There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk is a story from the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata, though slightly different versions appear in other ancient texts. We first came across it in 2014, and have met representations of it several time since, but it is not, I think, well known in the west.

Indra, the King of the Gods and his elephant Airavata disrespected the sage Durvasa who cursed all the gods making them so weak and feeble they lost control of the universe to the demons.
 
Indra sought help from Vishnu, the Supreme God, who suggested they co-operate with the demons to churn the Ocean of Milk and so release Amrita, the Nectar of Immortality, for their mutual benefit. Vishnu would then see to it that only the gods got to drink the Amrita.

Using Mt Mandara as a churning paddle they wrapped Vasuki the king of the serpents round the mountain and then first the demons pulled on the head, then the gods on the tail, back and forth until the churning was complete. A number of treasures emerged from the Ocean, including Lakshmi who became the wife of Vishnu, and Chandra the moon god. Finally came Dhanvantari, the heavenly physician, holding a pot of Amrita. Vishnu, in the form of the enchanting damsel Mohini distracted the demons while Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu, delivered the Amrita to the gods.

The rest, as they say, is history – or in this case mythology.

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, Feb 2014
 
We first encountered the story at Angkor Wat

Demons heaving away on Vasuki, King of the Serpents
The carving, on one of the lower galleries at Angkor Wat, is so crisp it cannot be original.
 
Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple between 1120 and 1150. It became a Buddhist temple when the Khmer Empire converted to Buddhism shortly afterwards, but 'The Churning' is a story Buddhists seem happy to retell. The story appears in non-temple settings as well...

The south Gate, Angkor Thom (Feb 2014)
On one side of the bridge the gods are pulling on the serpent, on the other side  are the demons. The figures here are original, except for some of the heads
  
 Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, Vientiane, Laos, March 2014
 
In the 1950s, a few kilometres south of Vientiane, Bounleua Soulilat, a the holy man for whom the word 'eccentric' rather overstates his normality, built the Xieng Khuan Buddha Park.
 

Xieng Khuan Buddha Parl, Vientiane
The Park includes a globe.

The world, Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, Vientiane
 Entering through the mouth you find hell at the bottom and the world up a set of stairs. In the heavens above is a delightfully naïve 'Churning'.
 
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, Vientiane
Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 2015

Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist, but 13% of the population, mostly Sri Lankan Tamils, are Hindu. Sri Lanka's oldest Hindu temple is the Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil, also (for no reason I could discover) known as the Captain's Garden Temple. 
Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil, Colombo
 Inside is a depiction of the 'Churning'.


The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil, Colombo

Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, India, March 2016

Not so far away, just across the strait, is Rameswaram, an island off the coast of India where we saw another 'Churning.'


A 'Churning' outside the building of the Swami Sadanand Pranami Cheritable (sic) Trust
The Swami Sadanand Cheritable (do they come from Surrey?) Trust runs schools and is involved with promoting blood donations.
 
A Little Background
 
As a child I loved the Greek legends. I reread the story of Jason and the Argonauts when we visited Colchis (now eastern Georgia), the home of the Golden Fleece. It is a wonderful tale though Jason and his crew are basically a band of brigands and Medea, Jason’s love interest, is a psychopath.

Medea and the golden Fleece. Europe Square, Batumi, Georgia (Aug 2014)
Modern Greeks, Romans and Egyptians are far removed from their classical forbears; monotheistic religions have eradicated the pantheon of gods around which their myths and legends were woven. No one today worships Zeus, Jupiter or Amun.
 
Southern India traded extensively with ancient Greece and Rome. It has been called the last surviving classical civilization and Hinduism retains a full, even overfull, pantheon – 33 gods, or 35,000 or 330 million, depending on your inclination.
 
Educated Hindus will explain that their religion is also monotheistic, that Brahma, the one Creator God is in everything, and the  multitude of other deities merely provide ways to understand the many facets of the Creator. At village level I suspect it is different, and the myths and legends still live.
 
The main sources of these legends are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, attributed to the poets Valmiki and Vyasa respectively in much the same way as the Odyssey and Iliad are attributed to Homer. All four texts are in poetic form making them relatively easy to commit to memory, so they probably existed in oral form long before they were first written down, which happened at much the same time somewhere around 600BC.