Apsara

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A 12th-century sandstone statue of an apsara from Madhya Pradesh, India. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Apsaras (Sanskrit: अप्सरा, IAST: Apsarā, Pali: अक्चरा, romanized: akcharā) are a member of a class of celestial beings in Hindu and Buddhist culture. They were originally a type of female spirit of the clouds and waters, but, later play the role of a "nymph" or "fairy". They figure prominently in the sculptures, dance, literature and paintings of many South Asian and Southeast Asian cultures.[1]

The apsaras are described to be beautiful, youthful and elegant, and are said to be able to change their shape at will. There are two types of apsaras—laukika (worldly) and daivika (divine). They are great in the art of dancing, and often wives of the gandharvas, the court musicians of Indra. The apsaras reside in the palaces of the gods and entertain them by dancing to the music made by the Gandharvas. The 26 apsaras of Indra's court are each said to symbolise a different facet of the performing arts, drawing comparisons to the Muses of ancient Greece. They are also renowned for seducing rishis in order to prevent them from attaining divine powers. Urvashi, Menaka, Rambha, Tilottama and Ghritachi are the most famous among the apsaras.[2][3]

In Japan, Apsara are known as "Tennin" (天人); "Tennyo" (天女) for "female Tennin" and "Tennan" (天男) for "male Tennin".

Etymology[edit]

Apsaras on Hindu Temple at Banares, 1913

The origin of 'apsara' is the Sanskrit अप्सरस्, apsaras (in the stem form, which is the dictionary form). NB The stem form ends in 's' as distinct from, e.g. the nominative singular Ramas/Ramaḥ (the deity Ram in Hindi), whose stem form is Rama. The nominative singular form is अप्सरास् apsarās, or अप्सरा: apsarāḥ when standing alone, which becomes अप्सरा apsarā in Hindi, from which in turn the English 'apsara' presumably is derived. The Monier-Williams Dictionary gives the etymology as अप् + √सृ, "going in the waters or between the waters of the clouds".[4]

Apsaras are widely known as Apsara (អប្សរា Âbsâréa) in Khmer, and also called as Accharā in Pāli, or Bidadari (Malay, Maranao), Biraddali (Tausug, Sinama), Hapsari/Apsari or Widadari/Widyadari (Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese), Helloi (Meitei) and Apsorn (Thai: อัปสร).

Literature[edit]

Apsara, Devi Jagadambi temple at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, India

The most ancient descriptions of apsara portray them as "water nymph"-like beings.[5]

The Rigveda tells of an apsara who is the wife of Gandharva; however, the Rigveda also seems to allow for the existence of more than one apsara.[3] The only apsara specifically named is Urvashi. An entire hymn deals with the colloquy between Urvashi and her mortal lover Pururavas.[6] Later Hindu scriptures allow for the existence of numerous apsaras, who act as the handmaidens of Indra or as dancers at his celestial court[3] serving as musicians alongside the gandharvas ("celestial musicians").[5]

The Kaushitaki Upanishad mentions apsaras as a class of divinities associated with ointments, garlands, vestments, and powdered aromatics.[7]

The origin of the apsaras is described in the Ramayana and Puranas. Apsaras are further associated with water by relating them to the churning of the ocean, water sports, and groups such as nāgas.[8]

In many of the stories related in the Mahabharata, apsaras appear in important supporting roles. The epic contains several lists of the principal Apsaras, which lists are not always identical. Here is one such list, together with a description of how the celestial dancers appeared to the residents and guests at the court of the gods:

Ghritachi, Menaka, Rambha, Purvachitti, Swayamprabha, Urvashi, Misrakeshi, Dandagauri, Varuthini, Gopali, Sahajanya, Kumbhayoni, Prajagara, Chitrasena, Chitralekha, Saha, and Madhuraswana—these and thousands more, possessed of eyes like lotus leaves, were employed in enticing the hearts of individuals practicing rigid austerities, and they danced there. And possessing slim waists and fair large hips, they began to perform various evolutions, shaking their deep bosoms, and casting their glances around, and exhibiting other attractive attitudes capable of stealing the hearts and resolutions and minds of the spectators.[9]

The Mahabharata documents the exploits of individual apsaras, such as Tilottama, who rescued the world from the rampaging asura brothers Sunda and Upasunda, and Urvashi, who attempted to seduce the hero Arjuna.

A recurring theme in the Mahabharata is that of an apsara sent to distract a sage from his ascetic practices. One story embodying this theme is that recounted by the epic heroine Shakuntala to explain her own parentage.[10] Once upon a time, the sage Vishvamitra generated such intense energy by means of his asceticism that Indra himself became fearful. Deciding that the sage would have to be distracted from his penances, he sent the apsara Menaka to work her charms. Menaka trembled at the thought of angering such a powerful ascetic, but she obeyed the god's order. As she approached Vishvamitra, the wind god Vayu tore away her garments. Seeing her thus disrobed, the sage abandoned himself to lust and they made love, during which Vishvamitra's asceticism was put on hold. As a consequence, Menaka gave birth to a daughter, whom she abandoned on the banks of a river. That daughter was Shakuntala herself, the narrator of the story.

Shu Ting referenced apsara in her poem "O Motherland, Dear Motherland".[11]

In arts[edit]

Many Indian apsaras were identified with names and were central in myths. However, since they were not attributed specific physical features or attributes, artistic depictions do not individualize them.[8]

Natya Shastra[edit]

Natya Shastra, the principal work of dramatic theory for Sanskrit drama, lists the following apsaras: Manjukesi, Sukesi, Misrakesi, Sulochana, Saudamini, Devadatta, Devasena, Manorama, Sudati, Sundari, Vigagdha, Vividha, Budha, Sumala, Santati, Sunanda, Sumukhi, Magadhi, Arjuni, Sarala, Kerala, Dhrti, Nanda, Supuskala, Supuspamala and Kalabha.

Cambodia[edit]

Apsara on a 1931 postage stamp of Indochina
Apsara Relief Sculpture on Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Temple Wall
Devata relief sculpture on Angkor Wat Temple Wall

Apsaras represent an important motif in the stone bas-reliefs of the Angkorian temples in Cambodia (8th–13th centuries AD), however, not all female images are considered to be apsaras. In harmony with the Indian association of dance with apsaras, Khmer female figures that are dancing or are poised to dance are considered apsaras; female figures, depicted individually or in groups, who are standing still and facing forward in the manner of temple guardians or custodians are called devatas.[12]

Angkor Wat, the largest Angkor temple (built in 1113–1150 AD), features both Apsaras and Devata, however, the devata type are the most numerous with more than 1,796 in the present research inventory.[13] Angkor Wat architects employed small apsara images (30–40 cm as seen below) as decorative motifs on pillars and walls. They incorporated larger devata images (all full-body portraits measuring approximately 95–110  cm) more prominently at every level of the temple from the entry pavilion to the tops of the high towers. In 1927, Sappho Marchal published a study cataloging the remarkable diversity of their hair, headdresses, garments, stance, jewelry and decorative flowers, which Marchal concluded were based on actual practices of the Angkor period. Some devatas appear with arms around each other and seem to be greeting the viewer. "The devatas seem to epitomize all the elements of a refined elegance," wrote Marchal.[14]

Khmer Apsara dancers

The bas-reliefs of Angkorian temples have become an inspiration of Khmer classical dance. The indigenous ballet-like performance art of Cambodia is frequently called "Apsara Dance". The dance was created by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia in the mid-20th century under the patronage of Queen Sisowath Kossamak of Cambodia. The role of the apsara is played by a woman, wearing a tight-fitting traditional dress with gilded jewelry and headdress modelled after Angkor bas-reliefs,[15] whose graceful, sinuous gestures are codified to narrate classical myths or religious stories.[16]

Java and Bali, Indonesia[edit]

The Apsara of Borobudur, the flying celestial maiden depicted in a bas-relief of the 9th-century Borobudur temple, Java, Indonesia

In the Indonesian language throughout medieval times, apsaras are also known as 'bidadari', being conflated with the 'vidyadharis' (from Sanskrit word vidhyadhari: vidhya, 'knowledge'; dharya, 'having, bearer, or bringer') known as Bidadari in the modern Indonesian,[17] the females of the vidyādharas, another class of celestial beings in Indian mythology. 'Vidyādhara' literally means 'possessed of science or spells', and refers to 'a kind of supernatural being ... possessed of magical power' or 'fairy' according to Monier-Williams Dictionary. The bidadaris are heavenly maidens,[17] living in the svargaloka or in celestial palace of Indra, described in Balinese dedari (bidadari or apsara) dance.

Traditionally apsaras are described as celestial maidens living in Indra's heaven (Kaéndran). They are well known for their special task: being sent to earth by Indra to seduce ascetics who by their severe practices may become more powerful than the gods. This theme occurs frequently in Javanese traditions, including the Kakawin Arjunawiwaha, written by mpu Kanwa in 1030 during the reign of a king Airlangga. The story tells that Arjuna, in order to defeat the giant Niwatakawaca, engaged in meditation and asceticism, whereupon Indra sent apsaras to seduce him. Arjuna, however, managed to conquer his lust and then to win the ultimate weapons from the gods to defeat the giant.

The Balinese Legong dance depict celestial maidens, Bali, Indonesia.

Later in the Javanese tradition the apsara was also called Hapsari, also known as Widodari (from Sanskrit word vidyādhari). The Javanese Hindu-Buddhist tradition also influenced Bali. In Balinese dance, the theme of celestial maidens often occurred. Dances such as Sanghyang Dedari and Legong depicted divine maidens in their own way. In the court of Mataram Sultanate the tradition of depicting heavenly maidens in dances still alive and well. The Javanese court dances of Bedhaya portray apsaras.

However, after the adoption of Islam, bidadari is equated with houri, the heavenly maiden mentioned in the Quran, in which God stated that the 'forbidden pearls' of heaven are for those men who have resisted temptation and borne life's trials. Islam spread in the Malay archipelago when Arabic traders came to trade spices with the Malays; at that time, Hinduism formed the basis of the Malay culture, but syncretism with the Islamic religion and culture spawned the idea of a Bidadari. It is usually seen as a prized offer to those who lived a lifestyle in service to and pleasing to God; after death, the Bidadari was the man's wife or wives, depending on what type of person he was. The worthiness of a man who was offered Bidadari depended upon his holiness: how often he prayed, how much he turned away from the 'outside world', and how little he heeded worldly desires.

A male devata flanked by two apsaras, Vishnu temple, Prambanan, Java

Images of apsaras are found in several temples of ancient Java dating from the era of the Sailendra dynasty to that of the Majapahit empire. The apsara celestial maidens might be found as decorative motifs or also as integral parts of a story in bas-relief. Images of apsaras can be found on Borobudur, Mendut, Prambanan, Plaosan, and Penataran.

At Borobudur apsaras are depicted as divinely beautiful celestial maidens, pictured either in standing or in flying positions, usually holding lotus blossoms, spreading flower petals, or waving celestial clothes as if they were wings enabling them to fly. The temple of Mendut near Borobudur depicted groups of devatas, divine beings flying in heaven, which included apsaras. In the Prambanan temple compound, especially in Vishnu temple, along with the gallery, some images of male devata are found flanked by two apsaras.

Manipur, India[edit]

In the ancient Manipur culture of the Meitei people of northeastern India, apsaras are considered as celestial nymphs or hellois as the flying creatures resembling the human female body attracting the male wanderers or any knights who lost their ways in the woods. They were known for their beauty, glamour, magical powers and enchanting supernatural Androphilic Magnetism. They are believed to be seven in number and are the daughters of the sky god or the Soraren deity.

Champa[edit]

Apsaras were also an important motif in the art of Champa, medieval Angkor's neighbour to the east along the coast of what is now central Vietnam. Especially noteworthy are the depictions of apsaras in the Tra Kieu Style of Cham art, a style which flourished in the 10th and 11th centuries AD.

Apsara (feitian), China, Northern or Eastern Wei dynasty, 500–550 AD

China[edit]

Apsaras are often depicted in East Asian Buddhist art.[18] They are referred to as feitian (simplified Chinese: 飞天; traditional Chinese: 飛天) in Chinese.[18]

They are depicted as flying figures in the mural paintings and sculptures of Buddhist cave sites in China such as in the Mogao Caves,[19][20] Yulin Caves,[19] Tianlongshan grottoes,[19] the Yungang,[21] and Longmen Grottoes.[22] They are also depicted on tiles of pagoda, such as Xiuding-si pagoda.[19]

They may also be depicted as dancers or musicians holding musical instruments such as flute, pipa, or sheng.[19] Apsara may be portrayed as multiple spirits who played music for Buddhas.[11] Generally, they are depicted with a long skirt fluttering in the wind.[19]

Apsara is sometimes portrayed as a single powerful and influential spirit[11] or god who wears an outfit with "flowing sleeves" and lives in Tian. This version of Apsara is used in Chinese folk religion as an object of worship and in Chinese folklore.

Gallery[edit]

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ "Apsara | Indian religion and mythology". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 15 April 2020.
  2. ^ Gopal, Madan (1990). K.S. Gautam (ed.). India through the ages. Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. p. 68.
  3. ^ a b c Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Apsaras" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 2 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 231.
  4. ^ Monier-Williams, Sir Monier; Leumann, Ernst; Cappeller, Carl (1899). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary: Etymologically and Philologically Arranged with Special Reference to Cognate Indo-European Languages. Motilal Banarsidass Publishing House. p. 59. ISBN 978-81-208-3105-6.
  5. ^ a b Stefon, Matt (20 October 2009). "apsara". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 7 June 2023.
  6. ^ Rig Veda, Book X, Hymn 95.
  7. ^ Cohen, Simona (2021). "The Indian Hair-Wringing Apsaras and her Discriminating Goose: Meanings and Migrations". Religions of South Asia. 15 (2): 156–157. doi:10.1558/rosa.20975. ISSN 1751-2697.
  8. ^ a b Cohen, Simona (2021). "The Indian Hair-Wringing Apsaras and her Discriminating Goose: Meanings and Migrations". Religions of South Asia. 15 (2): 157. doi:10.1558/rosa.20975. ISSN 1751-2697.
  9. ^ Mahabharata, Book III: Vana Parva, Section 43.
  10. ^ Mahabharata, Book I: Adi Parva, Section 71-72.
  11. ^ a b c Meyer, Michael (2008). The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing (8th ed.). Boston: St. Martin/Bedford. p. 1311. ISBN 978-0-312-47200-9.
  12. ^ Maurice Glaize, Monuments of the Angkor Group, p.37.
  13. ^ Angkor Wat devata inventory - February 2010 Archived 23 April 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Sappho Marchal, Khmer Costumes and Ornaments of the Devatas of Angkor Wat.
  15. ^ "Home". Rough Guides. Retrieved 15 April 2020.
  16. ^ Di Giovine, Michael A. The Heritage-Scape. 2008, pages 293–4
  17. ^ a b "Bidadari". KBBI.
  18. ^ a b "Flying Celestial Apsara (Feitian 飛天) 7th century". www.metmuseum.org. Archived from the original on 13 December 2021. Retrieved 13 December 2021.
  19. ^ a b c d e f Wannaporn Rienjang; Peter Stewart, eds. (2020). The global connections of Gandharan art : proceedings of the Third International Workshop of the Gandhāra Connections Project, University of Oxford, 18th-19th March, 2019. Oxford: Archaeopress. pp. 239–241. ISBN 978-1-78969-695-0. OCLC 1197810642.
  20. ^ Expert Committee of Chinese Society of Cultural Relics, ed. (2019). Collection of ancient Chinese cultural relics. Volume 5, Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties : 581-960. Translated by Guozhen Wang. Hindmarsh, SA. p. 223. ISBN 978-1-925371-44-4. OCLC 1176321935.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  21. ^ "Other Divinities". depts.washington.edu. Retrieved 13 December 2021.
  22. ^ "Feitian – flying Apsaras in Longmen Grottoes[1]". www.chinadaily.com.cn. Retrieved 13 December 2021.

References[edit]

External links[edit]