The coming Wednesday, while the Chowpati beach in Mumbai will be filled with Ganesh devotees carrying Ganpati idols for immersion into the sea, elsewhere a large number of people would be fasting to commemorate the legendary churning of the bottomless ocean. No wonder the day has been christened Anant (endless) Chaturdashi (14th day of the fortnight). The day is also celebrated by followers of Jainism.
The principal deity of this festival is Lord Vishnu in his Lord Anant (limitless) incarnation. The subordinate deities are Shesh and Yamuna. Legend has it that the churning of the ocean was done to get rid of the anger of the great sage Durvasa, who had cursed Indra, the king of the gods and ruler of the heavens, saying that he and the other gods would lose all their powers. The reason: the great sage had once offered a garland to Indra, who ignored it and put it on the tusk of his elephant, Airawat, who trampled it. Seeing Indra’s disregard, the revered sage became furious and cursed him. And in due course, Indra and the other gods began losing all battles against the demons, led by Bali, who took control of the universe.
Shorn of all powers, the helpless Indra rushed to Vishnu for help. Vishnu suggested said that to get back their powers, the gods would have to churn the oceans and bring out the pot containing amrit (nectar). Only after consuming amrit would the gods regain their powers. This great churning is known as Samudra Manthan. But as the gods were powerless, they sought the help of the demons to accomplish this huge task.
The gods and demons got together for the Herculean task. The huge mountain, Mandara, was used as the pole to stir the waters. But as the pole entered the water it kept sliding into depths of the ocean. To stop this, Vishnu quickly transformed himself into a tortoise and placed the mountain on his back. Vishnu in tortoise form is his second avatar – the Kurmavtar.
Once the pole was balanced, it was tied to the gigantic snake, Vasuki, and the gods and demons started pulling it from either side. As the churning began and the massive waves whirled, an extremely poisonous drink called halahal came out. The gods became scared because this blue drink could destroy creation. They all got together and prayed to the powerful Shiva to help them. Shiva appeared before them and gulped the entire poison. But, he did not swallow it.
He kept the poison in his throat. Because of this Shiva’s throat turned blue and he came to be known as Neelkantha or the blue-throated one.
The churning continued and poured forth a number of gifts and treasures, including the Kamdhenu – the wish-fulfilling cow, the goddess of wealth Laxmi, the wish-fulfilling tree – Kalpavriksha and finally, came Dhanvantari carrying the pot of amrita and a book of medicine called Ayurveda.
Once the amrita was found, the demons forcefully took it away. Two demons, Rahu and Ketu, disguised themselves as gods and drank the amrita. The Sun and Moon gods recognised them and complained to Vishnu, who in turn, severed their heads with his Sudarshan Chakra. As the divine nectar did not get time to reach below the throat, the heads remained immortal, but the body below died. This helps Rahu and Ketu take revenge on the Sun and Moon by shadowing them every year during solar and lunar eclipse.
A great war between the gods and demons followed. Finally, Vishnu disguised as the enchanting Mohini tricked the demons and recovered the nectar. While fleeing the clutches of the demons, Vishnu gave the amrita to his winged charioteer, Garuda. But the demons caught up and a tussle followed.
During this tussle a few drops of the drink fell at Ujjain, Nasik, Allahabad, and Haridwar. The drops are said to have purified the land and it is here that every year devotees come to wash away their sins in the famous assembly called – Kumbh Mela.
Once Garuda got back and the Gods drank the nectar, they became immortal. But as some demons had managed to taste a few drops of the drink, they too became immortal and to this day the fight between good and evil continues.
This religious observance is mainly performed to acquire lost opulence.