Cowrie: From Marine Animal To Terrestrial Marvel

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Item Code: NAE254
Author: Bharti Debi and Anshu prakash Nandan
Publisher: Anthropological Survey of India, Kolktata
Edition: 2003
ISBN: 8185579776
Pages: 35 (Throughout Color & B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch x 10.5 inch
Weight 270 gm
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Book Description

The Anthropological Survey of India has been documenting life and cultures of the people of India in general and tribes in particular through collection of objects of material culture, preparation of documentary films, photographs etc. as one of its primary objectives.

In recent years, the Survey proposes to bring out a series of Coffee-Table Book with a view to bringing into relief the anthropological perspective of the creative and aesthetic excellence of the tribes of India for the benefit of general readers. The present publication Cowrie—From Marine Animal to Terrestrial Marvel is third in the series, the other two publications being Hairstyle—Panorama of the Tribal World and Combs—Tribes in India.

The important role of the cowries in the economic transaction of the people of India in the distant past, is well known. In the cultural sphere this aquatic animal has no less significant place. Importance of the cowries can be seen in their close association with ‘‘magico-religious performance, various rituals in the life cycle, recreation, adornment and in tmcny such other areas. Dr (Mrs) Bharati Debi and Shri A. P. Nandan, authors’ of this small informative and interesting Coffee-Table Book deserve special appreciation for drawing our oention to an aspect which was unattended so far.

Hope, this publication would inspire others to search for documentation of many other such aspects of cultural significance of the people of India.


The creative human mind has made use of many things from nature that comes in his way, be it living or non-living. Porcelain like shell of small gastropods, commonly known as cowrie, is an example in this regard.

Cowries have been unearthed from Palaeolithic and Neolithic remains in different parts of the world, Proto-historic remains of some Mohenjodaro settlements have produced a few cowries but the purpose and use remains undeciphered. In the later ages cowrie was so extensively used by the tribes and castes that its mention in literature, legends, proverbs, rhymes and riddles is common.

Cowrie is the shell of an invertebrate aquatic creature, Zoologists place it under Phyllum Mollusca and Class Gastropoda. Its generic name, Cypraea might have been derived from the Greek goddess Cypraea, associated with love, beauty and charm, It has a number of species like Cypraea moneto, Cypraea annul, Cypraea arabica, Cypraea cicercula, Cypraea to/pa, Cypraea mappa, Cyproea children! and so on. Shallow tropical water throughout the world especially of the Pacific and the Indian Oceans is the habitat of this animal. Its soft body is enveloped within a hard shell of calcium. Many people in Europe, Africa, America, Asia and the Pacific have used cowrie or use it even now in funeral, marriage or circumcision rites, as hunting and fishing amulet, as sacrificial gift to rivers, springs or trees; as ornament or money.

In ancient China, from the end of second millennium B.C. cowrie was used as. currency to purchase cereals, copper vessels, cloth fabric and other commodities for domestic use. Cowrie was used variously in Japan, Formosa, Fiji, Melanesia, Borneo, Balkan, Scandinavia, Syria, Senegal, Cameroon and Egypt. Cowries were made to represent the eyes of some mummies in Egypt.

In India cowrie was used as currency in markets to purchase general commodities perhaps, during Mauryan Period, Fa-hsien, the Chinese traveller states (399-4llA,D.) that the use of cowrie shells as currency was prevalent in India during the Gupta Period along with currency. In British India the use of cowrie as currency was present in many places. The extensive use of cowrie as currency in India made cowrie a synonym and symbol for money.

It is evident from the report of lbn Battuta (1325-1349 AD.) that cowrie was imported from Maldives to the eastern part of India in exchange of rice, cloth and sundries,

Large scale use of cowrie in daily life as well as for ceremonial purposes and entertainment by the tribes of India living in different geophysical surroundings suggests that cowries were traded regularly in the local markets by traders. The traders mainly used waterways both for inland transport and for the purpose of import as well. However, specific information regarding the route through which the cowries reached the tribes of hill region still remains unexplored.

Cowrie is worn for multifarious purposes irrespective of sex. It is mostly used as ornament decorating both body and hair. It is also used for ornamentation of cloth. Some of the cowrie-studded cloths are indicative of the wearer’s social hierarchy or gallantry.

Cowrie is associated with various beliefs, rites and rituals connected with the important events of life cycle like birth, marriage and death.

Cowrie is used while playing games for recreation or gambliçg. It is extensively used in magico-religious practices. It is considered to be associated with fertility and fecundity. Cowrie is burnt to procure lime and is consumed along with tobacco.

This catalogue highlights the importance of cowrie in the Indian context with special reference to the present day tribes in India.


Community and states4
Cowries in ornaments5
Gallantry and aristocracy18
Life cycle20
Magico-religious practices24
Fertility cult28
Play and games29
Utility goods30
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