Apsara – Celestial Nymph
This statue depicts “Apsara”, who is a is a female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. This “water nymph” figure once adorned the exterior wall of a temple in central India. Her sensuality is believed to attract the gods to hear the prayers of the faithful. The English translations of the word “Apsara” include” “nymph,” “celestial nymph,” and “celestial maiden.”
This masterpiece of Indian art is masterfully carved with her back to the viewer. She turns to one side as the swan eagerly waits for the water drops that she wrings from her hair. In Indian mythology, Apsaras are beautiful and supernatural female beings. They are young and elegant and expert in the art of dancing. As ethereal beings who inhabit the skies, and are often depicted taking flight and they may be compared to angels.
An Apsara is a female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist culture. They figure prominently in the sculpture, dance, literature and painting of many South Asian and Southeast Asian cultures. They are often wives of the Gandharvas, the court musicians of Indra. They dance to the music made by the Gandharvas, usually in the palaces of the gods, entertain and sometimes seduce gods and men.
Apsaras are said to be able to change their shape at will and rule over the fortunes of gaming and gambling. Apsaras are sometimes compared to the muses of ancient Greece, with the 26 Apsaras at Indra’s court representing a distinct aspect of the performing arts. They are associated with fertility rites.
Apsara in the Visual Arts
- Apsaras are often depicted as flying figures in the mural paintings and sculptures of Buddhist cave sites in China. They may also be represented as dancers or musicians. They are referred to as “feitian” in Chinese.
- Java and Bali, Indonesia
- Images of apsaras are found in several temples of ancient Java where the apsara celestial maidens might be found as decorative motifs or also as integral parts of a story in bas-relief.
- Angkor Wat, the largest Angkorian temple (built AD 1116–1150), features apsaras. The Angkor Wat artists employed small apsara images (30–40 cm) as decorative motifs on pillars and walls. The bas-reliefs of Angkorian temples became the inspiration of Khmer classical dance. This Cambodian ballet-like performance art is frequently called “Apsara Dance”. The dance was created in the mid-20th century, and the role of the Apsara is danced by a woman, wearing a tight-fitting traditional dress with gilded jewellery and headdress modelled after Angkor bas-reliefs, whose graceful, sinuous gestures are codified to narrate classical myths or religious stories.
- 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. The depictions of apsaras in the Cham art style flourished in the 10th and 11th centuries AD.
Buddhism and Hinduism
Buddhism and Hinduism have common origins in the Ganges culture of northern India around 500 BCE. They have shared parallel beliefs that have existed side by side but also have significant differences. Buddhism attained prominence in the Indian subcontinent due to the support of the royal courts, but started to decline and virtually disappeared from India in the 11th century CE, except in some small pockets of India.
Buddhism has continued to exist and flourished outside of India and has become the dominant religion in several Asian countries. Many examples exist of temples dedicated to both faiths, including Angkor Wat.
Robam Tep Apsara
Robam Tep Apsara or the Dance of the Apsara Divinities is the title of a Khmer classical dance created by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia in the mid-20th century. The Apsara is played by a woman, in tight-fitting traditional dress, whose graceful, sinuous gestures are codified to narrate classical myths or religious stories. The costumes of the apsara role are based on the depicts of Angkor Wat. They wear a silk brocade that is intricately pleated in the front.
- Interesting to see the influence between Hindu and Buddhist culture and art.
Explore the Asian Civilisations Museum
- Dancing Ganesha
- Shadow Puppet – Rama
- The Family of Shiva
- Vajradhara and Prajna
- Walking Buddha
- Title: Apsara
- Dates: 10th Century
- Period: Chandella
- Provenience: Madhya Pradesh, India
- Materials: Sandstone
- Museum: Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore
“A beautiful woman belongs to everyone; an ugly one is yours alone.”
– Indian Proverb
Photo Credit: JOM