Apsaras or “Celestial Nymphs.”  The depiction of dancing Apsaras (plural form corresponding to “Apsara” in the singular; alternative usage: “Apsarases” in the plural, “Apsaras” in the singular) in the decoration of walls and pillars is a recurring feature of Angkorian temple art.  From the trios dancing on lotus flowers on the pillars of Bayon, to the myriads on the grand mural at Angkor Wat showing their emergence from the Ocean of Milk, Apsaras always appear light, graceful, supple, and wholly engrossed in the task of dancing.

Legendary birth of the Apsaras from the Ocean of Milk.  A bas-relief mural at Angkor Wat depicts the legendary origin of the Apsaras. Once upon a time, the Devas (gods) were still in search of immortality. They knew that an elixir capable of conferring immortality upon those who drank from it lay hidden somewhere in the depths of the Ocean of Milk. Eager to be rid of the mortal coil, the Devas decided to dredge up the elixir. Their plan was to seize Vasuki, the ruler of the Nagas (serpents) and to coil Vasuki’s body around a mountain that jutted out from the Ocean. One team would grab the serpent’s head, and the other team would grab the tail. First one team would pull, and then the other, and so acting in unison they would cause the mountain to spin in the ocean. The spinning of the mountain, in turn, would churn up the ocean’s depths and bring the elixir to the surface. Since the Devas did not have enough hands to accomplish the churning themselves, they asked their perennial rivals, the Asuras (a morally ambigous group that may be characterized either as as an association of powerful demons or as a second set of gods) to help them. The Devas grabbed Vasuki’s tail and the Asuras grabbed Vasuki’s head. As they pulled back and forth, the Ocean of Milk disgorged many wondrous beings, including the celestial nymphs.  The Ramayana describes the event in a manner recalling the origin of the Greek goddess Aphrodite: “Then as the waters foamed and boiled, as churning still the immortals toiled, of winning face and lovely frame, forth sixty million fair ones came.  Born of foam and water, these were named the Apsaras.”

The Apsaras as Dancers in the Celestial Court.  Following their legendary birth from the Ocean of Milk, the Apsaras settled down to a lengthy mythological stint as celestial entertainers at the court of the gods.  When not entertaining gods and their guests in the heavenly palaces, they frequently entered the realm of mortals with the purpose of seducing or distracting prominent sages and heroes.  The Mahabharata is full of stories about the exploits of Apsaras, whom it depicts as having power over men, mortal and immortal, on account of their unmatched grace and beauty.

  • An Apsara excites an ascetic to engender a child.  The Mahabharata treats with particular relish and in many variants the motif of the encounter between an alluring Apsara and a powerful ascetic dedicated to the pursuit of an abstemious and celibate lifestyle.  The story of theBirth of Dronais a story constructed around this motif.  Drona was the legendary weapons master who gave instruction to the supreme hero Arjuna and his brothers, but who ended up fighting against them in the climactic battle of Kurukshetra.  “There dwelt at the source of the Ganga [river], a great sage named Bharadwaja, ceaselessly observing the most rigid vows. One day of old, intending to celebrate the Agnihotra sacrifice, he went along with many great Rishis [sages] to the Ganga to perform his ablutions. Arrived at the bank of the stream, he saw Ghritachi herself, that Apsara endowed with youth and beauty, who had gone there a little before. With an expression of pride in her countenance, mixed with a voluptuous languor of attitude, the damsel rose from the water after her ablutions were over. As she was gently treading on the bank, her attire which was loose became disordered. Seeing her attire disordered, the sage was smitten with burning desire. The next moment his vital fluid came out, in consequence of the violence of his emotion. The Rishi immediately held it in a vessel called a drona. Then Drona [the weapons master] sprang from the fluid thus preserved in that vessel by the wise Bharadwaja.”
  • A meddlesome Apsara suffers the curse of a sage.  In the Mahabharata, encounters between Apsaras and sages frequently end in the same way as the encounter between Ghritachi and Bharadwaja.  The epic makes clear, however, that tempting or distracting an ascetic was a hazardous business even for a divine Apsara, since a frustrated ascetic could easily fly into a rage and utter a cruel curse.  The unfortunate Apsara Varga, for example, was cursed by a vindictive sage, whom she and her companions had sought to distract from his meditations, to spend 100 years living as a crocodile.  Similarly , the Apsara Rambha was turned into a rock for disturbing the devotions of a wrathful Brahmana.
  • An Apsara completes a hazardous mission as the loyal agent of the gods.  In general, the epic portrays the Apsaras as dutiful and obedient agents of the gods.  At one time, the Asura (demon) brothers Sunda and Upasunda raged across the face of the world, subjugating its inhabitants, slaughtering priests, and desecrating sacrificial fires.  Due to a boon they had received, the brothers could suffer harm only from each other, and as they wrought ever greater desolation on the world, the Devas (gods) found themselves in an increasingly desperate state.  Finally, they hit upon the strategem of having Visvakarman, the celestial architect, fashion a secret weapon, a beautiful Apsara capable of captivating any man’s heart.  Using a mass of gems, Visvakarman created Tilottama.  With clasped hands, the homuncular maiden went to the gods and asked for a mission.  They instructed her to go to the Asura brothers and to sow discord between them.  Tilottama revealed herself to the brothers while they were enjoying a party with their entourage.  Their minds inflamed by desire, the brothers immediately set to fighting over her, initially with words, then with maces.  When they had slain each other, the gods restored the world order.
  • An Apsara falls in love with a hero.  Occasionally, a story in the Mahabharata depicts an Apsara as self-willed and independent-minded.  One such story is that of the Apsara Urvasi (who was so beautiful as to be “capable of shaking the saintship of anchorites”) and herCurse of Arjunathe human hero.  Arjuna had been a guest in the celestial realm of the gods.  One day, Indra ordered Urvasi to instruct Arjuna in the art of making love to women.  Urvasi went to Arjuna, who, with a fearstricken heart, bashfully averted his eyes and placed his hands over his ears, assuring her that he was not worthy of her attentions.  Urvasi, however, had already fallen in love with him, and grew insistent.  When Arjuna obstinately rejected all of her entreaties, she angrily cursed him to live for a year as a female dancer, dancing for the entertainment and pleasure of others.  Arjuna was able to delay the execution of the curse, but ended up serving it out in the realm of King Virata, where he earned plaudits as a courtly entertainer.

A Khmer Story about a Nymph and a Hermit.  The 10th century Angkorian temple of Baksei Chamkrong contains an inscription tracing the Cambodia dynasty to the union of the hermit Kambu with the celestical nymph Mera, who had been sent to him by Siva.  According to Angkor scholar Georges Coedès, this legend may have been invented to explain the name of the Khmer people.

Apsara Dancers in Cambodia.  Human apsara dancers entered history as entertainers at the courts of the medieval Khmer monarchs. It was during the Angkorian period that they developed and refined their characteristic way of dancing.  When the Thais sacked the Khmer capital in 1431, bringing the period to an abrupt end, they carried off the dancers and started a derivative style.  Today, modern apsara dancers have returned to Cambodian society as elegant practitioners of an indigenous art-form often referred to as Khmer classical dance.

Related pages on this website: 8 Churning the Ocean of Milk (depicted in a bas-relief at Angkor Wat and “naga bridges” at Angkor Thom); 9 Devatas (minor female deities positioned as temple guardians and custodians); 14 Angkor Wat; 15 Meditating Ascetics (foils for Apsaras in the stories of the Mahabharata).

In this bas-relief from the 12th century temple of Angkor Wat, Apsaras newly born from the Ocean of Milk fly joyfully over the heads of a group of Devas still tugging grimly on the tail of the serpent king Vasuki in the hope of recovering the elixir of immortality.

A detail from the bas-relief at Angkor Wat, showing the newly born Apsaras as they fly overhead after being released from the Ocean of Milk.  The word “Apsara” is probably a composite of “ap” (water) and “sri” (to go), and thus signifies beings coming from the water.

A group of weather-worn Apsaras dance on a wall at the 12th century temple-monastery of Ta Prohm.  An inscription indicates that in its heyday, the temple employed over 600 dancers in addition to over 2,700 priests and officials, and had a total population of almost 80,000 souls.

(left, above, right) A group of three Apsaras dance on lotus leaves on a pillar at the 12th century temple of Bayon.(below) The pillars at Bayon bearing the bas-relief depictions of apsara dancers.

(left) An apsara dancer as depicted on a pillar at Bayon.(right) A female deity known as a Devata (distinguished from apsara dancers by her stationary posture) stands guard next to a doorway at Banteay Srei.(below) A contemporary artist practices Khmer classical dance in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Here is the link to a video of the dance.