When visiting the religious complex of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, one will inevitably notice the dancing women depicted on the temple walls and reliefs. These same dancers were also an important motif in the art of Champa (c. 192–1832 CE), medieval Angkor’s neighbor to the east along the coast of what is now central Vietnam. Also noteworthy are the depictions of these same women in the Tra Kieu Style of Cham art, a style which flourished in the 10th and 11th centuries CE. These women are the apsaras, beautiful dancing women in the court of Indra, king of the gods, in the celestial palace in Hindu mythology. They are the heavenly charmers who fascinated heroes and allured sages from their devotions as well as the “rewards” in heaven given to heroes who fall in battle. The apsaras have the power to change their forms and give good luck to whom they favor.
Images of the apsaras are also found as decorative motifs as well as integral parts of the stories in several temples of ancient Java dating from the era of the Sailendra dynasty (c. 8th Century) to that of the Majapahit empire (c. 1293 – c. 1500 CE). The most famous of these images of the apsaras can be found on the Borobudur temple, where they 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 robes as if they were wings. The Vayu Purana enumerates fourteen apsaras while the Harivamsa says there are only seven.
In the epics and the Puranas, the apsaras are artists who perform at the court of Indra as well as other happy occasions such as births and weddings of the gods and humans particularly favored by the gods. Additionally, they are courtesans to the gods – they are frequently employed by Indra to distract kings and sages who Indra fears to be progressing well along the path of divinity and therefore capable of depriving him of his throne. Although the apsaras are not prominently noticed in the Vedas as a class, some of them are mentioned by name – such as Urvashi and Tilottama. The apsaras are said to be the creations of the Seven Manus, the progenitors of mankind. However, more is said about them In the epic poems as the Ramayana attributes their origin to the churning of the ocean. The Puranic account of their origin agrees with this by saying that as neither gods nor asuras (demons) would wed the apsaras when they rose from the waters. Therefore, the apsaras became the common property of both gods and asuras which led to them sometimes being referred to as “the wives of the gods,” and “daughters of pleasure.”
The apsaras are closely associated with the gandharvas, the celestial musicians, which leads to frequent pairings between them. However, the relationship between the celestial performers is temporary and not considered a marriage tie as the apsaras, in addition to entertaining at Indra’s court, are often sent to disrupt the penance of sages. Sometimes, an apsara would succeed in seducing the sage and achieve her mission. However, at other times, she would incur the wrath of the sage who would curse her. In the former case, the children born of such a union would be abandoned and would be brought up by foster parents as the apsaras are not allowed to have any relations. The Kuru-Pandava teacher Drona was born because his father lost control upon seeing an apsara, and the famous queen Shakuntala was born of an apsara named Menaka whom Indra sent to seduce the sage Vishwamitra. The apsaras are eternal virgins, and the constant “missions” has no effect on their youth and beauty. This can be best illustrated by quoting Urvashi’s speech to Arjuna, the third Pandava brother and son of Indra himself, in Mahabharata, book 3: “O son of the chief of the celestials, we apsaras are free and unconfined in our choice. It behoveth thee not, therefore, to esteem me as thy superior. The sons and grandsons of Puru’s race, that have come hither in consequence of ascetic merit do all sport with us, without incurring any sin. We have no husband, no sons, indeed, no relations.”
The theme of the apsaras seducing mortals also occurs frequently in Javanese traditions, including the Kakawin Arjunawiwaha, written by mpu Kanwa in 1030 CE, which says that in order to defeat the giant Niwatakawaca, Arjuna engaged in meditation and asceticism, whereupon Indra sent an apsara to seduce him. However, Arjuna managed to conquer his lust and won the ultimate weapons from the gods to defeat the giant, given to him by a gandharva.
The relationship between Arjuna and the celestial performers does not stop there. The gandharvas are musicians par excellence and they were the ones who taught Arjuna the arts of singing and dancing when he went to the heavens in search of celestial weapons. The gandharvas are also good warriors. The Kuru prince and heir apparent, Chitrangad, was killed in a battle by a gandharva while another gandharva gave an enchanted war chariot and divine weapons to Arjuna. On another occasion, yet another gandharva imprisoned Duryodhana and his camp when the two groups entered into a dispute over the rights to a picnic spot.
Like the apsaras, the gandharvas are linked with sexuality and marriage in a number of ways. The name of these heavenly musicians and their loose matrimonial alliances with the apsaras has come into common use to designate one of the eight classical types of Hindu marriages. The eight classical types of Hindu marriages are named by adjectival forms of the names of the supernaturals, ranging from the divine Brahma at the top to the demonic Pisacas at the bottom. The gandharva mode, in the fifth position is a marriage where the mutual consent of man and woman to live together is all that is necessary, without any civil or religious ceremony, and allows them both maximum independence.
Other connections between the gandharvas and sex are more vivid. When touching the female’s genital, a male lover may address it as the mukham (“mouth”) of a particular gandharva named Visvavasu. At a Horse Sacrifice, the gandharvas receive the victim’s penis and the apsaras receive its testicles. As the gandharvas are kamatiksna (“sharp in love”) and, although they can be horrific, are more often strikingly handsome, yuvanah sobhana (“handsome youths”) who are present at a Horse Sacrifice are also referred to as gandharvas. Together, the apsaras and the gandharvas also preside over fertility and are prayed to by those who desire offspring.
When exercising their musical skills, the gandharvas are regularly accompanied by the apsaras and they spend most of their remaining time sporting with the same group. Like the apsaras, little is said of them marrying or maintaining long-term relationships. The gandharvis (the female gandharvas) also exists although they are less prominent than apsaras. In addition to being the ancestress of horses, the gandharvis are mentioned here and there. An example of a gandharvi is Kumbinasi, who saved the life of her husband, the gandharva Citraratha, when he was defeated by Arjuna in Mahabharata. The gandharvis can sometimes become partners of mortal men just as the gandharvas can sometimes take an interest in, or possess, mortal women.
In book 1 of the epic Mahabharata, the divine sage Narada tells the five Pandava brothers the story of destruction of demon brothers Sunda and Upsunda due to the apsara Tilottama as he was warning them that their common wife Draupadi could be a reason of quarrel between them. Sunda and Upasunda were two powerful asura brothers who were highly attached to each other. The brothers ate, slept and ruled their kingdom together. They had asked a boon from Brahma to become immortal. However, Brahma refused this request and asked them to chose any impossible mode of death instead.
The brothers chose the most impossible mode of death they could think of – that they die in each others’ hand. This was impossible as they would never fight each other. This boon became a curse as, as they ruled jointly, frustrations towards each other were bound to occur from time to time. However, they would really never fight each other. Therefore, they would unleash their frustrations to mankind. This worried Indra who then approached Vishnu. Vishnu suggested that Indra sent his apsaras to them. Indra sent the charming Urvashi, the graceful Menka and the queen Rambha, as well as all his beautiful apsaras one by one to separate the brothers. However, Sunda and Upasunda easily recognized the apsaras and merrily shared them. Finally, Brahma created a new and extremely beautiful apsara named Tilottama (“beautiful from every atom”) to cause rift between the asura brothers. When Tillottama walked in the forest where the brothers went for hunting. This was enough to cause the loving brothers to argue, and this argument escalated until they died in each other’s hands fighting over an apsara.
Although not all of the apsaras or gandharvas are mentioned by name, some famous apsaras include Rambha – the queen of the apsaras. One day, Indra sent her to seduce a sage named Vishvamitra. However, Vishvamitra, would not be seduced and resisted the charms of the queen with relative ease – thus infuriating Rambha. After relentless attempts at seduction by Rambha, Vishvamitra cursed her and turned her to stone for a thousand years. However, it seems that another apsara, Menaka, was more successful as she and Vishvamitra became parents to the queen Shakuntala who became one of the ancestors of the Kuru dynasty and the Pandava brothers through her son Bharata. Another apsara who was punished by a sage is Anjana who came to earth and saw a sage meditating. She laughed and interrupted the sage by making fun of his looks. The angry sage finally cursed her to turn into a monkey. This curse ended after she gave birth to Shiva’s incarnation, known as the monkey king Hanuman.
The Satapatha Brahmana, a Hindu text belonging to the later part of the Brahma period of Vedic Sanskrit (roughly between 8th to 6th century BCE), contains a story about another apsara, Urvashi, who is said to be the most charming of them all. Due to the imprecation of Indra and Varuna, Urvashi was compelled to leave heaven. Pururava, a handsome young king, fell deeply in love with her. Urvashi agreed to live with him on certain conditions. She said, “I have two rams which must always remain with me, both by day and night; you must never be seen by me undressed; and I must eat only ghi (clarified butter).” Pururava agreed and the lovers lived happily together. However, the inhabitants of heaven were anxious for Urvashi’s return and the gandharvas came at night to carry off her rams. To rescue them, Pururava rushed into Urvashi’s room in a state of undress. Unfortunately, a flash of lightning revealed him to her gaze and, as the condition of her remaining with him was then broken, Urvashi returned to her celestial home. Pururava was devastated by his loss and wandered from place to place searching for her. Finally, he was successful in his quest and obtained a promise from Urvashi that she would meet him once every year. Urvashi even gave him a son named Ayu. Five years later, Urvashi assured Pururava that if he offered a sacrifice with the express object of gaining her he would succeed. Pururava followed her advice, became a gandharva and obtained eternal life with of his lover.
Although Urvashi became united with her lover, that did not hinder her from executing Indra’s biddings. When Arjuna went to heaven to visit his father Indra, the god lays on a festive welcome where the apsaras and the gandharvas performed. During the celebrations, Arjuna was observed staring at the dancing Urvashi. To test his son, Indra planned a tryst between the hero and the apsara, sending the gandharva Citrasena to arrange it. However, when Urvashi came to him, Arjuna refused to make love to her and was consequently cursed to be a eunuch by the offended Indra. Arjuna had a very good reason to refuse Urvashi’s advances as Urvashi was his distant ancestor. In fact, Mahabharata gives two accounts of Arjuna’s patriline which, if the line is followed back for 26 or 38 generations, reaches Ayu and his parents – the immortal and never aging Pururava and Urvashi.