Category Archives: samudramanthana

Samudramanthana in art : churning of the ocean

     Samudranathana or churning of the ocean of milk is a major event in Indian mythology.The story is narrated in the Mahabharata, Bhagavata Purana and Vishnu Purana.  The story is about the origin of amrita, the drink of immortality. Samudramanthana is also called sagaramanthana and ksheerasagaramanthna.

       Sage Durvasa received a garland from a meeting with kings on earth.He decided to give the garland to Indra, the king of Gods who accepted it, but the moment the sage left he gave it to an elephant who started playing with it. Sage Durvasa came back to tell Indra something and saw the scene; he immediately cursed all the Gods that they will lose their strength and thus they became feeble. Meanwhile Bali, the king of asuras declared war on the Gods. They were very weak and could not withstand them, and defeat was certain.The Gods approached Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu for a solution. Lord Vishnu meditated and only a dose of amrita, the cream of the milk ocean could restore their strength.

       It was not an easy task to churn the milk-ocean. Mount Mandara had to be used as a churning stick which the devas could not accomplish on their own. They needed help from the asuras. Hence an agreement was made between the devas and asuras that they too could drink amrita, after reassurance from Lord Vishnu that the asuras would not get stronger than the Gods. The process was started and Mount Mandara was uprooted by both combined. Many powerful herbs were dropped into the ocean to flavour the nectar or amrita. The Gods then got Vasuki, the serpent who lived in the nether world to churn the ocean as a rope. The Gods had to take the tail end and the asuras took the head end. The asuras became weak by the hot breath of Vasuki. The churning went on and the mountain began to sink into the bottom of the ocean. Lord Vishnu took the avatar or form of a large tortoise or kurma, dived into the ocean and supported the mountain Mandara.

As the churning progressed fourteen gems,the moon, the parijata tree, the elephant Airavata, the cow Kamadhenu, Varuni, the goddess of wine, the apsaras, the seven headed white horse Uchchaisvaras, the Goddess Lakshmi, a conch, a mace , a jewel called Kaustubha ,Kalpavriksha,halahala a poison which Lord Shiva consumed, sharanga ,a bow, Nidra or sloth, Jyestha or Goddess of misfortune and finally Dhanwantari , god of ayurveda, emerged  who held the pot of amrita.  A scuffle followed for the pot and Lord Vishnu appeared in the form of Mohini, a beautiful woman to distract the asuras. They forgot all about the pot and decided to allow Mohini to decide as to who will have the nectar first. The Gods got to drink first but Mohini disappeared with the pot once they had finished ! A fierce battle ensued and the devas or Gods won. As the Gods were drinking the amrita one asura had disguised himself as a deva and had drunk some of the nectar sitting next to Surya, the sun God and Chandra, the moon God. But they detected him and told Lord Vishnu who immediately cut him into two parts. The two parts remained animate because of the effect of amrita and Lord Brahma converted them to two planets in the heavens;Rahu and Ketu. Many versions of this myth exist but they all relate to the churning of the ocean for the pot of amrita.

       It is also believed that some drops of the amrita fell on four places when the devas had snatched the pot of amrita from the asuras ; Haridwar, Prayag, Nasik and Ujjain. Various depictions of this story have been made in India and countries of Asia over the centuries.

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Samudramanthana,Angkor Wat,12th century,Cambodia.

By Michael Gunther (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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Samudramanthana, Prasat Phnom Da, sandstone, first half of the 12th century,  Musée Guimet, Paris

By Ddalbiez (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

An interesting depiction of Samudramanthana; Razmnama is an abridged translation of the Mahabharata written in Persian at the behest of the Mughal Emperor Akbar and dates to around 1598–99. The original book is no longer available as the pages from the original Razmnama are scattered around the world

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Samudramanthana, Razmnama folio, 16th century.

By Fattu (16th century) (attr. to) (Razmnama) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Depicted below is another   painting on paper of the Samudramanthana episode from  an album showing  Vishnu as Kurma supporting Mount Mandara with him and seated in padmasana on top.

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Samudramanthana, Mughal painting, 17th century, British Museum, U.K.

By Mughal style [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Below is a page depicting Samudramanthana from a dispersed Dasavatara set and/or Bhagavata Purana (Story of Lord Vishnu) from Himachal Pradesh.


Samudramnathana,painting, 18th century,Himachal Pradesh.

By unknown, India, Himachal Pradesh, Basohli or Chamba [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Below is a watercolour painting on paper of Samudramanthana, this event took place during the second incarnation of Visnu as Kurma, the tortoise. The painting shows Visnu seated on the top of Mount Mandara, here represented as a pole. He holds a discus, sword, conch and lotus in his four hands and has a golden nimbus around his head. The pole rests on the back of Kurma who swims on the surface of the ocean. Around the pole is wrapped the snake Vasuki. On one side the snake is pulled by the gods and on the other it is pulled by the Danava’s. On the shore of the ocean are the objects which have emerged during the churning, which include Laksmi, Varuni, the conch, the elephant mount of Brahma, Airavata, Kamadhenu,the wish fulfilling cow and the vessel holding amrita which bestows immortality on the drinker. A crescent moon is shown in the top left corner of the painting.

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Samudramanthana, watercolour painting, 19th century.

By Company School [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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Samudramanthana, 19th century,Swaminarayan temple, Bhuj.

By AroundTheGlobe (Swaminarayan Sampraday [1]) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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Samudramanthana,Bas relief,1850, Neelkanth temple,Uttarakhand

By Maisey, Frederick Charles (1825-1892) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Illustration to a ‘Vishnu Avatara’ series,19th century.

By Unknown (production) –, Public Domain,


            Below is a detailed painting on paper depicting  the Samudramanthana episode. At the centre of the composition is mount Mandara, identified by an inscription in English. As usual in South Indian painting, at the top of the mountain a temple’s golden kalasha is visible. Just above it, Vishnu is emerging half bust from a cloud, carrying the amrita vessel in his hands. The densely forested Mandara, inhabited by gandharvas playing musical instruments, rests on the Kurma, duly identified by an inscription: ‘Kurm raja‘. Coiled around the mountain is the serpent Vasuki, identified as ‘Vasuka’, whose tail end is held by the dikpalas, here identified as ‘Asuras‘ and the head by the asuras, here labelled ‘Suras‘. Both dikpalas and asuras stand in the ocean’s water filled with fish. The dikpalas are headed by Indra easily recognizable by the vajra in his hand and by the thousand eyes on his body. He is followed by the two-headed Agni, the bushy-moustached Yama, and by Nirriti, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera, Ishana, Surya and Candra. On the opposite side are nine asuras, enveloped by the dark fumes spewed out by Vasuki. In the foreground are the many precious objects which emerged from the depths of the sea: the horse Uchchaihshravas, here depicted with only one instead of the usual seven heads, the white elephant Airavata, the fire, the tulsi plant, a chariot, the goddess Lakshmi seated on a lotus , identified by an inscription: ‘Lakshmee, goddess of abundance’, the parijata tree, Surabhi, Soma, a portly man seated on a throne carrying a book, identified by an inscription as ‘Daruma god of water’, possibly Varuna, five precious stones, yet another tree, possibly the kalpavriksha, the apsaras, one of whom, Tilottama is immediately carried away by the asura brothers Sunda and Upasunda, and finally a goddess with a broom, possibly Jyeshtha or Alakshmi, sister of Lakshmi and goddess of misfortune. It should be noted that the list of the objects retrieved from the ocean varies according to the texts. The variety presented here is especially large, as it includes the throne, the fire, the tulsi, the chariot, and last but not least Alakshmi. It is also unusual to find the story of Tilottama, Sunda and Upasunda hinted at in this context. Yet another remarkable feature is the presence of Varuna (?). It is generally Varuni the goddess of wine who appears in the renderings of this incident, and another strange omission is that of Dhanvantari, the physician of the gods, who appears with the amrita vessel in his hands. As noted above, in this painting it is Vishnu who carries the amrita to the devas. In the left upper corner of the painting Vishnu as Mohini, identified by an inscription ‘Narayana’, is doling out the amrita to the assembled gods seated opposite the asuras. While she is busy, she is distracted by the asuras clamouring for their share. In that moment, Rahu seated among the devas, and anxious to get his share of amrita, is discovered and decapitated by Vishnu’s chakra. The story continues in the upper right corner: the gods and the asuras are engaged in a fight, and immediately to the left, Śhiva swallows the halahala poison, shown as a blue line on his throat, under the watchful gaze of the gods and Parvati.

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Samudramanthana, detailed painting, 1820s, South India,British Museum, U.K.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Samudramanthana, painting, 1910.

By M A Joshi and company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons




References :

  • Epics, myths and legends of India/Thomas, P, Bombay : D.B. Taraporevala and Sons.



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Soma Ghosh

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