An Epic in Stone: Angkor Wat’s Churning of the Ocean of Milk

View of Angkor Wat from across the moat.  The sun is just visible over the temple.
© boule1301/

Every religion has its angels and demons, always at war, struggling to overcome one another.  But what if there was a peace between these two eternal antagonists?  The ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, tells one such story. The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a story of gods (the Devas) and demons (the Asuras) working together to recover the lost elixir of immortality.  It is this scene that captured the imagination of the Khmer builders of Angkor Wat, who depicted it in an intricate 50 meter stone carving of 88 gods and 92 demons, all working together to attain immortality. 900 years later, it continues to inspire us, carrying forward the legacy of those who built it and offering tantalizing insights into their world view.

Angkor Wat

As a monument to one of history’s greatest empires, Angkor Wat ranks together with the Roman Colosseum or China’s Great Wall.  It is a testament to the power of the Khmer kings, whose empire lasted from 802 AD to 1431 AD.  At its height, the Khmer Empire stretched across almost all of mainland Southeast Asia.   

Angkor Wat itself was built in the early 12th century to honor the Hindu god Vishnu, though by the 13th century it had been converted into a Buddhist temple.  Unlike the other structures in the area, Angkor Wat was never fully abandoned and remains an important place of pilgrimage to this day.  Though better preserved than other buildings, what we see today is still only a shadow of its former self.  Scholars believe the towers may have once been covered in gold and the walls plastered. There is also evidence that an entire community existed in the area around the temple. The inhabitants of this community were likely builders, religious scholars, and temple dancers, who collectively would have kept the traditions and rituals of the temple alive.  For a sense of what Angkor Wat may have looked like in its glory days, see here.

A Dusty Road to an Ocean of Milk

It was 2010 when I visited Angkor Wat.  As so many have before and since, I hired a tuk tuk to take me down the orange dusty roads to the temple complex.  It was a perfect day.  The rainy season was trailing off, leaving behind it clear blue skies and vibrant greenery.  I walked across the long causeway leading over the moat surrounding Angkor Wat, then through the outer gates which guard the approach to the temple.  As I entered, I was greeted with scenes of great, chaotic battles unfolding along the walls.  Small dark soldiers and their kings engaged in some ancient war.  As I moved from hall to hall, gods peaked out from hidden alcoves and around corners while mythical creatures stood sentry, guarding some long lost temple secret.     

After wondering around the inner cloister, I made my way to the Eastern Gallery.  This is the home of the famous bas-relief, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.  It is a dynamic work of art.  88 Devas and 92 Asuras, all life-size, struggle to recover the lost elixir of immortality.  Running almost 50 meters, the long line of deities pushes and pulls, their exertion evident in their crouched and tilted stances.  At the center sits Vishnu, fierce and dignified.  The scene gives the impression of an enormous raw power, focused and directed to a single purpose.  An epic scene depicted in epic scale.

Picture of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat.  Vishnu mediates between Deva and Asura.  Life-size representations of each stand on either side of Vishnu, pushing and pulling Vasuki, the serpent King who volunteered to be the churning string.
Churning of the Ocean of Milk Bas-Relief at Angkor Wat . © cascoly2/

Churning of the Ocean of Milk

The scene from the relief is recorded in multiple Hindu scriptures, including the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata.  The story opens with the demonic Asuras in ascendance.  The Devas, having lost power and fortune, fear the damage the powerful Asuras might inflict on the universe.  Desperate, they seek guidance from Lord Vishnu.  Vishnu tells them to make peace with the Asuras and to work with them to churn the Kshira Sagara – the Ocean of Milk – to recover the Amrita, the lost elixir of immortality.  The Devas approach the Asuras, who agree to assist provided they share the Amrita once recovered.  An accord is reached and the two sides get to work churning. 

These being gods and demons, no ordinary churning rod would do.  Instead, Mount Madara was conscripted to serve as the churning rod and the serpent king Vasuki was tied around the mountain to serve as the churning string.  The Asuras and Devas each held one end of Vasuki, pulling him back and forth, twisting the mountain and thereby churning the waters of the primordial ocean into milk.  This is the moment depicted in the relief.

An 18th century depiction of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk from India.  Mount Madara is pictured in the shape of a churning rod, with Vasuki wrapped around it three times.  The image makes it easier to visualize the churning process as described in the story.
18th Century Depiction of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (source: metmuseum)

As the ocean churned, treasures emerged, including eventually the Amrita.  With the Amrita within grasp, the fragile peace between gods and demons disintegrates and the Asuras seize the Amrita for themselves.  However, the Devas have one final trick up their sleeves.  Vishnu turns into the beautiful goddess Mohini.  She beguiles the Asuras, convincing them to give her the Amrita, which she then sneaks back to the Devas.  Their strength restored by the Amrita, the Devas at last succeed in defeating the dejected Asuras.

The Worldly and The Divine

This story is often regarded as an allegory illustrating the superior qualities embodied by the Devas.  Asuras are driven by worldly desires, such as lust, greed, and ego.  Devas, on the other hand, are more concerned with seeking knowledge and the understanding of spiritual truths.  This differing orientation is the only thing that distinguishes Deva from Ashura, angel and demon.  The conflicting values of the Devas and Asuras are made even more explicit in the story – as the gods and demons churn the mountain, Vishnu enters the bodies of each. In the Asuras, Vishnu embodies the principle of passionate activity, while in the Devas, he becomes goodness. 

The Amrita is often taken as a metaphor for wisdom with the act of drinking likened to perceiving God.  Both Deva and Asura churn the mountain together, applying equal labor, yet in the end only the Devas receive the Amrita.  The message is clear – only a Deva can obtain the Amrita; only the good can apprehend God. 

Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat

Is this what the builders of Angkor Wat were trying to convey?  One scholar, Eleanor Mannikka, sees the Churning of the Ocean of Milk as part of a broader theme connecting architectural elements of Angkor Wat with Hindu astrology.  She observes that a pillar shadows the center of the relief during the summer and winter solstices and the endpoints of the relief during the spring and autumnal equinoxes.  Thus, over the course of the year, sun and shadows move across the scene, echoing the pushing and pulling of the Devas and Asuras churning the ocean of milk.

Mannikka further observes that the central image of Vishnu is best lit during the spring equinox, a date associated with the coronation of Khmer kings.  It doesn’t feel like much of a leap to imagine the king identifying with the central image of Vishnu.  Perhaps he thought of himself as playing the same mediating role – balancing the churning chaos created by the tension between the worldly and the divine.

Another picture of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk bas relief at Angkor Wat.  Vishnu is square in the middle.  The central image of Vishnu is best lit during the spring equinox, a date associated with the coronation of Khmer kings.
Vishnu Mediating between Devas and Asuras. © lukyeee_nuttawut/

Immortality Attained

I left Angor Wat that day with a feeling I often have when travelling – namely that I have only scratched the surface of something deep.  As Mannikka and others have illustrated, every element of the temple – from the high towers to the sculpted panels – contains multiple layers of meaning.  Collectively, they give us a glimpse into the rich spiritual traditions that once infused life in the ancient Khmer capital.

Fortunately, this way of life hasn’t been entirely lost.  The Khmer people (who make up ninety percent of Cambodia’s population) continue many of the centuries-old cultural traditions of Angkor’s builders.  The temple, though no longer at the center of a vast empire, continues to be an important place of pilgrimage and worship, not to mention a destination for millions of tourists every year.  Perhaps in this, the builders of Angkor Wat may have found their own Amrita.  Not an elixir, but a physical legacy which continues to resonate through history.

Sources/Further Reading

  1. For a deeper discussion on the nature of Asuras and Devas, see:  Gier, Nicholas F. “Hindu Titanism.” Philosophy East and West, vol. 45, no. 1, 1995, pp. 73–96.
  2. For more information on the multiple layers of meaning in the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, see:  Edelmann, Jonathan. “Hindu Theology as Churning the Latent.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 81, no. 2, 2013, pp. 427–466. 
  3. Angkor Wat: Time, Space, and Kingship, by Eleanor Mannikka, University of Hawaii Press, 1996
  4. Further annotated images of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk bas-relief (and others) together with additional explanations are available here.
  5. For further information on ongoing archeological work around Angkor Wat, see here.
  6. The Khmer are not the only people to see spiritual significance in the Spring Equinox. See my post on the Cult of Mithras to learn how changes in the night sky inspired an entire religion.