Kurma, the Tortoise avatar of Vishnu


An 18th-century painting of Samudramanthana, ‘the churning of the ocean’, one of the most important creation myths.The myth is found in slightly different versions in some Purāṇas and in the Mahābhārata.

The painting

The painting is a depiction of Samudramanthana ‘the churning of the ocean’, a myth which narrates how the Ocean of Milk must be churned in order to retrieve a number of divine beings and precious objects for the good of mankind; this feat can only be achieved jointly by the gods and the Dānavas (demons) together. The Visṇu Purāṇa narrates that this colossal endeavor only succeeded thanks to Vishnu, who brokered peace with the demons and persuaded them to take part in this undertaking. As a reward the Dānavas would receive their share of Amrita (the nectar of immortality) and thus become immortal.

Kurma, the second avatar of Vishnu, is depicted in the water holding up Mount Mandāra, chosen as a churning rod upon which Vishnu himself is seated. The snake Vāsuki, coiled around it, serves as a rope which is being pulled on the left by the gods Brahmā, Vishnu and Shiva, and on the right by three demons. All around are the fourteen good things which have emerged from the churning, including Dhanvantari, the god’s physician; Amrita, the nectar of immortality; Airāvata, Indra’s elephant; Uccaiḥśravasa, the seven-headed horse; Surabhi, the cow of plenty; the goddess Lakshmī shown standing on a lotus; the moon and Vishnu’s Kaustubha gem.

Why is it so important?

The painting is part of a series of watercolours included in two albums depicting deities from the Hindu pantheon. The albums were commissioned by Colonel Antoine Polier, a Swiss officer in the service of the English East India Company in the late 18th century. Polier established his own studio of artists in Lucknow and Faizabad and was one of the most important patrons of late Mughal painting in northern India. Each album contains thirty-two miniature paintings and demonstrates Polier’s interest in the study of Hindu deities and their iconography through its inclusion of detailed notes in his own hand.

Full title:
Kurma, the Tortoise avatar of Vishnu, 18th century
c. 1780
Usage terms

Public Domain. Please consider cultural, religious & ethical sensitivities when re-using this material.

Held by
British Library
Or 4769, f.10

Full catalogue details

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