Monday, January 4, 2010


Samudra Manthan (Churning of the sea) – Sculpture at Bangkok Airport
(Historical Significance)


Shrinivas Tilak

In Bangkok, on the Thailand's new international airport called Suvarna-bhoomi, (Land of Gold), there is a huge display from the Hindu scriptures namely Devi Bhagavat and Vishnu Puran.

'Can we imagine putting up this kind of art at Indian Airports?'

In February 2000, Dilip Padgaonkar, the then editor of the Times of India,
visited Jakarta to interview the then newly elected President of
Indonesia Abdur Rahman Wahid. He began the interview by observing that
the public display of Hindu symbols is much more prominent in Jakarta
than in Delhi. If Hindus do not wake up and act fast, Hinduism itself
will be banished from India altogether and its only traces will be
left in the countries of South-east Asia. Indeed, that is the goal of
Kancha Illaiah as spelled out in his latest book “A Post Hindu India.”
Illaiah and his ilk will succeed if the gullible HINAs (Hindu in Name
Alone) continue to elect the governments run by the Congress Party which
survives on the vote bank politics.

Mercifully, some proud and conscious Hindus (in India and abroad) have
started to preserve and protect their religious and cultural heritage
using traditional and more innovative means. Thus, it is possible to
interpret the story of samudramanthan to be found in many of the
Puranas as a metaphor (rupaka) for trade and cultural diffusion as well as cultural infusion through maritime activities (samudramanthan) between India and the world.

Recently, I came across a news report indicating that the metaphor of
samudramanthana has been revived through an award by that name that
has been instituted to recognize excellence in export/import by Indian
manufacturing and commercial firms.

Thus, a report from Kolkata explains that Gateway Terminals India (GTI), the youngest container terminal of Jawaharlal Nehru port, received
“Container Terminal of the Year” award at India International Maritime
& Logistics Expo ’09 held in Mumbai on April 18, 2009. The award,
known as “Samudra Manthan”, was presented to GTI for its excellence in
performance, innovation, operational efficiency, and the world class

The core story of samudramanthana as found in the Puranas is that Devas
and Asuras churned the cosmic ocean (kshirasagara) with the Meru
parvata as the churning rod and Vasuki, the cosmic snake, as the rope
in order to obtain the pitcher full of nectar (amritkumbha). In the
process, fourteen gems (ratnas) emerged out of the ocean with Devas
managing to appropriate for themselves most of them. It is possible
that the ‘gems’ are a metaphor for new ideas and items that Indians
and South Americans obtained through mutual trade and commerce.

Dr. Balaram Chakraborty, regional advisor to Ministry of Education &
Culture, Government of India, and author of a three volume study (The
Indians and Amerindians, Kolkata: Self Employment Bureau, 1991-1997)
has studied the patterns of similarity between the world views held by
Indians and Amerindians. He has argued that the Mayas of Central and
South America are the descendants and followers of an ancient
astronomer/scientist/architect named Maya (he belonged to a community
known as the Asuras) who arrived from India to the land beneath India
[i.e. Pataladesha] by way of the Western sea (i.e. the Pacific Ocean).

This was possible because Asuras were excellent astronomers,
sea-farers, builders, and skilled in warfare. Maya’s Surya Siddhanta
(a text on astronomy dating from fifth century) states that while
Indians (Devas) inhabit the northern hemisphere, numerous diasporic
Indians (Asuras; also known as Daityas) inhabit the southern

The Puranas describe the Pataladesha as made of seven zones: Atala,
Vitala, Sutala, Talatala, Mahatala, Rasatala, and Patala. Chakravorty
identifies Atala with the Atlantic coast in Central America; Vitala
with the region around Veracruz, Tabasco, and Campeche; Sutala with
Palenque and Guatemala; Talatala with Yukatan; Mahatala with Mexico;
Rasatala with Ecuador; and Patala with Peru (Chakravorty 1921:

Chakravorty speculates that if Devas (Suras) were Indians who followed dharma, Asuras were those Indians who had forsaken dharma or had neglected to observe its key elements out of greed or hubris. Asuras (with their leader Maya) either voluntarily (like Maya) or involuntarily (like
Bali) left/forced to leave India and settled in the Pataldesha from
where they continued to engage in trade and cultural exchanges with
their Indian homeland. The typical trade route to India was via the
Pacific with Java as the intermediate point that also served as a
clearing house.

Chakravorty also speculates that Lakshmi, was one of the fourteen gems
that came out of samudramanthan between the devas and the asuras. Lakshmi is often shown with ears of corn surmounted by leaves. In this she
resembles the corn goddess in the Americas. Her arrival through
samudramanthan suggests a cross-fertilization of religious and
cultural ideas between India and South/Central America syncretized
into Hindu pantheon as the consort of Vishnu.

I find Chakravorty’s ideas worthy of further study and have
incorporated some of them in a paper entitled “India and South America:
Maritime and Cultural Contacts in Ancient Times” that was presented at a
meeting of the International Centre for Cultural Studies held in
Mumbai on November 17, 2009.

Shrinivas Tilak

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