of musical instruments, some of which are accompanied by aesthetic characteristics. It is specified in connection with the donation of the seven conchs: "śaṅkha nu kānti" or, according to the translation of G. Coedes: "conchs with kānti". The term kānti remains indeterminate. It could be, as a hypothesis, a metallic frame, as can be seen on certain war shells of the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat (certainly later than this inscription) or as they are on the Tibetan conchs.

Rare sinister shell with a genetic anomaly.
Rare sinister shell with a genetic anomaly.
Dexter gastropod.
Dexter gastropod.