Śaṇkha or śamkha in Sanskrit means śāmyati aśubham asmād iti (that which pacifies).
Therefore, Śankha drives away evil forces and brings luck. Being an extremely pure object, Śankha is highly extolled in the scriptures.
There are several classifications of Śankha. The popular classification in based on its spiral:
- Vāmāvarta (spiraled from the left)
- Dakṣināvarta (spiraled from the right)
The dakṣināvarta (வலம்புரிச் சங்கு) is considered extremely auspicious.
Conches are held so sacred that they are never placed on the floor but always on a special stand meant for it.
Śankha of the superior quality is found from the river Tāmraparni, the ordinary from the river Ganga, and the lower qualities from the river Narmadā.
White Śankha are regarded as the best for use in worship.
The sound of conch is conducive to gaining wealth and one who takes bath with the water from conch earns the merit of taking bath at all holy rivers. (Brahmavaivarta Purana 20.28)
According to Skanda Purana:
“Ghosts, demons, witches, snakes, and cannibals do not trouble him. Seeing the Lord’s conch shell water on his head, they flee in the ten directions.”
“Nothing inauspicious will happen in the home of a Vaiṣnava who circles conch shell-water over Lord Hari’s head and then sprinkles it in the temple.”
The Varaha Purana tells that bathing with the Śankha frees one from sin.
By the gaze at the conch a person becomes pure according to the Garuda Purana (1.48.23).
The Origin of Śankha
According to Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa, Prakrtikhanda chapter 18, the Śankha was produced from the bones of the demon Śankha cūḍa after he was killed by Śiva.
During the episode of Samudra Manthana, the conch emerged from the ocean of milk when it was churned by the Gods and demons for the sake of the Amṛta. It was adored by all the Gods and received by Maha Viṣṇu. The conch Panchajanya is said to be a divinity in its own right. Maha Viṣṇu himself is said to be represented in conch.
Use of Śankha in ritual worship
Śankha s are used in ritual worship for Maha Viṣṇu, Siva, Shakti,Vinayaka, and Lord Muruga.
The Śankha itself is considered as an object worthy of worship. The conch is worshiped before the worship for the Mūrti begins and also after the worship is over.
The Śiva Purana prescribe that a conch must be kept on a stand and worshiped with flowers. After filling it with water and used the water for worship, the conch must be covered with protective measures. (Śiva Purana, 6.18.19).
Water kept in Śankha is considered as holy.
The water for Abhisekam is usually kept in and poured through the Śankha.
Water is also poured through the Śankha to sanctify the articles of worship as well as the worshipper himself.
A Śankha is also used to blow and thus make a sound which is auspicious to hear.
According to Kamika Agama, Purva Pada, Sankha is also blown during the consecration of a temple:
With the reverberating sounds of conch and great drum (dundubhi), with musical renderings and dances, with the loud hailing sounds (like, ‘haro haro hara’). With the multitudes of devotees of various sects, with the full array of parasols, flags, canopies, incense holders and lamp holders, with the gentle flow of consecrated water streaming from the vardhani kalasa and with the abundant and auspicious display of the germinated seeds, the appointed priests should lift the kalasas from the alter, hold them carefully on their heads and come around the temple in procession, circumambulate the main shrine and place them on the raised alter (sthandila) arranged in front of the pedestal.
Śankha Mudrā is one of the nineteen mudrās used in the ritual worship for Viṣnu. It is formed as follow:
The left-thumb is caught within the right fist (with the four fingers encircling it), the right thumb is held upright, and the four fingers of the left hand are spread upward to cover the back of the right hand.
Conches are blown in ritual worship during Ganga Arati, Varanasi.
A ritual worship according to Tantra where conch is used can be viewed here.