India Through the Eyes of Europe - Churning the Milk Ocean

BY: SUN STAFF - 21.12 2017

Today's engraving is a beautiful pictorial of the Churning of the Milk Ocean. This scene, which is described in chapter eight of Srimad-Bhagavatam, has been rendered in stone, wood and paint by artists around the world over a very long period of time. The pastime not only appears in Indian Miniature paintings from northern and central India, and in woodblock prints from Bengal, but in stone carvings from across the subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Around the 10th century in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, a massive east-facing temple wall was carved with the Churning scene.

In South India, beautiful renderings of the Churning pastime were painted on mica, and painted as murals on temple walls. Influences from these South Indian depictions are found in the later European versions. As we read in the following description from the University of Chicago exhibition catalog, the Europeans were intent on penetrating southern India to exploit both trade goods and religious converts.

"South India and Ceylon, unlike the Mughul empire, were politically divided in these centuries and under constant and increasing pressure from the European intruders. In south India the Hindu empire of Vijayanagar fell into a decline after 1565 that ended in total disintegration during the seventeenth century. It was replaced by a host of small warring political entities unable to protect themselves against the southward expansion of the Muslims and the demands of the Europeans. The Portuguese obtained their earliest footholds in Ceylon and along India's southwest coast or Malabar (meaning "hill country"), a region of city-states where the Arabs had long been trading. All of the sixteenth-century Portuguese accounts, especially those of Duarte Barbosa and João de Barros, describe the individual states of Malabar and their role in the international spice trade. Concerned as the Portuguese were with the trade of Malabar, they still took time to comment on matrilineal descent, the caste system, and the role of Muslims in these coastal cities.

After Portugal's capture of Goa in 1510, its merchants, missionaries, armed forces, and officials created an informal maritime empire along India's southwest coast to control and stabilize the spice trade. Thereafter Goa also became the administrative and episcopal center for Portugal's empire throughout Asia. Merchant fleets and missionaries regularly left Goa for north India and for places as far away as Bengal, Malacca, the East Indies, China, and Japan. In the second half of the sixteenth century the Jesuit letters provided new information on south India's Fishery Coast and on the St. Thomas Christians of the Serra in Malabar. They also began to study the Konkani, Tamil, and Malayalam languages, sometimes for the purposes of refuting Hindu teachings. On social questions the Jesuits concerned themselves mainly with those south Indian ideas and institutions which most complicated the work of conversion."

Today's example, a European rendition of the Churning of the Milk Ocean, was engraved in the early 1700's by Bernard Picart. Picart's work was then copied by engravers like Barlow, who did the version we see above.

On the left side we have the asuras, whose faces are similar to many asuric images in Indian art, yet who appear somewhat mask-like under the Anglo artist's hand. Rather than wearing garlands, they wear what appear to be bandoliers, which we assume indicate their weaponry.

On the right are the devas and demigods, who are garlanded, in tilak, dhotis and celestial headgear. Lord Brahma holds the Vedas in one hand. Interestingly, the demigods appear engaged in their efforts, while the two asuras look straight ahead. All are holding onto the body of Vasuki, the serpent who is wrapped around Mount Mandara, which is used as a pivot for the churning. The mountain rests upon the back of Kurma Avatara, the Lord'a tortoise incarnation In fact, this depiction of the Churning scene is one of a Dasavatar series.

The facial expressions of both Vasuki and Lord Kurma are entirely European in mood, and are just like the faces these artists often used on serpents in India scenes.

Lord Visnu sits on a lotus asana atop the mountain, holding sword, conch, chakra and Vedas. Again, the motif of the conch is typically Anglo.

In the background, we see other vahanas and animal personalities related to the pastime. The elephant, with two lota above, and the cow are fairly generic. The horse, a multi-headed form, is a good reproduction of typical Indian scenes. Unlike yesterday's example of Parasurama's multi-arms, which were technically poor, the depiction of the horse's heads is quite accurate.

Both the foreground and background of this pictorial round out the European mood. The pastoral scene looks more like the English countryside than an Indian ocean shoreline. This undoubtedly helped to 'normalize' the scene in the artist's mind, making it more approachable for his European audience.

In the foreground, the churning rod lies on the surface of the water, which is covered in lotus flowers. Two devotees offer their obeisances from either side, one sitting and one standing. Interestingly, the seated personality looks far more English than Indian.