·         Introduction

·         Legends of the Kurmavtar

·         Legend of Mohini

·         Iconography of Kurmavtar

·         Temples


Vishnu protects the universe in many ways. In his second incarnation, he seems to be a firm support to preserve the lost things of value e.g. Amrut (nectar). Though he incarnated as Kurma (Turtle) to help deities in their struggle with demons, the motive behind it was not to kill any demon.

Legends of the Kurmavtar

The turtle or tortoise incarnation was first assumed by Prajapati. Taittiriya Aranyak tells us that the essence of Prajapati’s soul was rambling in the water in the form of tortoise. It appeared in front of him and Prajapati told it to create the world. Then the tortoise sprinkled water and generated the world.

Shathpath Brahmhan mentions that Prajapati took the form of a tortoise.

स यत्कूर्मो नाम ।

एतद्वै रूपं कृत्वा प्रजापतिः प्रजा असृजत ।

यदसृजताकरोत्तद्यकरोत्तस्मात् कूर्मः ।

sa yatkurmo nam|

etdvai rupam krutva prajapatihi praja asrujat|

yadsrujatakarottdyakarottsmat kurmh||

–      Shathpath Brahmhan (1.23.1-9)

“With the help of a form known as Kurma(tortoise), Prajapati created the living world. This is his Karma(deed). Because of this Karma, he is called as Kurma.”

Ramayan says that at the time of Samudramanthan (churning of ocean), Vishnu took form of turtle to lift up the sinking mount Mandar. Later he slept in the ocean.

After the end of Brahmhan age, Vishnu got importance as a god instead of Prajapati. Thus the virtues and deeds of Prajapati were started counting as those of Vishnu’s. Thus evolved the Kurmavtar of Vishnu in the period of Puranas.

सुरासुरेन्द्रैर्भुजवीर्यवेपितं परिभ्रमन्तं गिरिमङ्गपृष्ठतः ।

बिभ्रत्तदावर्तनमादिकच्छपो मेनेऽङ्गकण्डूयनमप्रमेयः ॥

Surasurendrairbhujveeryvepitam paribhramantm girimangprushthth||

Bibhrattdavrtanmadikachhpo menengkanduyanamprameyah||

Bhagvat Puran (8.7.10)

“The mountain (Mandar) is shaking and rotating due to the combined       arm-force of deities and demons. The enigmatic turtle (Kurma) who is bearing the mountain on the back feels that this rotation is merely the scratching of his back.”

The story begins thus, once Indra, the king of gods was roaming on an elephant. Rushi Durvas saw him and gifted him a garland of celestial flowers. Indra. Indra carelessly put the garland around his elephant. It fell down and the elephant trampled it. Seeing his gift trodden on by an elephant, the short-tempered sage cursed Indra and all the gods, due to which, they lost their strength, immortality and all the powers. Seeing the gods helpless, the demons started harassing them.

The gods approached Shiva and Brahmha but they could not help. Finally they approached Vishnu who advised them to drink the Amrut (nectar), to regain their glory and defeat the demons. To obtain the nectar, they needed to churn the Kshirsagar(ocean of milk). He also advised them to use mount Mandar as a churning stick. Since the task was so challenging that the gods asked help of demons. They offered asuras the share of nectar after the churning. Asuras agreed and they jointly uprooted the mountain and took the huge serpant Vasuki as a rope. Devas first held the head of Vasuki and let Danavas hold the tail end. But suspecting the foul play of devas, danavas insisted for the head end of the serpent. As the churning started, the danavas got the hot poisonous breath from the mouth of Vasuki and they started becoming weak. On the contrary, devas got the cool, fresh breeze of ocean.

As the ocean was being churned, the mountain started sinking in the mud. To support the mountain, Vishnu took the form of a giant tortoise, dived in the sea and supported the mountain on his back. The churning continued and one after another, 14 valuables appeared on the surface. They were,

1.   Poison Halahal-  Shiva drunk it due to which, his throat turned blue. He got the title ‘Neelkanth.’

2.   The Moon

3.   The wish fulfilling cow, Kamdhenu – It was given to the sages.

4.   The white horse Uchchaishrava – It was given to the demon king Bali.

5.   Elephant Airavat – It went to the king of gods, Indra.

6. Celestial conch Panchajanya – Taken by Vishnu

7. Bow Sharanga – Vishnu took it.

8. Mace Kaumodaki – Vishnu accepted it.

9. Jewel Kaustubh – Vishnu took it.

10.    Parijat tree – Taken by Indra

11.    Seven Apsaras (nymphs) – They remained with the gods in the heaven.

12.    Goddess Lakshmi – She accepted Vishnu as her husband.

13.    Sura (Wine) – The danavas accepted it.

14.    Physician Dhanwantari with a bowl of Amrut

Various texts give diverse number of articles. Ramayan gives information of only 6 things i.e. Dhanwantari, Apsaras, Uchchaishrava, Sura, Kaustubh and   Amrut whereas Mahabharat refers 7 articles; Moon, Lakshmi, Sura, Dhanwantari, Uchchaishrava, Kaustubh and Amrut. Some purans extend this number to 24.

Legend of Mohini

When Dhanwantari appeared with the bowl of nectar, both devas and danavas rushed to get it. Demons snatched and ran away with it. But soon they started fighting among themselves as to who should drink it first. At this moment, Vishnu appeared in the form of enchanting, beautiful woman ‘Mohini’ and offered to help in distributing the nectar.

Asuras agreed to take Mohini’s help and handed over the bowl of nectar to her. She asked both devas and danavas to sit in two rows, served the gods first and kept danavas busy with her captivating gestures. As soon as the gods had been served, she disappeared with the nectar.

Iconography of Kurmavtar

The image of Kurma is generally in the form of half man and half tortoise. The lower half is shown as a tortoise. He is shown with four hands, out of them two hands hold shankh and chakra while other two hands are in varad mudra and abhay mudra. Sometimes, the image is depicted like an ordinary tortoise.


Sri Kurmum Temple, Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh

This temple is dedicated to Sri Kurmanath, the Kurmavtar of Vishnu. The place is known as Kurmksetra. It is situated at about 18 kms southeast of Srikakulam. The deity is known as Sri Kurmanath Swamy.

Instead of a carved sculpture, a fossil of a large turtle is being worshipped. The head of the deity is in form of tortoise and the tail is in the form of a Shaligram. The temple is artistically rich and huge with more than 200 pillars. It is decorated with elaborate images of various gods and goddesses.

The festival of Kurma Jayanti is celebrated in the month of Vaishakh.

Probably this is the only temple of Vishnu’s Kurma incarnation in India.


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