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The Churning of the Ocean of Milk

by Michael Buckley
(excerpted from the Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook by Moon Publications).

Every culture has its legends of the origin of the species. The Hindu creation myth Churning the Sea of Milk is shown in the bas-relief panel at the East gallery (panel 4) of Angkor Wat. In Hindu mythology, 13 precious things including the elixir of immortality were lost in the churning of the cosmic sea. Finding them again required a joint dredging operation between gods and demons. Assisting in this endeavor was the giant serpent Vasuki, who offered himself as a rope to enable twirling of a "churning stick." The serpent was yanked back and forth in a giant tug-of-war that lasted for a thousand years.

Churning the Sea of Milk bas relief Angkor Wat Cambodia

In the bas-relief panel, the front end of the serpent is being pulled by 91 surly-looking asuras (demons), anchored by the 21-headed demon king Ravana; on the right are 88 almond-eyed devas (gods) pulling on the tail, anchored by monkey-god Hanuman. The central pivot, or churning stick, is a complicated piece of imagery. Vasuki has wrapped himself around Mount Mandara, represented by a tower. At one point Mount Mandara started to sink, and had to be propped up by a giant tortoise, an incarnation of Vishnu. The Sea of Milk, or the Ocean of Immortality, is represented by innumerable fish and aquatic creatures, torn to shreds as they swim close to powerful air currents near the churning stick.

Directing operations at the center is the large four-armed figure of Vishnu (above), closely associated with Angkor Wat's builder, Suryavarman II. The smaller figure above Vishnu is Indra, god of the sky. The actions of the gods and demons cause Vasuki to rotate the tower-mountain and churn the sea into foam, like a giant cosmic blender. This releases a seminal fluid that creates a divine ambrosia, amrita, the essence of life and immortality. Many other treasures are also flung up. Born of this action are apsaras, or celestial dancers, a purely Khmer innovation. The seductive apsaras promise a joyful existence for those who attain the ultimate incarnation; it is assumed that higher incarnations will be male in form.

Churning the Ocean of Milk relief at Angkor
courtesy SnapshotAsia

According to Angkorologist Eleanor Mannikka, who has been studying the place since 1985, the bas-relief has a practical function in marking the number of days between the winter and summer solstices. Mannikka maintains that the 91 asuras mark the 91 days between the winter solstice and spring equinox in March, while the 88 devas represent the 88 days to the summer solstice after the equinox period. Mannikka says this is just one of the hidden cosmological meanings coded at Angkor Wat, and that the temple is remarkably attuned to the movement of the sun and moon.

Michael Buckley is author of the newly-published Heartlands. He has also written the Tibet Travel Adventure Guide, Moon's Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos Travel Handbook, Cycling to Xian , Tibet, and has guided VeloAsia tours in Sumatra and Vietnam.

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