The celestial dancers touch the ground
The Apsara are the nymphets of the east. Like the Dryad and Naiad, they are spirits of nature, and like the Houri, they are more beautiful than any others. Their task is not to reward, however, but to tempt and seduce. To do this they use all their grace and artistic skill, for most of all, they are known as dancers.
In both Hinduism and Buddhism, many stories are told about the Apsara. There are about 60 million of them, and the first among them was called Menaka. They were created either during the churning of the ocean of milk, by the lord Brahma, or by normal birth. The graceful maidens use their divine dance to entertain gods and lovers, but also to trick holy men - hermite sages, strict Brahmins - away from the path to god and wisdom. Like sirens they, too, have ways of luring lone wanderers to their death.
In pre-Vedic myths the Apsara were said to live in lotus pools or water tanks. In later Hindu mythology, most of the Apsara hang out at the court of Indra, the Lord of Heaven. His sweetly scented abode, filled with flowers and the singing of birds, is enchanted even further by their singing and dancing. Some of them also form the entourage of Kama, the god of love. The Apsara can have relationships with anyone, gods and mortals alike, but they are married to the Gandharva, who are the divine musicians of Indra's court.
Indra uses the Apsara not just for entertainment, but also as a secret weapon of seduction. Bound by their great devotion to him, and their sense of duty, the Apsara are bound to perform any task he bids them. He sent Menaka to the sage Vishvamitra, who was threatening his position. The result of their meeting was the downfall of the sage and the conception of Shakuntala, India's beautiful ancestress. The same trick failed, however, when the god tried it again ten years later with the same man and another Apsara - this time, Vishvamitra saw through Rampa and cursed her to be a piece of rock for 10,000 years.
Another union of Man and Apsara resulted in the nation of Cambodia, which is said to have been the fruit of Mera and the hermit Kumpu's passion. Apsaras are therefore particularly important in Cambodia, and celestial dancers are depicted in temples and mimicked in dances. The famous Angkor Wat has numerous Apsara carvings. The sandstone bas-reliefs are a thousand years old, and still as beautiful.
Graceful dances depicting the Apsaras were developed in the Khmer kingdom almost 2000 years ago, and performed for royalty only. The art became half forgotten during the 15th century as the Angkor declined, but was revived when Princess Buppha Devi became a performer, bringing it out both to the common people of Cambodia and to the rest of the world. During the Red Khmer regime, artists were pursued and the dance suppressed. A few of those who knew it survived, and today Apsara dancing is performed again, in temples, in hotels, and in other places where tourists gather.
The Apsara have fascinated poets and stone-masons alike, and have become inspiration for many a story, song and carving. They are often depicted wearing a long skirt held up with an ornamented golden belt, as well as a great deal of gleaming, tinkling jewelry. They hang flower garlands around their necks and can often be seen holding one or more lotus flowers. They wear thin white blouses or are topless.
Skilled and fortunate at gambling, the Apsara are often thought to bring good luck. However, they are creatures of the moment, and can seldom bring real happiness into a man's life. They make bad mothers as they tend to abandon their children at an early age. However, on rare occasion they can feel true love. Only one story is told about an Apsara and a Man having a lasting relationship.
Urvasi was said to be the most beautiful Apsara of all. Somehow, she had invoked the wrath of lord Brahma, and was cursed to descend from heaven. While on earth, she met a man called Puruvaras, and they fell in love. Now Urvasi knew that as an Apsara she could not stay forever with a mortal man, she said she would only stay together with him on certain conditions. One of them was that she was not to see him naked.
After some time, the Gandharva wanted to get Urvasi back. They tricked Puruvaras into getting out of bed during the night and then sent a bolt of lightning which showed Urvasi her mate naked. The Apsara had no choice but to leave him.
Puruvaras was devastated, but did not give up hope to see his love again. He searched for her everywhere, and eventually found her in the guise of a swan. Urvasi showed herself for him, but said it was impossible for them to be together - they were of two different kinds, she came from heaven, he from earth. Puruvaras was persistent, however. He declared that without her love, he would keep on walking until he fell down dead, a fine meal for the carrion eaters. At this prospect, the Apsara looked into her heart and knew that she loved him. She told her lover to perform a sacrifice to the gods, and ask that they give him immortality.
His wish was granted, and the two of them lived (presumably) happily ever after.
Considering their number, all Apsara cannot be named in this node. Some of the names, however, are commonly given to girls in India and on Bali, and these are some of them:
Anavadya - Anvasa - Anavata - Angika - Antara
Bekuri (playing a musical instrument - Bhasi
Danadada (giving generously - an Apsara or a Gandharva) - Danta (tamed, mild) -
Divya (divine, celestial, heavenly; charming, beautiful) - Divyanari - Divyastri
Kambala - Kanchana (gold ) - Krsangi
Madanapriya - Menaka
Parnika - Parnita - Priyamukha - Purvaci
Sughanda - Subhuja - Surotama
Vasumati - Visala - Visvaci