Piller of the Universe on the Back of a Tortoise. Lintel fragment.
KHMER (ANGKOREAN) Anonymous
12th c Cambodian Khmer (Early Angkor) Sculpture
(active c. 802 - c. 1450)
Khmer (Early Angkor)
Paris. Musée Guimet.
Vishnu is everywhere, and his manifestations in the world are endless. "Just as from an inexhaustible lake thousands of streams flow on all sides, so also from the Remover-of-Sorrow (a manifestation of Vishnu), sum of all reality come forth countless incarnations, the seers, the lawgivers, the gods, the human races, the lords of progeny, all are parts of him." (from the Bhagavad Purana).
Vishnu is the preserver, and as such, he appears at crucial moments of the world's history to guide its destiny, and in each manifestation he takes a different form. The Padma Prana describes 24 major manifestations or AVATARS of Vishnu which include a boar, a sage, a magician, a rightous king, a fish, a tortoise, a dwarf, a man-lion, a horse, a dark youth called Krishna, the fulfillment of love, and Rama, the embodyment of righteousnes, whose adventures are told in the Ramayana.
The fish and tortoise are associated with the first age, which ended in a deluge. Vishnu as fish saved Manu Satyavrata, the founder of present day humanity. As tortoise he went to the bottom of the sea to support the mountain that served as a great churn for the ocean of milk and which gave forth soma or ambrosia, the sacred elixir that was essence of life and which sustained the gods.
You can see Vishnu's tortoise at the bottom of the pole which represents Mt. Meru, the axis mundi or center of the world. On either side teams of gods and demons pull on the primal Naga (serpent) Sesha. Like a butter churn, as the axis mundi turns, it churns up the ocean of milk . This action of churning created chaos from the ultimate undifferentiation of the cosmic ocean, thus setting loose the life forces, both for good and for ill. This may be why both the gods and the demons participate in the churning.
KHMER | Lintel. | c. 1100-1150 | Cambodian | Khmer-Early Angkor |Cambodia.