The Birth of the Cosmos at Angkor Wat
The east-facing temple wall at Angkor Wat portrays the Hindu creation story known as the “Churning of the Sea of Milk.” These panels are best seen around the time of sunrise. Former University of Michigan professor Eleanor Mannikka has discovered that the sun interacts with several of the panel’s images on important dates of the annual solar cycle. The entire scene contains a total of 183 figures that collectively represent the number of days between the Winter and Summer solstices that take place each year during the months of December and June, respectively.
At the pivot point of this magnificent relief is the figure of the Hindu solar deity Vishnu (right), who occupies the one position in the panel that is directly illuminated by the rising sun on the day of the vernal equinox each March. In addition to the relief, the temple of Angkor Wat features solar alignments in which the Sun appears to rise out of its central tower on the day of the vernal equinox each March from at observation point located at the western end of the long causeway that leads up to the temple gates.
Set at the beginning of the Golden Age, the Churning of the Sea of Milk explains how the forces of light (devas) and darkness (asuras) once worked together to generate the elixir of immortality that the Hindu scriptures call the amrita. At the beginning of the world, the devas fought bitterly with the asuras for a thousand years.
Churning of the Sea of Milk
Each side was separately attempting to generate the elixer called the amrita, which would render immortal anyone who drank it. Unable to generate the amrita, both sides asked Lord Vishnu for assistance. After explaining to the celestials that they would have to work together in order to generate the amrita, Vishnu organized the forces of light and darkness into two groups. At Angkor Wat, the asuras are arrayed on the left. They are led by their captain Bali, who holds the head of the serpent king that served as the churning rope.
To the right are arrayed the forces of light, led by the monkey king Sugriva who can be seen holding onto the serpent king’s tail. At the center of the entire operation is Vishnu, who guides the churning operation from his commanding position on the pivotal mountain of Mandara, around which the serpent king has wrapped his body. To keep the Mandara from sinking into the Sea of Milk, the king of the tortoises acts as the mountain’s support. After two thousand more years come to pass, the churning operation finally succeeds, generating not only the much coveted elixir of immortality, but also the sun, the moon, and the celestial nymphs called the apsaras. They rise like stars and hover over the Milk Ocean, which symbolizes the Milky Way galaxy.
Like the revolution of the sun, moon, planets, and stars that eternally revolve about the dome of the firmament, the visitor to Angkor is part of a cycle that must periodically return to the beginning. Having assimilated Angkor’s cosmic perspective, the visitor walks back through the temple proper, down the long western causeway and steps back into the world of the present.