Preah Vihear
Preah Vihear

The Churning of the Sea of Milk

Angkor Wat: Kurma
Angkor Wat: Kurma
Bayon: Vishnu, Amrita, Naga
Bayon: Vishnu, Amrita, Naga
Angkor Wat: Tail of the Naga, Monkey king
Angkor Wat: Tail of the Naga, Monkey king

Angkor Wat: Heads of the Naga, Demon king
Angkor Wat: Heads of the Naga, Demon king

The myth

The myth of the Churning was very popular in the Angkor era. It is depicted at temples in Angkor and all over Cambodia.

At the beginning of the world, the gods (devas) and demons (asuras) were engaged in a thousand year battle to secure amrita, an elixir that would render them immortal and incorruptible. After some time, when they became tired and still had not achieved their goal, they asked the help of Vishnu. He appeared and ordered to work together, not against each other. Working together, they then commenced the churning of the Ocean of Milk by using Mount Mandara as the pivot and the five-headed naga Vasuki as the rope.

However, the mountain suddenly began to sink. Vishnu incarnated as the tortoise Kurma to support the pivoting mountain on his back. Many gods also assisted, including Indra, by keeping the pivot in position. The spinning of Mount Mandara created such a violent whirlpool that the that the creatures and fish around it were torn to pieces,

The Ocean of Milk was churned another thousand years before producing the much-desired elixir and other treasures, amongst which are the goddess Lakshmi (Sri Devi) [the spouse of Vishnu] , the elephant Airavata, the horse Ucchaihsravas, a whishing tree (Parijata), and the apsara.

The naga Vasuki vomited floods of black venom due to his mishandling by teh devas and asuras during the churning. This would have been enough to poison everybody had it not been for Shiva, who drank it all; as a result, his mouth remaining stained forever with a black line.
(Bhagavata Purana, by Roveda 2003, p. 49.)

The relief in Angkor Wat

Taking the south wing of the east lower gallery, it is 48.45 m long.

In the centre is Vishnu with four arms in front of the – unfinished – Mount Mandara. On top of him is a small figure, probably Indra. Below the Mount Mandara is Kurma, wearing a small crown.

In the main register demons, to the south, and gods, to the north, are pulling the giant naga Vasuki. Each crew is sectioned by three bigger figures.

In the lower register are fishes and other creatures of the water, to the centre they are more and more cut into pieces by the power of the rotation.

In the upper register a cloud of Apsara is soaring to the sky.

At the south end is the most impressive figure: a demon king is heroically holding out next to the menacing heads of the excited naga. Below this are another naga's heads, quite relaxed. By a version of the myth this is an incarnation of the naga Vasuki, supporting Kurma.

The monkey god at the tail (probably Sugriva, not Hanuman) is more comfortable, he can be merry.

The calendar

[At the birth of Brahma and at the Churning] we are dealing with the quintessence of the myth of Creation.
(Roveda 2003, p. 53.)

In the tropics the sun is shuttling between south, at the winter solstice (21 December), and north, at the summer solstice (21 June). The centre with Mount Mandara corresponds with the equinox (21 March and 21 September). The number of gods and demons in the picture tallies with the number of days of a half-year. Gods and demons are divided into six groups, corresponding with the six months between the solstices.

The rhythmic of the churning symbolizes the course of the sun.

Other reliefs depicting the Churning

The Churning is also presented at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.

Photo album

External Links


  • Mannikka.
  • Roveda 2003, p. 49-53.