A well-known story from the Mahabharata, the Churning of the Ocean, called Samudramanthana, is a tale about how the gods came to be immortal. Vishnu encouraged the gods to churn up the ocean to retrieve lost treasures, but as the gods were unable to accomplish this on their own, they enlisted the demons to help them and in return promised Amrita, the elixir of immortal life. They used the serpent Vasuki as a rope on either end of Mount Madura, pulling alternatively to churn the ocean. Along with the elixir of immortality, the fourteen ratnas, or valuable treasures, also emerged, including goddess and various animals. Although the gods promised the elixir to the demons, Vishnu tricked them so that the gods could obtain it and live for eternity.
While this tale appears frequently in painting, it is not commonly depicted in stone, making this sculpture particularly rare. For an example of the same subject, see the painting at the British Museum (2007,3005.7).