The name, “Apsaras” is derived from the Sanskrit word, apsa meaning water (Pattanaik 22). While the origins of these heavenly water nymphs vary, the most common version of the myth claims the Apsaras were born as a result of the churning of the milky ocean. Other versions, specifically found within the Manu Sastra claim the Apsaras were created in part with the seven Manus to serve as wives of the gods and daughters of pleasure (Williams 57). Originally believed to have emerged as a group of thirteen, the Apsaras are understood to have grown in numbers reaching up to 35 million (Williams 57). The ambiguity of the Apsaras does not stop with the myths of their origin; rather, the Apsaras are also ambiguous in their purpose. However, the commonality between the varying myths regarding the Apsaras purpose is that each Apsara is “skillfully versed in the 64 ways to please the senses” (Pattanaik 22). For example, certain myths claim the purpose of the Apsaras creation was to pleasure the gods, and occasionally the warrior heroes, as dancers in Indra’s court. Alternate myths depict the Apsaras as the wives of the Gandharvas or temptresses of sages. Regardless of their relationships, the indisputable feature of the Apsaras is that they are beautiful and seductive heavenly charmers (Williams 57).
According to the Mahabharata, the Apsaras play a major role in the act of war (Hara 139). The Apsaras are believed to accompany fallen soldiers into Indra’s heaven, where they and the Gandharvas embody all aspects of desire. Therefore, it is believed that heroic warriors would race into battle, braving any outcome in hopes of receiving the ultimate reward, an Apsara lover. This passive imagery of the Apsaras is only one half of the myth; the Apsaras are also understood to be active and aggressive in their search for a lover. The battlefield is a war zone to the Apsaras as well. Thousands of Apsaras descend the fields, playing instruments and singing songs. The Apsaras wait for the slain solders to fall, and then fight one another for the honor of marrying a fallen hero and accompanying him to Indra’s Court. Multiple kings used this imagery of the ascending and descending Apsaras in order to entice their men into battle (Hara 139).
Just as there are multiple versions of the myths regarding the origins and the role of the Apsaras, there are multiple versions of the myth regarding the soldiers’ ascent to the Apsaras. The Kumarasambhava claims that the Apsaras do not descend to earth in order to obtain their fallen heroes. Rather, a wild elephant uses its tusks to throw the fallen soldiers to the Apsaras waiting in heaven (Hara 142). The Kumarasambhava also details the results pertaining to two opposing soldiers who die in battle simultaneously. It is believed that their battle continues in heaven, this time for the Apsara herself (Hara 143).
Although the Apsaras are often seen as object of desire, they do face some hostility. The myth of the Apsaras creates a rivalry between the beautiful nymphs and the jealous widows of the fallen solders. The Mahabharata details the aforementioned wars from the point of view of the war wives and widows. One story tells of a widow’s prayer to her husband as to not forget of her love and service to him when he meets and becomes enchanted with his new Apsara (Hara 143). Additional stories describe the jealousy that the wives felt even before battle, witnessing their husband’s excitement to be slain and thus, rescued by an Apsara (Hara 144). Many women desire to follow their husbands into heaven, therefore they perform the act of sati, in which the wife immolates herself atop her husband’s funeral pyre to prevent the Apsaras from reaching the fallen solider. However, many Apsaras are believed to be aware of this tactic, and so they aim to entrap the solider before the arrival of the wife (Hara 146).
In regards to the historical content of these myths, it is important to note that throughout the early Vedic period, women possessed societal agency not necessarily associated with women of the later Vedic period. Therefore, this powerful representation of women through the Apsaras would not have been unusual (Wangu 40). It is also important to note that the Apsaras were “expected to behave outside the norms of society…as [they are] creature(s) of power much stronger than that of mortal men” (Pollock and Turvey-Sauron 141). Thus, their agency to choose their husbands and ascend or descend the heavens as they please was easily believed.
Multiple prominent Apsaras appear in their own specific myths told inside larger texts such as the Mahabharata or the Rg Veda. Some examples of these Apsaras are Urvashi, and Tilottama. According to the Mahabharata, Tilottama is an Apsara created by Visvakarman (Williams 282). Visvankarman combined all the elements of beauty found in the world, both animate and inanimate, in order to create Tilottama. Thus, Tilottama was so beautiful that Siva spouted faces on all sides of his head so that he may always see her and Indra grew one thousand eyes so that he may never lose sight of her. Aside from impressing the gods, Tilottama’s beauty was created in order to seduce the Asuras (demons), Sunda and Upasunda. Ultimately, in this seduction, Tilottama’s goal was to entice the two Asuras into battle. Tilottama successfully seduces both Asuras, causing them to kill each other over her love (Williams 282).
Urvashi (the one born of a thigh) is an Apsara who was created from the thigh of a mortal as a result of a conflict between Indra and Narayana, a sage. Indra attempted to distract Narayana as he was performing austerities over Indra’s throne. One of Indra’s distractions included summoning all the existing Apsaras to tempt Narayana. However, rather than allow himself to be distracted from his auspicious task, Narayana slapped his thigh and created Urvashi, whose beauty surpassed all the previous Apsaras. Indra accepted Urvashi as a gift and apologized to the sage, bringing Urvashi home where she became the eleventh Apsara (Williams 286). Urvashi’s myth does not stop here. It is believed that either Brahma or Mitravaruna cursed Urvashi to be born on earth, where she would eventually fall in love and marry a king named Pururavas under three conditions. First, Pururava was expected to provide Urvashi with two lambs. Secondly, Urvashi was to only eat ghee and finally, Pururava was to never allow Urvashi to see him naked. Although Urvashi was happy and in love, Indra began to miss her and so he sent a group of Gandharvas to retrieve her. In order to do so, they forced Pururava to break two of his three promises. While the couple was making love, the Gandharvas stole Urvashi’s sheep causing Pururava to jump out of bed. At this moment, they illuminated the sky causing Urvashi to see him naked and thus, leave him. Pururava spends the rest of his life searching to see Urvashi again (Williams 286).
As figures of beauty and seduction, the Apsaras are depicted in many art forms. Traditionally, in paintings the Apsaras were artistically depicted as swans, due to their mutual connection with water (Wangu 38). Eventually, the swan symbolism is replaced with the symbolism of Yakshas and Yaksinis, embodiments of “luminosity and awe-inspiring manifestation of a mysterious power which must be worshiped” (Wangu 38). This new depiction of the Apsaras through the Yaksha and Yaksinis imagery was created in order to parallel the pairing of the Apsaras to the Gandharvas and were often used as “decorative elements’ in ancient paintings (Wangu 38-39).
As statues, the Apsaras are depicted in the female form, beautiful and often emulating signs of a lover or seductress. Examples of these signs include a coy, turned away face, fingernail markings on the face or shoulder and little to no clothing (Slaczka 216). In statue form the Apsaras are also depicted as wearing many expensive articles of jewellery and hair ornamentation to expresses their luxurious qualities (Slaczka 216).
One of the most popular artistic mediums used to represent the Apsaras is dance, originating with the Devadasis (servants of God). The Devadasis were groups of women, living and working in temples, who provided services to the temple gods and devotees. However, the primary role of the Devadasis was to preserve and present the arts, specifically dance (Rodrigues 284). The Devadasis performed in large dance halls, located inside the temples, in order to pleasure the gods. Thus, the Devadasis were understood to emulate the myth of the Apsaras as beautiful and erotic embodiments of pleasure. Unfortunately, the Devadasis tradition fell victim to sexual exploitation and colonial ignorance. The tradition was outlawed and thus, the sacred dances and rituals were lost (Rodrigues 284). However, Nijhawan does argue that through the awakening and support of academics, the story of the Devadasis was revived and brought into the twentieth century (102). Nijhawan goes on to clarify that, while Devadasis image is echoed in the modern styles of Bollywood dance, it is again faced with the unfortunate fate of sexual exploitation of women and lack of female agency (103).
Unlike the rites and traditions of the Devadasis, the Cambodian ballet managed to keep the traditional myths of the Apsaras alive well into the modern day. The Apsara figurines located in the temples of Angkor-vat inspire the origins of the Cambodian ballet. The choreography performed by the dancers themselves emulates the gestures of the statues, while the costumes replicate the original ornamentation and colours of the figurines. Both dancer and costume working together to preserve and express the traditional beauty and praise of the mythological figures (Strickland-Anderson 226-227).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Encyclopædia Britannica (2010) “Apsara.” Britannica Academic academic.eb.com.ezproxy.uleth.ca/levels/collegiate/article/94889.
Hara, Minoru (2001) “Apsaras and Heroes.” Journal of Indian Philosophy Vol. 29: 139-146.
Nijhawan, Amita (2009) “Excusing The Female Dancer: Tradition and Transgression in Bollywood Dancing.” Journal of South Asian and Popular Culture, Vol. 7: 102-103. Doi: 10.1080.
Nut, Suppya H. (2014) “The Legend of Apsara Mera”: Princess Norodom Buppha Devi’s Choreography for the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.” Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1: 280-288. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1523423949?accountid=12063.
Pattanaik, Devedutt (2006) Myth = Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New Delhi: Penguin.
Pollock, Giserelda. (2007) The Sacred and the Feminine: Imagination and Sexual Difference. Victoria Turvey-Sauron (Ed.). New York: I.B.Tauris.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism-The Ebook: An Online Introduction (2nd ed.). PDF e-book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online.
Slaczka, Anna A. (2012) “Temples, Inscriptions and Misconceptions: Charles-Louis Fábri and the Khajuraho “Apsaras” The Rijksmuseum Bulletin, Vol. 60, No. 3: 212-33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41703571.
Strickland-Anderson, Lily (1926) “The Cambodian Ballet.” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2: 226-227. www.jstor.org/stable/738462.
Wangu, Madhu Bazaz (2003) Images of Indian Goddesses: Myths, Meanings and Models. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.
Williams, George M. (2008) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.
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This article was written by: Ramona Badau (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.