What is an Apsara?

The Nymphs and Goddesses of Angkor Wat

Apsara. What is that?

While visiting the immense and intriguing religious complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia you will inevitably be struck by the beautiful dancing girls depicted on the temple walls and reliefs. 

These are Apsaras, figures of Hindu mythology: beautiful dancing girls who are the wives of the Ghandarvas. apsara-relief

The Ghandarvas are the court servants of Indra, king of the demi-gods, and make the music to which their wives dance in the celestial palaces.

According to Hindu legend the “elixir of immortality” was lost in the mythological Ocean of Milk and the gods went looking for it.  It is said that these goddesses were born from the ocean of milk; water nymphs that were pulled from the ocean by the Hindu Devas (gods); Visuki, the god of serpents and a group of morally corrupt demons, the Asuras.

The sultry adventures of the nymphs are recounted in the Mahabharata, in which they are described as having ultimate power over both mortal and immortal males due to their unsurpassed beauty and elegance.

These divine creatures are said to have the ability to change their forms and as the willing servants of Indra they used their seductive charms and beauty to seduce mortals, kings and wise men who may have threatened Indra’s power. The goddesses would appear to men with their torsos bare and their wrists and ankles adorned with gold.

Apsaras in Angkor Wat

apsara-angkor-wat-goddessIn the Angkor Wat Complex in Siem Reap, these goddesses are particularly prominent at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm appearing in many different reliefs, but always dancing. In Angkor Wat temple alone there are around 1,800 dancing goddesses carvings.

At the Angkor Wat Complex there are two types of females represented Apsaras and Devatas. The former are always dancing or poised ready to dance and the latter are standing still and facing forward in their role as temple guardians.

At Angkor Wat studies of the dancing girls have shown there are many varied depictions with different hair, jewelry, clothing, stance, floral decorations and headdresses, so it has been concluded that they were modeled on real Apsaras in the Khmer court of the 12th century.

It is said that during the Angkor period the King would take a different goddeses to bed each night and thousands of them lived around the temples and performed temple rites and rituals.

The nymphs carved on Angkor Wat's walls

Real Apsaras

Cambodian classical dance features women playing real goddesses and were originally created to entertain the Khmer royalty. During the Angkor period around the Middle Ages, the style of dancing was refined and became much like the dance we witness today.

Thai traditional dance is also strongly influenced by the Cambodian classical dance, having been taken back to Thailand and adapted in the early 15th century. The dance was banned under the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime and many dancers were killed due to their aristocratic associations, but it is making a comeback now and can be seen performed frequently in Siem Reap.

Cambodian dancers as goddesses
Photo by Werner Boehm at Flickr

So in short...

Apsaras are as much of a beautiful and beguiling sight as they may have been in the flesh when they were immortalized in the reliefs at the Angkor Wat Complex. 

They are an integral part of the fabric of the temples and they entertain and bewitch travelers today in the manner they did in mythological times.  The dance that they represent in the carvings of the temples is done to this day and it is an important and intriguing story of Khmer history and religion.

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