Conch shells

Last update: February 22, 2021



A shell of the class of gastropods or its facsimile in which one blows is called conch. It is one of the attributes of the god Viṣṇu (photos 1ab, 3ab).

On the bas-reliefs of the Bayon and Angkor Wat, the conches are mostly presented in battle scenes, commemorative or fictitious, in the scenes of the Reamker and Mahābhārata, as well as in Brahmanic rituals. The sculpture does not allow us to define the material.

In contemporary India and Nepal, the gastropod Turbinella pyrum is preferentially used, from which the apex is severed; it is used either as a sound tool or as a waving container. Other species of gastropods are also used. 


Concerning the blowing conch, two types of instruments seem to have coexisted,  a marine gastropod decorated or not with a metal frame made of copper, silver or gold alloy, and a substitute for the shell made of terra cotta.

On the martial bas-reliefs, the conches are played solo or in duet. They remain used in the personal or collective rituals of the Hindus and by the Tibetan Buddhists. The latter use the gastropod Turbinella pyrum and are designated by the Tibetan term dung-dkar (photo 2), literally "white shell". The latter is often engraved and decorated with a metallic wing inlaid with gemstones.

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

In Angkorian iconography, the position of the figures blowing in the conches varies: from the front blowing down (4), from the profile blowing down or up (6), from the back with the head tilted backwards blowing up (5,7). In Angkor Wat, when two conch players operate side by side, one blows downwards and the other blows upwards, except in the scenes of the Historic Parade or the Reamker monkeys. The entire sound space is thus occupied. Recall that among the Khmer people, there are ten directions: the four cardinal points, the four inter-cardinal ones, the top and the bottom. As for the cheeks of the musicians, they show a real prominence under the action of the air accumulated in the oral 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.