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Continuing our examniation of the relief, we come to the centre of the panel where we see the unfinished figure of Vishnu directing the churning efforts of the devas and asuras, who pull the great naga Vasuki acting as the rope around the churning post.
Figure 1 shows, at the very centre of the relief, Vishnu Caturbhuja (with four arms) in the act of assisting the Churning and attempting to balance Mount Mandara, which serves as the churning pole. He seems to be suspended in the air in front of Mount Mandara. Vishnu's upper two arms brandish the discus and the club, while with his lower two he holds the serpent Vasuki.
Unfortunately the relief is unfinished; Vishnu's left leg is not fully sculpted and below it is a blank area where the products of the churning were to be added, including the jar of the amrita. If you look carefully, above Vishnu’s discus you can see two outlined figures of a small horse (Uchchaihshravas) and a tiny elephant (Airavata) , but they are so crudely carved that it is possibile they were later additions.
Along the top, to either side, is a register teeming with apsaras, born from the Churning, in graceful flight.
The small figure depicted flying above the pole (Figure 2), who seems to be leaning on or touching it with his two hands, is believed to be another of Vishnu’s manifestations contributing to the churning activity by stabilising of Mount Mandara. Finot believed this to be demonstrated by a passage of the Bhagavata Parana in which it is said Vishnu was on Mount Mandara 'holding it with his hands, cherished by the rain of flowers of the gods' (Brahma, Indra, Shiva and others). This, however, may refer also to the large central figure of Vishnu, sculpted half-way up Mount Mandara.
The local guides prefer to identify this figure with Indra, as suggested by the Mahabharata, who we know was watching the churning and therefore not involved in the action, ready to take for himself the elephant Airavata and the horse Uchchaihshravas as they were created.
In the Mahabharata, which is earlier than the various Puranas and the Ramayana, Vishnu merely grants more energy to the devas and asuras while they churn the ocean. He neither intervenes to support the churning pole, nor to keep it stabilised; he does not participate in the actual pulling of the snake’s body. Even the tortoise described in the text is simply the King of the tortoises, not necessarily Vishnu’s avatar Kurma. The final products, however, are the same and include the all-important amrita.
The tortoise is an important figure in Hindu mythology as it is the embodiment of creative power. In Agnicayana rituals the tortoise is placed in the lowest of the altar’s five layers. In general, it is a common feature of Hindu temples where sometimes it is represented simply as a hexagonal figure. It is placed at the centre of the building, or in front of the main shrine of the god, to remind the faithful of its pivotal position in the Churning. In some Balinese temples the whole structure rests on the design of a tortoise, from which the head, four legs and a small tail appear to be poking out. It is a well known fact that in Cambodia, small tortoises cast in metal are often found in the foundation stone of the temple, amongst other objects constituting the 'treasure', and placed in a well dug at the centre of the temple’s foundations.
Next, we will continue with our examination of this relief in The Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat Temple, Part IV: The Devas.