Ethereal being… Celestial dancer… Spirit of the clouds & waters… Muse of the gods.

 

The mystique of the apsaras has beguiled the peoples of the Nusantara lands since ancient times. These enigmatic & alluring beings have fired the imaginations of poets & storytellers, artistes, artisans and dreamers alike.

They are known by different names across Southeast Asia… “vidhya dhari” or “tep apsar” in Khmer, “acchara” in Vietnamese, “bidadari” in Indonesian and Malay, “biraddali” in Filipino Tausug, “apsari” or “widyadari” in Javanese and “aapson” in Thai.

Whatever called, however portrayed… apsaras figure prominently in the richly diverse & syncretic cultures of Nusantara.

Apsara – Angkor Wat, Cambodia – Nathalie Capitan

Carved in stone

Apsaras are featured extensively in the bas-reliefs of the Angkorian temples (8th – 13th century). Dancing, or poised to dance, these Khmer female figures are in harmony with the dancing apsaras of Indian mythology… who dance to entertain (and seduce) both gods & men.

Bas-relief of apsaras – Angkor Wat, Cambodia – Nhim Thira SC

Flying apsara on a 9th century bas-relief – Borobudur temple, Java, Indonesia – Gunawan Kartapranata

Apsaras are also found in the temples of ancient Java. At the Borobudur in Java, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, apsaras are often depicted as beautiful celestial maidens… languidly standing or flying, their swirling clothes resembling wings… and usually holding lotus blossoms or scattering flower petals.

Not to be eclipsed by their Khmer and Javanese sisters, Cham apsaras were also an important motif in the art of this medieval kingdom. One of the masterpieces of Cham art—the Dancers’ Pedestal—is graced by dancing apsaras. This magnificent 10th century sculpture in Tra Kieu style has managed to survive the ravages of time and war. Champa was an Indic civilization that flourished for a thousand years (500 – 1500 AD) along the coasts of what is now modern-day central & southern Vietnam.

The Dancers’ Pedestal of Tra Kieu – Museum of Cham Sculpture, Da Nang, Vietnam – Serge Ottaviani

Immortalized in dance

The ancient tales and the bas-reliefs of apsaras in the Angkor temples have inspired Khmer classical dance.

An indigenous form of the centuries-old Cambodian dance—“Apsara Dance”—was created by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia in the mid-20th century, under the patronage of Queen Sisowath of Cambodia. Her granddaughter, Princess Buppha Devi, was a prima ballerina. After the Khmer Rouge regime, Buppha Devi revived the Royal Ballet and brought it around the world.

Bayon apsara – Angkor Thom, Cambodia – Diego Delso

“The Legend of Apsara Mera” – The Royal Ballet of Cambodia – bam.org

Litho of Bedhaya dancers at the court of the Sultan of Yogyakarta – National Museum of World Cultures

Balinese dances like the Sanghyang Dedari and Legong dances carry the theme of celestial maidens. The refined Javanese court dances of Bedhaya—sacred ritual dances associated with the royal palaces of Yogyakarta and Surakarta—also portray apsaras.

Modern apsara dancers are dressed in traditional costumes with gilded jewelry & elaborate headdress… not unlike their celestial sisters depicted in ancient bas-reliefs. Through intricate finger movements, complex footwork and expressive gestures & facial expressions, these skilled dancers gracefully narrate the classical apsara myths & tales of their lands through dance.

 

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AZLINA ALI accidentally ventured into the world of journalism in 1988 when her law books lost their appeal. Her writing career included The New Straits Times, one of Malaysia’s oldest & largest newspaper publishers, and a 5-year stint at Her World, a bestselling women’s magazine in Southeast Asia. In 1994, Azlina moved to Miami and then Dubai, where she wrote for various media. She’s now back in Malaysia… and continues to captivate us with her enchanting stories.

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