Kurma avatar is the second of the Dashavatar. In this incarnation, Vishnu took the form of a tortoise to help the gods. But He had a selfish motive too. When compared to being Varaha-during which time-Vishnu exalted playing in the water, in this personification, He is devoid of the same kind of physical action. Let us look at the story first, before going into the various aspects of this form in the next few postings.
Once, the Devas became powerless and weak due to a curse from Sage Durvasa. Their cousins-the Asuras, seized this opportunity and started dominating the Devas. Fearing that they will lose everything, Indra went to Brahma and sought help. Brahma, as usual, reached out to Lord Vishnu. Vishnu, who was visiting mount Meru at that time, told king Indra to churn the ocean of milk or Paarkadal to get amrita or the nectar of immortality. When the king reminded Nara-yana that the Devas were very weak to churn, the Lord asked them to make a pact with the Asuras, promising to offer them amrita in exchange for their help.
The Asuras readily agreed. They wanted to use Mandara Mountain as the pole and snake Vasuki as the chord, to churn. Mandara is the best of mountains full of medicinal herbs, birds and animals. It is eleven thousand yojanas high and extends down for the same distance. Vasuki is the thousand headed serpent king. Everything was set to start the churning except that the Mandara Mountain was so huge that they could not uproot it. So they went back to Lord Vishnu who deputed Ananta, the prince of snakes, to complete the task. Ananta uprooted Mandara with little effort and placed it in the ocean. The Devas and the asuras started churning the ocean by taking the tail and head of Vasuki, respectively.
While both the gods and their cousins were up to the task, they could not manage the churning due to the sheer height and bulk of the mountain pole. Soon the pole started dipping into the ocean. So Lord Vishnu took the form of a tortoise or Kurma and held the pole on his back. The churning happened for a thousand years.
Vasuki could not bear the friction of his skin on the mountain for so long and started emitting vapours of smoke from his thousand mouths. The vapours reached the flora and fauna living in the mountain and started a big fire. Due to the fire, the activity could not be continued. Indra had to generate heavy rainfall to douse the fire. The gums and resins of the various trees and herbs from the mountain started mixing with paarkadal, making its waters highly viscous. The milky waters turned into clarified butter due to the mixing of the gummy exudations. Even after all this, there was no sign of the elixir. In fact nothing was coming out of the ocean. The brothers in arms were so disappointed that they went back to Vishnu and prayed that they be spared and amrita be obtained. Vishnu knew what was coming (after all He is the author of the Dashavatar, is He not?) but did not reveal anything to them. He asked them to continue with the churning.
This churning of the ocean was no small activity by any means. Imagine 99 crore of celestials (33 crore devas and 66 crore asuras), churning the ocean(Paarkadal where Vishnu resides) with the help of a thousand headed snake, a 22 thousand yojana long mountain and the supreme being himself in one of his avatars, for a thousand years. Add to this, a 100,000 yojana long shell of the Kurma. With such an activity taking place, imagine the atmosphere around that place and the priceless entities that would have come out of the ocean, along with the nectar. We will see about all this in the next post.