In Paintings: How the Churning of the Ocean led to the Largest Gathering on Earth, The Kumbh Mela

Indian stories, told through paintings are a sure way to make children fall in love with museums! We’ve tried and tested this, with much success at the Government Museum & Art Gallery. The kids might not yet know the worth of a Manaku-painting, but the battle scenes from the Bhagavat Purana are their favourite!

churning ocean kumbh mela
Vishnu, as Varaha (boar) saves the world; Government Museum & Art Gallery, Chandigarh

In this post, we take you to a popular episode from the Bhagavata Purana (one of Hinduism’s 18 great Puranas) : The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, or Samudra Manthan.

churning ocean kumbh mela

The story begins with a curse by Sage Durvasa (known for his temper), triggered by Lord Indra’s unbecoming etiquette.  It so happened, that Indra didn’t show much respect for a garland given in greeting by the Sage, and placed it on his elephant. The fragrance caused the elephant to sneeze; understandably, the garland lay trampled.

The effect of the curse put Indra and the other Gods in trouble. Their powers weakened, a demon-attack didn’t come as a complete surprise. As all the Gods turned to Vishnu (the Preserver) for help, a plan was hatched!

The ocean had to be churned to source the nectar of immortality, so the Gods may regain their powers

But the Gods couldn’t do this alone, and had to call truce with the Demons!

The preparation for the Churning of the Ocean

While Mandara, the mountain would be the churning rod, the rope would be Vasuki, Shiva’s snake. As the churning process began, the mountain started to sink. And so Vishnu came along, in his second avatar, the Tortoise Kumra. The tortoise swam under the water, and lifted the mountain on it’s back, keeping it stable.

churning ocean kumbh mela
The churning of the ocean of milk, Cambodia, Prasat Phnom Da, Angkor Vat style, first half of the XIIth century, sandstone. Musée Guimet, Paris

After much slogging, to everyone’s horror, the first thing to come out of the ocean was “Halahala” – a deadly poison. This threatened to kill everyone, and jeopardise the entire mission. Enter, Shiva.

churning ocean kumbh mela
From the collection of NGMA New Delhi

In this painting by Nandalal Bose, Shiva is seen drinking the poison to save the world. Notice the poison creating a blue colour on Shiva’s throat? That’s also why he’s called “Neelkantha”.  #FunFact : The second episode of Netflix’ Sacred Games was named after this poison: Halahala.

In the first painting, you will find the other treasures that started to emerge.

These included Kamdhenu, the Cow; Airavat, Indra’s Elephant; Uccaihasrava, the seven headed horse; Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth who then takes Vishnu as her consort; Varuni (or Sura), the Goddess of Wine; Chandra, the Moon, a conch shell; a powerful bow; and more.

Finally emerged, Dhanvantari (the physician of the Gods), carrying the Nectar / Amrit in a jug (Kumbh).

And then began the 12-day (12 human years!) battle between the Asuras and Devas for the Nectar.

churning ocean kumbh mela
Rahu devouring the Moon | Government Museum & Art Gallery Chandigarh

Clever Rahu even tried to pretend to be God, to get some of the Nectar; sitting between the Sun and the Moon, little did he know that they ratted him out before he could taste the nectar! And that day, Rahu swore revenge, threatening to eat up the Sun & Moon – what we know as eclipses basically!

If you’re wondering who won the battle between the Gods and Demons – well, Lord Vishnu summoned his Garuda bird, and off he flew with the Kumbh containing the Nectar. But it turns out that Gods too, spill like us humans, and so did Vishnu.  The four drops of Nectar are believed to have dropped at Allahabad (now Prayag), Haridwar (Uttarakhand); Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh) and  Nasik (Maharashtra).

The Kumbh Mela is thus celebrated at these 4 places, every 12 years.  Nearly 2% of the global population is believed to gather at this river-festival, making it the largest human gathering on Earth!!

The Churning of the Ocean has an important message too:

You can only seek immortality through accepting the positives and negatives of your personality. This is depicted in the Gods and Demons coming together, harnessing their energies towards a common goal. The ocean is like the human mind : the nectar and poison it produces are just like the joy and pain you encounter on the path to spiritual enlightenment.

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churning ocean kumbh mela

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