If you are in the Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport and wandering through the departure/transit area with a with all the time in the world to kill, you are likely to come across a hindu mythological statue of mysterious proportions. I don’t know how I missed this in my previous travels, but all of a sudden, I was face-to-face with a beautiful artwork depicting the Samudra Manthan, from the Mahabharata.
My friend admired the statue for a few minutes, and then carried on to shop for alcohol at the nearby DFS, while I kept staring at the picture of a story that I have heard my grandmother tell me a gazillion times when I grew up. And for all those travelling to Bangkok and who might come across this artwork, I felt I had to create a blog post to share this story. So, here goes.
The Samudra Manthan, or the Churning of the ocean of milk, is a story that is repeated many times in the Hindu Puranas, and prominently in the Mahabharata. So, apparently the great god Indra mistreated a sage called Durvasa, who in turn cursed that all the gods would lose their power. And so, they did, reducing all the gods to powerless beings. After this incidents, the asuras (demons) waged an all-out war against the devas (gods), who were now totally helpless without their powers. So, they sought help with the shrewd god Vishnu, who advised them that they had to churn the ocean to get the nectar of immortality, which would make them powerful again.
But, the problem was that the gods could not do this in their current state of powerlessness. So, Vishnu staged an alliance with the Asuras to complete this task, with the fake promise that the spoils of the churning would be divided equally between the 2 groups. And hence began the great churning of the milk ocean. Mount Mandhara was used as the churning rod, the serpeant Vasuki as the churning rope, and when the mountain started to sink in the ocean, the god Vishnu himself came in the form of a turtle to support the mountain on his back.
The churning went on for days, and many great objects were released from the ocean. There was the great poison called halahala, which Shiva drank to save the universe, thus making him turn a permanent blue. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth was released, along with various Apsaras or divine nymphs. There were also animals like Kamadhenu, the divine cow, and the elephant Airavatha, which Indra accepted. And plenty of rare gems.
Finally, the heavenly Physician Dhanvantri emerged, holding the pot of Amrit, or the nectar of immortality, and hell broke loose immediately. Amidst the fierce fighting that broke out, the divine bird Garuda, snatched the nectar and took flight with it. Legend goes that four drops of the nectar were spilled while Garuda was flying over the earth, and they landed in 4 different spots – Ujjain, Allahabad, Haridwar and Nasik – which are still the venues of the Kumbh Mela, which happens once in every 12 years.
Finally, the Asuras got hold of the Amrit again, but Vishnu took the form of a seductive maiden called ‘Mohini’, and distracted them, while the Devas took back the Amrit and started drinking it. An interesting legend is of Rahu, an Asura who was hiding among the gods and started to drink the nectar. But, before the nectar could pass his throat, Vishnu cut his head with the Sudarshan Chakra. While his body died, the head is said to have remained immortal, and swallows the sun and moon every once in a while. They have to wait until they pass through the throat of Rahu, and that normally signifies the end of the Solar/lunar Eclipse! 😉