The Churning of the Ocean of Milk (also called Samudra manthan in Hindi or Ko Samut Teuk Dos in Khmer) is one of the most well-known legends of the Hindu mythology and of the Cambodian culture. That story is depicted on a 49 meter-wide bas-relief carved on the walls of the east gallery of Angkor Wat temple, a religious site built in the 12th century by Khmer King Suryavarman II. Indeed, that World Heritage temple was in the first place a Hindu shrine dedicated to God Vishnu that was later converted to a Buddhist one. That’s the reason why nowadays, both Hindu and Buddhist rites are practiced inside.
It is said that a long time ago, Devas (Gods) and Asuras (Demons) were fighting against each other to ensure their domination over the world. After many years of war, Devas were weakened and almost vanquished; so they went to see Supreme God Vishnu to ask Him for help. The latter promised to strengthen Devas by ordering them to seek for the Amrita, the sacred Elixir of Immortality. But this difficult task could not be achieved by them alone. They had to gather their forces in cooperation with Asuras in order to extract the Amrita from the depths of the cosmic sea.
To do so, they used Mount Meru as a churning stick and the King of snakes Vasuki as a churning rope. Devas and Asuras both pulled alternatively the Naga Vasuki on their respective side to churn the Ocean of Milk. As MountMeru was sinking, God Vishnu turned himself into his turtle avatar Akûpara to stabilize the mountain. Many treasures came out of the Ocean of Milk. Amongst them were celestial creatures called Apsaras coming on earth to entertain Gods and Kings.
The demons, tricked into pulling the head of the giant snake, were weakened after a thousand years of efforts by the Naga’s poison. Fortunately for them, God of health Dhanvantari emerged from the Ocean of Milk with the sacred Amrita. So they seized the elixir for their own sake.
As they were frightened by this act, the Devas informed Vishnu of the situation. The Supreme God then turned into another of His avatar, Mohini, the most beautiful women on earth. Mohini charmed the Asuras and took the opportunity to steal the Elixir of Immortality and gave it to the Devas. From this moment, the Gods would rule the world and send the Demons to hell.
One of the Asuras named Rea Hu, disguised himself as a God and drank a few drops of the Amrita. He was spotted by the Sun and the Moon who immediately alerted Vishnu. The Supreme God immediately decided to cut off Rea Hu’s head, however the demon had already swallowed a small quantity of the Elixir. Only his head remained alive and ever since, he swore to take revenge on the Sun and Moon. He would try to swallow both of them whenever they would come close to him but as he would have no body, the Sun and the Moon would then reappear from the bottom of his head. This is, according to Hindu mythology, the cause of lunar and solar eclipses.