Sea shells on the sea shore

SHELLING OUT ON SHELLS: N. Nagendran. Photo: G. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: G_Moorthy

When Nagendran was 12 years old, his father Natarajan bought him a seashell from the Chithirai festival fair. “The shape of the shell resembled a Pillayar,” says Nagendran, who little realised then that seashells would become a passion for him. The Associate Professor of History at Vivekananda College, today owns a cupboard-full of sea shells, some 500 varieties of them. They range from just a millimetre in size to those that are more than a foot long. They come in all shapes from round, conical and cylindrical with some resembling the Fibonacci curve! More enticing are the patterns and designs on them – stripes, dots, leheriya-like lines and patterns that look like graffiti. Nagendran’s collection includes terrestrial, freshwater and marine shells.

“Initially, I collected them for their aesthetic value. Later, I developed a scientific interest in them. Now I know their names by heart, classifications and their biological significance,” he says. Names of some of the shells are: Augers, bivalves, bubble shells, cassidae, chiton, cowries, conches, cones, limpets, nautilus, top shells, sun dials, tibia, turrids, tusk shells and whelk.

His serious involvement with shell collection started in the first few visits to the Marina beach. “I used to come back with bags full of the bivalve chippi, which you find in abundance there,” recalls Nagendran. “There were times, when unknowingly I had brought home shells with the snails still alive in them. Most of them were shapeless , and they would stink.” He remembers one time when the college staff room reeked because of a shell he had kept in his bag. “There are certain collectors who collect live shells and preserve them in formalin solution. I am only interested in Conchology (the collection and study of empty seashells),” he says.

Most of Nagendran’s collection comes from Rameshwaram and Kanyakumari areas. He says, that the Indo-Pacific ocean is a rich source of seashells. “Snails thrive in shallow waters alongside the coral reefs. The shallow water around Palk strait in Rameshwaram is rich in coral wealth,” he says. “I also have a few freshwater shells collected from the rivers and ponds in our state.” Apart from the ones that were meticulously collected, Nagendran also procured some rare shells from art-shops in the coastal towns. Some others were gifted to him by friends who visited foreign countries. “This shell is almost two-feet long and weighs more than two-kilos. It’s almost like a Gadhayudham. I bought it for Rs.3000 from a shop in Rameshwaram,” he says, holding it in hand just like the legendary weapon.

Showing over a dozen types of cone-shaped shells, he says, “The cone variety of snails is poisonous. They sting fishes and other marine organisms. One needs to be careful while collecting them.” He recalls, how he was warned by the fishermen at the Kurusadai island about the cone snails. “Seashells form a very important part of the marine ecosystem. They are dependent on the corals built by polyps and they feed on worms in the water,” explains Nagendran. He rues that the diversity and abundance of shells have come down in the past 40 years he has been collecting them “Earlier, one could find a number of shells on the shore at Rameshwaram. Now, you hardly find them. The reefs are said to be under threat.”

“In these areas, people regard marine fossils and shells as symbols of God. There are myths connected with them,” says Nagendran. He cites the Valampuri Sangu used in pujas as an example. “In Dhanushkodi, the operculum part of a shell is referred to the eye of Ravana, as it is prickly,” he informs, “Likewise, Aaku, a kind of shell with a thorny tip is called ‘ Ravanan mullu’. These are examples how culture and religion of a region are woven into nature.” He refers to Sangam Literature, where the scene of fishermen lighting lamps in the chippis is described. “Shells are found a lot in excavations of burial sites. Our ancestors used them as ornaments,” says Nagendran who is also trying to find the Tamil names of the different shells.

There are also a few corals and marine fossils in his collection. One of them was picked up by Nagendran in Ariyalur and the other is from Nepal. “Nearly half-a-dozen shells and their impressions are embedded in these fossils,” notes Nagendran. He shows a long slender shell with a flower-shaped head that was given by a friend. “This is called Watering Pot Shell (Brechites vaginiferus). I picked it up at the Rameshwaram beach. It is reported as rare in its habitats and extinct in many of the places. I only hope we don’t lose any more such beautiful creations.”

In a nut shell:

Seashells are used as conches by cutting a hole in the spire of the shell.

Giant clam shells have been used as bowls and when big enough as a bathtub for kids.

Seashells were often used as a form of currency in the ancient world.

Shells are added in Ayurvedic medicinal formulations to treat diseases.

Seashells are crushed to make lime and used in poultry feed and as soil conditioners in horticulture.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 5:59:00 AM |

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