Elixir of Immortality

Churning the Ocean of Milk for the Elixir of Immortality.  The artists and designers of 12th century Angkor loved the story of how the Devas, aided by their perennial rivals the Asuras, achieved immortality by churning the Ocean of Milk so as to dredge up the elixir of immortality called Amrita.  The story is illustrated in grand style in a bas relief at Angkor Wat and the so-called “naga bridges” of Angkor Thom and Preah Khan.  Lesser depictions may be found in the bas-reliefs of other Angkorian temples, including the Bayon.

The Story of the Churning in Hindu Mythology

The Devas (gods) and Asuras (a morally ambiguous divine race sometimes characterized as gods and sometimes as demons, who competed with the Devas for cosmic hegemony) had learned that Amrita, an elixir which conferred immortality upon those who drank from it, lay hidden somewhere at the bottom of the legendary Ocean of Milk.  Desirous of immortality, the rival divinities temporarily put aside their differences and cooperated in setting up a dredging operation in order to recover the elixir.  They wrapped Vasuki, the king of the serpents, around Mandara, a mountain positioned next to the ocean.  The Asuras grabbed Vasuki by the head while the Devas seized him by the tail.  Using the mountain as a churning staff and the serpent as a cord, they set to churning the waters of the ocean.  While the Devas rested, the Asuras would pull on Vasuki’s head, causing the mountain to rotate in one direction.  Then, while the Asuras rested, the Devas would pull on the serpent’s tail, causing the mountain to rotate in the other direction.  And so on.  The combined efforts of the rival divinities greatly stirred up the ocean depths, killing many marine creatures and releasing any number of treasures and wondrous beings, including the Apsaras, or divine dancing maidens.  Finally, after 1000 years of churning, Amrita itself bubbled to the surface.  Predictably, the tenuous alliance between Devas and Asuras disintegrated at its sight, and they set to fighting greedily for the prize.  Recurring to both subterfuge and might, the Devas prevailed in the struggle and drank the elixir, thus reserving to themselves the decisive advantage of immortality.  Henceforth, the Devas ruled the cosmos alone, while the Asuras found themselves compelled to flee into the bowels of the earth and the depths of the ocean.

Literary Sources for the Story of the Churning

Hindu literature contains several versions of the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.  Here are links to versions of the story available in English translation at sacred-texts.com: 

The Story of the Churning as a Symbol in Khmer Art of the 12th Century

Devas and Asuras as “us” and “them.”  The mythological relationship of the Devas (good, victorious) and the Asuras (bad, defeated) has been used by nations of history and literature to conceptualize their relationships with rival or enemy nations.  The Devas stand for “us;” the Asuras stand for “them.”  In the Mahabharata, for example, the ultimately victorious Pandavas are frequently identified with the Devas, while the doomed Kauravas are connected with the Asuras.  Similarly, it has been speculated that the medieval Khmer used the theme of the struggle between Devas and Asuras to conceptualize their own relationship with the Cham people of what is now southern Vietnam, with the Khmer corresponding to the Devas, and the Cham corresponding to the Asuras.  The hypothesis is supported by the observation that the major Angkorian depictions of the churning were created in the 12th century A.D., a period of regional rivalry and intermittent warfare between the Khmer and the Cham.  Thus, in 1145 A.D. the Khmer king Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, invaded Champa and conquered the Cham capital of Vijaya.  The bas relief depicting the Churning is one of the most striking bas reliefs at Angkor Wat.  In 1177 A.D., Cham troops sacked the Angkorian capital of Yasodharapura.  In the 1180’s and 1190’s, finally, the Khmer king Jayavarman VII launched several successful campaigns against Champa and its capital of Vijaya.  Jayavarman VII constructed Angkor Thom as his grand capital, and placed naga bridges representing the Churning at each of the entrances.

The hypothesis that 12th century Angkorian sculptors used the story of the Churning to symbolize the relationship of Angkor with Champa is supported also by the fact that the figure of Ravana figures importantly in Angkorian depictions of the Churning.  (See the photos below, as well as the page about Demons on this website.)  The literary sources for the story of the Churning make no mention at all of Ravana.  At Angkor, however, he is introduced into the story as a boss or hero anchoring the line of Asuras as they pull on Vasuki’s body.  An inscription from the period identifies Ravana with Jaya Indravarman IV, the King of Champa who ordered the invasions of Cambodia in the 1170’s.  As translated by Angkor scholar George Coedes the inscription reads, “Jaya Indravarman, the king of the Chams, presumptuous as Ravana, transporting his army in chariots, went to fight the country of Kambu [i.e., Cambodia], like to heaven.”  The inscription’s symbolic identification of Jaya Indravarman with Ravana, coupled with the unprecedented inclusion of Ravana in depictions of the Churning, support the hypothesis that the Angkorian Khmer identified the Devas with themselves and the Asuras with the Cham, and regarded the outcome of the Churning as symbolic of their eventual victory in the war with their neighbors.

Churning the ocean as a symbol for the acquisition of booty through military victory.  In late 12th century Cambodia and Champa, the story of the Churning also became a metaphor for a king’s successful appropriation of booty and riches through warfare.  In the stele (stone pillar with written inscriptions) commemorating the foundation of Ta Prohm in 1186 A.D., the Cambodian conqueror king Jayavarman VII boasted that by the strength of his arms, he had vanquished an enemy king “in this ocean which is battle” and thereby had obtained wondrous items of booty; “like Vishnu” Jayarvarman had “churned the ocean.”  The Cham ruler Jaya Indravarman V, similarly, erected a stele at My Son (now central Vietnam), declaring that he had “churned the ocean, which was the battle, by means of the Mandara mountain, which was his arm,” and that he had made other kings tributary.  In general, then, this metaphor was used by a victorious ruler to compare himself to Vishnu, his military victories to the churning of the ocean, and the booty gained through victory to the wondrous beings revealed by the churning.  The metaphor can be applied to the interpretation of the architectural monuments at Angkor.  The naga bridges, for example, can be seen as representations of Jayavarman VII’s military successes and the wealth which they generated for the Cambodian people.

Related pages on this website:  9 Garuda (including the story of how the divine man-bird stole the elixir of immortality from the Devas in order to free his mother from slavery); 13 Battle of Lanka (the climax of the Ramayana, pitting Rama and his allies the monkeys against a race of demons called Rakshasas); 16 Naga (serpents, including Vasuki, the serpent used as a rope in the Churning, as depicted in Angkorian art); 17 Demons (the two demonic races, Asuras and Rakshasas, as depicted in the temples of Angkor).

A stone gate leads into the medieval Khmer city of Angkor Thom (“Big City”).  The road passes over a “naga” (serpent) bridge lined by statues of Devas and Asuras hauling on Vasuki’s body like sailors hauling on a rope.  The medieval Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan, who visited the city in 1296 A.D., found these figures to be terrifying, and marvelled that one of the five giant heads on the stone gate was covered in gold.

A Cambodian tuktuk driver halts his vehicle on the naga bridge and gestures toward the city gate, as some badly damaged stone Asuras stand by.  The figure on the right has been robbed even of his head, perhaps by looters or heavy weather.  In all, five such bridges spanned the moat separating Angkor Thom, the city founded by King Jayavarman VII following his coronation in 1181 A.D., from the surrounding countryside.

On one side of the bridge, heavily muscled Asuras, frowning slightly and sporting an elaborate chignon hairstyle known as a jatamukuta, are depicted hauling on Vasuki’s head and upper body.  In his travel memoires, Zhou Daguan commented that it seemed as though the serpent were trying to escape from the grasp of the giants.  The literary sources for the story of the churning, however, suggest that Vasuki was a willing participant.

On the other side of the bridge, smiling gracefully and wearing ornate hatlike headgear known as a kiritamukuta, the Devas are shown hauling on Vasuki’s tail and lower body.  Though they are working hard, these Devas seem oddly pleased and relaxed, as if they already knew the outcome of their impending conflict with the Asuras.

This sour-looking Asura seems to have a premonition that after 1000 years of hard labor he will be cheated out of his promised reward: a swig of the elixir of immortality.  His bulging eyes convey not only that he is upset about what is about to happen, but also, in the iconography of the time, that he is after all a demon.

An imposing giant wearing an especially tall headpiece anchors the team of Asuras on the naga bridge.  This giant may be Ravana, and the tall headpiece may actually be the pile of his ten heads.  The team he anchors forms a type of balustrade on one side of the bridge, separating the road from the moat below. 

At Angkor Wat, Devas led by an unidentified boss are shown hauling on Vasuki’s tail, as apsaras fly overhead.  The headgear of the rank and file matches that of the devas on the naga bridges.  The boss, however, seems to be wearing Asura headgear.  It has been speculated that he is Vibhishana, the Rakshasa (demon) prince who broke ranks with his brethren to support Rama at the Battle of Lanka.

A monkey boss (probably Hanuman) encourages the Devas’ efforts as he holds Vasuki’s tail aloft.  Hanuman is not mentioned in the literary sources for the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk; his presence represents an innovation of the Angkorian artists.  Like Vibhishana, Hanuman is a character from the story of Rama’s assault on the Rakshasa stronghold of Lanka.

Asuras, wearing headdresses that appear like crowns and seem to match those of the Asuras on the naga bridge at Angkor Thom, haul on Vasuki’s head.  With their stable and powerful stance, the Asuras look like the winning team in a tug-of-war, while the Devas, who are pitching forward, look like the losing team.  It is unknown whether the 12th century sculptors intended this irony.

Vishnu, standing on Mount Mandara, supervises the churning.  The Devas are to his right, the Asuras to his left, and apsaras fly overhead.  Some versions of the story lay great emphasis on Vishnu’s contribution.  When Mount Mandara needed a support on which it could rotate as the churning staff, he assumed the form of the turtle Kurma and took the mountain on his back.

An impressive demon boss with a tall headpiece holds onto Vasuki’s several heads.  To the right, Asuras haul on Vasuki’s body, while to the left, an army of Asuras stands at the ready.  It has been speculated that this demon boss is Ravana, the ten-headed king of the Rakshasas, who fought against Rama (and his allies the monkeys and Vibhishana) in the Battle of Lanka.

The army of Asuras, supported by two elephants, stands by in a futile effort to safeguard the Asuras’ interest in the fruits of the churning.  The presence of this army suggests that the Asuras were not taken entirely by surprise when their alliance with the Devas fell apart and the war for cosmic domination began.