An Apsara (Sanskrit: अप्सरा: , plural अप्सरस: , stem apsaras-, a feminine consonant stem) or Accharā (Pāli), is a female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Frequently encountered English translations of the word "Apsara" are "nymph," "celestial nymph," and "celestial maiden."
Apsaras are supernatural beings: they appear as young women of great beauty and elegance who are proficient in the art of dancing. They are the wives of the Gandharvas, court servants of Indra. They dance to the music made by their husbands, usually in the palaces of the gods, and entertain gods and fallen heroes. In their assignment as caretakers of fallen heroes, they may be compared to the valkyries of Norse mythology. Apsaras are said to be able to change their shapes at will, and specially rule over the fortunes of gaming and gambling. Urvasi, Menaka, Rambha and Tilottama are the most famous among them. Apsaras are sometimes compared to the muses of ancient Greece, with each of the 26 Apsaras at Indra's court representing a distinct aspect of the performing arts. Apsaras are associated with water; thus, they may be compared to the nymphs, dryads and naiads of ancient Greece. They are also associated with fertility rites. In Hinduism, the lower Apsaras are sometimes regarded as nature spirits who may lure men to their deaths; in this respect they may be compared to the Slavic Rusalki or the Greek sirens.
"Ghritachi and Menaka and Rambha and Purvachitti and Swayamprabha and Urvashi and Misrakeshi and Dandagauri and Varuthini and Gopali and Sahajanya and Kumbhayoni and Prajagara and Chitrasena and Chitralekha and Saha and Madhuraswana, these and others by thousands, possessed of eyes like lotus leaves, who were employed in enticing the hearts of persons practising rigid austerities, 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 attitude capable of stealing the hearts and resolutions and minds of the spectators.
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. Usually they are not found as decorative motifs but as integral parts of a story in bas-relief, as for example at 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.
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 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.
Later in the Javanese tradition the apsara was also called Hapsari, also known as Widodari (from sanskirt word Vidhyadhari, vidhya: knowledge, dharya: having, bearer, or bringer) , and finally known as Bidadari in the modern Indonesian language. 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.
Apsaras represent an important motif in the stone bas-reliefs of the Angkorian temples in Cambodia. Descriptions of the temples often distinguish between two types of depictions of female celestials: depictions of figures who are dancing or are poised to dance, which are called "Apsaras;" and depictions of figures who are standing still, facing forward, in the manner of temple guardians or custodians, which are called "Devatas.
Carved apsaras are particularly common at Angkor Wat, the largest of the ancient Angkorian temples. Scholars have counted more than 1,860 at the 12th Century monument, some carved on pillars, some on walls, some high up on towers. A study published in 1927 by Sappho Marchal cataloged remarkable diversity of hair, headdresses, garments, stance, jewelry and decorative flowers, which Marchal concluded were based on real-life practices of the Angkor period. Some apsaras 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.
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