The Snail Martyrs
108 dried snails on Buddha's Head
Hair is often metaphorically regarded as human being's illusion. Therefore, it is also called "weeds of ignorance" and having a shaved head, symbolically, represents getting rid of those illusions. It is believed that to achieve the level of true understanding and enlightenment, we should keep our body and mind clean. That's why we often see Buddhist monks having a shaved head. Even history suggests that Siddhartha Gautam Buddha had cut his hair when he left his palace to achieve enlightenment.
But when we see Buddha statues and other forms of art, Buddha is portrayed with short and tight ringlet curls. There are around 108 ringlet curls on the Buddha's head. So, one might think why the artists have been portraying Buddha with short ringlets? There are numerous beliefs. One belief suggests that those ringlets are not short hair. They are actually 108 dried snails.
The story of 108 snails on Buddha's head
One day, the Buddha was roaming around. He began to ponder so he sat down under the tree and start to meditate. He became so immersed in his thoughts that he didn't notice the time. As time passed by, the sun rays were directed to his bald head.
At that moment, a snail was making its way along the ground. Snail noticed that the Buddha was meditating on that hot day. Even though he sat under the tree, the sun rays were directed towards his head. Snail thought that the Buddha's head was soon going to become a distraction and it would be hard for him to concentrate. Without a second thought, Snail made its way up to the Buddha's head and sat there, with his mucous body cooling the Buddha's smooth and bare skin. Other snails also followed the first one, went up to the head and sat down there. Snails on the head looked like a neat cap of spiral shells.
Snail's cool and damp bodies helped to maintain the Buddha's meditation continue for hours. The snail became parched and dry due to the heat rays. Later in the evening when Buddha stood from the meditation, he learned that he was wearing a cap of 108 snails, all of whom had given their lives to make a distraction-free environment for Buddha's path to enlightenment.
Since snails had given their lives for the Buddha, they are now honored as martyrs. Hence they are displayed on Buddha statues to remind us of their sacrifice.