Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Churning

The Churning scene at Preah Vihear
I will post photos from my recent visit to Preah Vihear temple soon enough. In the meantime, this picture of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at the temple, reminded me of a note that author and Angkor expert Dawn Rooney sent me a while ago when we were discussing this particular narrative scene.

Rooney recalls: The myth of The Churning of the Ocean of Milk centres on two teams who are churning the ocean of milk in an effort to produce an elixir of immortality. The pivot, Mount Mandara, is in the centre of the scene with eighty-eight gods standing in a row on one side and ninety-two demons on the other side. They hold the huge, scaly body of a mighty serpent twisted like a rope. After 1,000 years of churning the mountain begins to sink creating many obstacles. Vishnu, reincarnated as a tortoise, comes to the rescue and supports the mountain on the back of his shell. Reinforced, the churning starts again, and, finally, after another 1,000 years the elixir bursts forth along with other treasures such as a three-headed elephant (Airavata), a goddess (Laksmi) , the moon god (Chanda), a milky-white horse, the cow of plenty, the conch of victory, and the beautiful apsaras or celestial nymphs. When the late William Willetts saw the churning scene he described them as ‘a bevy of capering apsaras [that] burst like champagne bubbles’.


The scene represented on the 4th Gopura at Preah Vihear is one of the temple's masterpieces. Mount Mandara is shown as a rather slender pole, around which Vishnu has entwined himself. A homely touch is the pot at the base, which represents the cosmic sea itself. Vishnu is also present as a turtle to prevent the pivot from boring into the ground as the gods and demons on either side (almost indistinquishable from each other) pull alternately on the body of the naga. Other gods and characters are present: Brahma above the pole with the sun and the moon on either side, Indra on his elephant at the far right, Lakshmi appearing behind the pot on its right side, Shiva's emaciated disciple Bringin on the far left, and next to him the garuda who tries to steal the elixir produced by the churning.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andy, like you, I'm fascinated by the epic of the churning of the sea of milk also. This scene in its own right is what contributed to the importance of the preah vihear temple as a world heritage site, although the one at Angkor Wat is the masterpiece of them all. Anyway, I believe the story of the churning of the sea of milk was mostly like a khmer riddle that tells about the creation and the destruction of mankind and its civilzation on this planet. It has a profound religious meaning as you mentioned. It's also interesting that you mentioned the garuda in the scene. Did you know that Thailand adopted the garuda as their national symbol from Cambodia's Khmer's mythology like this churning of the sea of milk. It's interesting that you pointed out that the garuda just waiting to steal the elixir from this churning. Stealing, that's exactly what Thailand (siem) did to Khmer culture, civilization, lands, etc.; they just steal from the best which was the Khmer Angkor Civilization. Stealing in this case means literally both physical stealing and adoptation of the Khmer way as historical have shown since the fall of the great Khmer empire and power. Anyway, it's interesting nevertheless that you mentioned the garuda. Thanks Andy.

April 15, 2009 at 12:59 AM  
OpenID rajamala said...

Hi Andy

Nice blog. I would just like to add som more information.

Hindus believe that Elephant God Vinayaka should be first invoked and prayed before starting anything new. The asuras and the devas did not do so in this case and hence faced many hurdles. When they realise this they hurriedly made an idol of Vinayak using the froth from the ocean. This idol is now believed to be in the temple at Thiruvalanchuzhi near Kumbakonam. follow this link for details on the temple http://rajamala.wordpress.com/2010/02/20/thiruvalanchuzhi-vellai-pillayar/

I have also written about a lot of other temples in that region. Please do visit my site and offer your comments.

October 7, 2010 at 2:16 PM  

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