The conch shell has survived as the original horn trumpet since time immemorial. Ancient Indian epics describe how each hero of mythical warfare carried a mighty white conch shell, which often bore a personal name. Arjuna, the hero of the Mahabharata, carried the mighty conch Devadatta, whose triumphant blast brought terror to the enemy. It is an emblem of power, authority and sovereignty whose sound is believed to banish evil spirits, avert natural disasters, and scare away poisonous creatures.
In Tibetan Buddhism the conch is used to call together religious assemblies and it is seen as symbolizing the Voice of the Buddha and the transmission of Buddhist teachings. During the actual practice of rituals, it is used both as a musical instrument and as a container for holy water.
Tibetan Buddhism, or Lamaism, became popular in China under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), and was especially favored by the early Ming emperors and, in turn, by the Qing emperors Kangxi (1662-1722) and Qianlong (1736-95). The Qing Emperors on the one hand appear to have been genuine devotees of Tibetan Buddhism, but also saw it as a means of controlling some of the more dangerous groups on their western and northern borders.
Most of the military challenges to the Manchus traditionally came from Inner Asia, with the Mongols being particularly troublesome. The Manchus, like the Mongols, converted to Tibetan Buddhism. In 1642 the Mongol leader Gui Khan had made the Fifth Dalai Lama the secular and religious ruler of Tibet. This power was expanded by the Fifth Dalai Lama and his influence became such that he could act as a peacemaker between Mongol tribes and could even order the movements of Mongol armies outside Tibet. The Qing court's relationships with the Mongols and Tibet were therefore inexorably intertwined and remained so even after the Kangxi emperor's assumption of a protectorate over Tibet.
The Qing emperors portrayed themselves as bodhisattva-rulers, reincarnations of Manjusri (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom). In doing so they united the Tibetan view of the ruler as a living incarnation of a god with the Chinese Manjusri cult associated with the sacred mountain Wutaishan in Shanxi province, a key element in creating the image that the Qing emperors wanted to project to the Mongols and Tibetans. The Qianlong Emperor went so far as to have several portraits painted of himself in the form of a Tibetan style thangka. An example now at the Palace Museum Beijing depicts the Emperor in monk's robes and was previously housed in the Puning Monastery in Rehe, modeled after the Samye Monastery in Tibet. Both the Puning Monastery and the painting were commissioned to commemorate the Qing victory over the Western Mongols in Dzungaria in 1755, in order to suggest that the military campaign had a religious purpose. It is significant that amongst the precious objects placed in front of the emperor a white conch shell takes central place. (See illustration).
Conch shells were generally considered auspicious, imbued with special powers, and often presented as prized gifts by distinguished High Lamas and Tibetan emissaries. The elaborate decoration of real conch shells for ritual use appears to have become more prominent in the Qing dynasty, and at the same time, rare examples of the conch form were made in other materials. Under the reign of Emperor Qianlong a variety of ritual implements were produced, often of extraordinary quality and employing unusual materials and techniques. The mount of the present example is of extraordinary workmanship, executed in gilt copper repousse with an intricate design of the Eight Auspicious Symbols amidst lotus scrollwork.
Other Imperial Qianlong examples include a gold mounted conch bearing the Qianlong nianzhi mark, see National Palace Museum, Monarchy and Its Buddhist Way, Tibetan-Buddhist Ritual Implements in the National Palace Museum, 1999, p. 150f., cat. no. 62, known as the Ting-feng-chu ("Wind stabilizing pearl") and considered a talisman to calm the ocean during navel expeditions; and a conch with gilt copper fitting studded with pearls (Monarchy and Its Buddhist Way, p. 152, cat. no. 63). Another closely related example is in the collection of the British Museum, see G. Béguin, ed., Dieux et Démons de l'Himâlaya, 1972, p. 266, cat. no. 335; and a remarkably similar example from the James and Marilyn Alsdorf Collection was sold at Christie's New York, 22 March 2011, lot 118. Both bear similar auspicious designs of the Eight Buddhist Emblems, of which the conch shell is one, symbolizing the Voice of the Buddha and the transmission of Buddhist teachings as noted above. The other Buddhist emblems are the wheel, often called the wheel of Dharma, or the wheel of law, symbolizing knowledge; the lotus flower, which symbolizes purity and enlightenment; the endless knot, symbolizing harmony; the fish, symbolizing both freedom and conjugal harmony; the banner, symbolizing victory in battle; the precious vase, symbolizing great treasure; and the parasol, symbolizing both royalty and protection.
The present example bears the yuzhi mark, indicating that it was made "By Imperial Command".