Musical Shell Game: Yoga Poses and Musical Instruments

And now for something completely different: yoga poses and musical instruments.

During a weekend intensive at Adeline Yoga in Berkeley last May, our teacher Heather Haxo-Phillips was taking us through some arm asanas and ended up at gomukhasana, also known as the cow-face pose (photos and background at Yoga Journal and Wikipedia). Heather mentioned that there is a musical instrument that had a similar name — gomoku, or something like that — but didn’t know what it looked like.

For some reason, I needed to find out more about this mysterious instrument, and ideally find a photo or two.

Gaumukh Glacier from Wikimedia Commons
The Gomukh glacier (Wikimedia Commons)

A search of the internet was problematic, mainly because there is a very famous glacier in India called Gomukh (also spelled Gaumokh and Gomukhi) that is the source of the Bhagirathi River, but also because of variations in spelling. (And, alas, I didn’t spend enough time in Google Books, which has a number of old books in its collection that cover this subject, as I show below.)

My next destination was the Berkeley Public Library, where I stumped the reference librarian in the art and music department — as well as the library’s paper and electronic collections — with my questions.

The last physical place I searched was the UC Berkeley Music Library, where I found a few books on the musical instruments of India that referenced the instrument in text, but none of which had a straightforward photo of the instrument with a caption.

A book from the 19th century, “Art-manufactures of India: Specially Compiled for the Glasgow International Exhibition, 1888” by T.N. Mukharji (archived at Google Books and in UC Berkeley’s collection) has a short definition of the gomukha:

Gomukha – another kind of conch, somewhat resembling the mouth of the cow, whence it derives its name.

Conch shell drawing _28PSF29-from-Wikimedia-Commons
Conch shell (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the books I found, Musical Instruments, by Bigamudre Chaitanya Deva (National Book Trust, 1977, UC Berkeley record) has a more detailed commentary about shells as musical instruments and a note about how one converts a shell into a trumpet:

The shell trumpet is also an extremely primitive, signalling and musical tool found in almost the entire world and in the most ancient civilizations like those of Assyria, Mexico, Peru, China and India. With us, the sankh or conch shell as a musical instrument is known in the entire subcontinent, from Kanyakumari to the Himalayas and from Gujarat to Meghalaya. While it is not of any consequence as a sophisticate sushira vadya, it was used in war as a heraldic instrument and now-a-days in puja, folk music and dance. It always was a member of the pancha mahasabha and now has a prominent place in the pancha vadya. Historically the oldest evidence is from the Harappan civilizations, though one cannot be sure whether the conch found in the remains was a musical instrument at all. Vedic references to the bakura which was a conch is another pointer to the antiquity of the shell trumpet. Sootra literature also has the gomukha which might have been either a conch or some other form of bugle. Considering the fact that the sankh was pre-eminently suitable for outdoor purposes, it is no wonder that the epics and later literature which deal with the lives and struggles of royal dynasties contain profuse references to it. When wars were declared or their victories were announced and when happy occasions were celebrated, the conch was sounded as it was considered an auspicious instrument….The simplest way of converting a natural shell into a trumpet is to cut off the closed end thus creating an access into the spiral chamber within; sometimes a hole is bored at the side near the closed tip. In both cases the player blows directly into the conch. However, mouthpieces are often attached and these may be small brass discs or tubes of varying lengths.

The Wikipedia page on conches as musical instruments shows a modified conch being used by a Hindu priest. According to the entry, Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien includes an Indian conch trumpet.

I’m somewhat satisfied with the answers I found, but I’m still unable to answer quite a few questions, like “Which particular kinds of conches are used to make a gomukha?” or “Is gomukha simply a regional name for the instrument, not a distinctive kind of instrument?” or “Is the priest on the Wikipedia page playing a gomukha?” or “How is a gomukha different from a shankha (also spelled shankh and sankha)?” (The shankha is very important instrument, as it is one of the main attributes of the Hindu deity Vishnu, with images and sculptures always showing one held in the upper left hand.)

Oh well, that’s how research goes sometimes. I won’t get bent out of shape about it, except, of course, when twisting myself into gomukhasana.

Photo of Gaumukh glacier from Wikimedia Commons, subject to a Creative Commons License. Drawing of a conch from Wikimedia Commons, released into the public domain by its creator, Pearson Scott Foresman.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.