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Apsaras, the Legendary Spiritual Dancers

Updated on December 20, 2016
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

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A dance was more than a dance when the apsaras were doing it. The female deities from the Hindu and Buddhist religions had the power to change forms as well as control the fortunes made from gaming and gambling. Yet, it was their ability to entice the gods and mere humans with their rhythmic gyrations and beauty.

Young, pretty and graceful, these deities danced for the gods and the warriors who fell in battle. They also served as caretakers for fallen heroes in the afterlife, eventually marrying them (which may have served as an incentive for warriors to fight bravely and with disregard for their safety).

They were so highly regarded by their worshipers that their images were seared or carved into the walls of ancient temples throughout the Indian subcontinent and much of Southeast Asia. Even today, these supernatural females are honored with a dance and performance art named after them.

The apsaras are often compared to the Nymphs of Greek Mythology and the Valkyrie of Norse Mythology. Like the nymphs, the apsaras took on the role of a fertility deity.

In Hinduism, they are widely depicted as beautiful dancers wearing the finest jewelry with flowing multi-textured dresses and pyramid-like or conical head dresses. They served the same role in Buddhism (it should be noted that the Buddhist versions are found in countries that were traditionally Hindu or were once ruled by Hindu kings).

The apsaras are often compared to the Nymphs of Greek Mythology and the Valkyrie of Norse Mythology. Like the nymphs, the apsaras took on the role of a fertility deity. And, like the Valkyrie, they served as guides for fallen soldiers throughout the afterlife. The big difference between them and the other deities is that they are still part of two contemporary religions.

Possibly, the greatest concentration of artifacts depicting them can be found in the ruins of Angkor Wat of the old Khmer culture (in present-day Cambodia). After 800 years since this ancient city was abandoned, sculptures and reliefs of apsaras can still be seen through the lichen and forest encroachment, smiling and displaying their beauty for all to see.

Fresco painting from Sri Lanka
Fresco painting from Sri Lanka | Source

Four Significant Apsaras

Four apsaras, Urvashi, Menaka, Rambha, and Tilottama were the most prominent in the Hindu texts, the Rig Veda and Mahabharata. The Rig Veda refers to one apsara, Urvasi, who was the wife Glandharva, a male nature spirit. In the book, an entire hymn deals with Urvasi and her human lover, Pururava. While the account in the book was mostly about Urvashi, there’s indication that other apsaras existed.

The Mahabharata contains several stories about the apsaras. Among the stories and characters are:

  • Tilottama, who rescued the world from the rampaging Asura brothers Sunda and Upasunda, two power-seeking deities often associated with sin and materialism.
  • Urvashi: she tries to seduce the hero Arjuna, the archer who was the central character throughout the book.

Heroines, Seducers, or Agents of a Higher Source

Although the two stories mentioned in the Mahabharata cast the apsaras as being heroines or seducers, other tales in the book cast them as being spirits directed by a higher source, most notably, the god Indra, the king of the gods. Also, the stories depicted the apsaras as being married to Indra’s musically-inclined guards known as Gandharvas, and danced to the music of their husbands in his palace.

In other stories, the apsaras were sent to distract a sage or spiritual master from his practices. In one such story, the sage Viswamitra created intense energy through his ascetic practices. This worried Indra. Thus, he sent Menaka to distract him with her charm – in this case, that “charm” was her body and sexuality. She would eventually distract Viswamitra, and go even further. She ended up conceiving a child named Shakuntala (the daughter was the narrator of the story, “The Nymph and the Sage”).

Chinese (Buddhist) version of Apsaras
Chinese (Buddhist) version of Apsaras | Source

Apsaras in the Far East

The apsaras would also end up in the artwork and literature from other cultures. For example, A Japanese painting depicted the apsaras as flying spirits singing and dancing in praise of Buddha. The image of the apsaras came from N.Wei Dynasty China (5-early 6th century) and was used on statues from the Asuka period (late 6th century). A famous openwork carving, Sukashibori, is found on the Amida Nyorai carving (created 1053 AD) found in Byodoin (Kyoto), Japan (On Mark Production, 2010).

The apsaras aren’t merely part of the past. They became an inspiration for a unique form of performance art. Apsaras dancers can be found throughout the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian countries.

Apsaras in Contemporary Times

Recently, Apsaras Arts, a professional performing company established in Singapore in 1977, has been showcasing this dance form to the world. They have opened dance institutions in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Japan, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, France and the United States.

Apsaras may be a part of the past, but these nymph-like dancers have found inspiration in the present. For this reason, the apsaras are living deities who survive in the form of a dance.

Apsara Dance from Cambodia

© 2014 Dean Traylor

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