Once upon a time there was a great war and all the gods and all the demons in the universe were locked in battle for a thousand years. Now fighting for a thousand years will really work up your thirst and all the demons and all the gods were really hankering for some amrita, the elixir of immortality. They decided to ask for help from Vishnu. Vishnu ordered them all to stop fighting and work together. So using the great many-headed snake Naga as a rope and the great mountain Mandara as a pivot, the gods and the demons grabbed hold and they pushed and they pulled, they pulled and they pushed and they caused a great churning in the milk sea. So they pushed and they pulled, they pulled and what do you know, the great mountain Mandara started to sink! But Vishnu knew just what do with a sinking mountain. Why, he just incarnated himself into a giant turtle and held that mountain right up. So they pushed and they pulled, they pulled and they pushed, they churned and they churned and they churned. And out of that churning came many glorious and wonderful things: Vishnu’s wonderful consort Lakshmi, thousands of sexy apsaras, and finally, finally, finally, after a thousand years they produced the long sought after amrita.
If you learn one Hindu myth before visiting the Angkor temples, make sure it’s this one. Your very entry will be greeted with rows of asura (demon) and deva (god) statues all doing their tireless work to churn up the milk sea.
One of the best wall reliefs in Angkor Wat depicts this myth. Let’s take a look.
You can see Vishnu in the middle with four arms. Underneath him is Mount Mandara being held up by a turtle. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that yes, Vishnu is standing on top of himself. On either side of the turtle are various sea creatures that are getting shredded to pieces from all the violent churning. On the left are the demons and on the right, the gods and that rope they’re pulling is a giant snake. Floating around above them all are many beautiful apsaras. Let’s take another look!
Now aren’t these pictures more interesting when you know what you’re looking at? Have you ever appreciated a site more by researching it in advance?