Celestial Beauty Captured in Brass: Apsaras in Mythology

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Table of Content

  • Introduction

  • Significance of Apsaras in Vedic Literature

  • Forebearers of the Performing Arts

  • Destruction of Asuras

  • Bearing Children for Royalty and Sages

  • Testing True Penance

  • Depictions of Apsaras Still Present

  • Conclusion

The apsaras are the celestial nymphs living in svargaloka (heaven). They perhaps got their name since they are supposed to move among waters, among the clouds. Their main work is to please Indra the lord of the gods, by dancing and singing. Indra often deputes them to seduce the sages engaged in severe austerities, since they may become more powerful than himself if they succeed. They are said to have been born out of the milk ocean when it was churned by the gods and demons to get nectar. According to other versions they were born out of the palm of Brahma the creator. They are too numerous to be listed. Urvasi, rambha, menaka, and tilottama are the most prominent among them. They are closely associated with the demigods known as Gandharvas. Popular Buddhism has adopted some of them in its mythological lore.

Apsara- The Ethereal Maiden

Significance of Apsaras in Vedic Literature

According to the Vedas, Apsaras are originally believed to be water nymphs. They are exceedingly beautiful and sensuous, thereby having the capability to lure, attract and amuse. They were experts in dance and music and were the court entertainers of Indra Puri -The heavenly kingdom of Lord Indra. These cosmic nymphs were the companions of the Gandharvas, while some were created with a devoted mission to be a reason or a cause. Apsaras have been a consistent part of Hinduism, having an insightful presence in Vedic literature. 

Forebearers of the Performing Arts

Apsaras were renowned for their exquisite skill in performing dance, music and theatre arts. They were professional women artists of the Indra Lok who mastered sixty-four arts and crafts. It is believed that they were in fact, created by Brahma to enrich the performing arts. They were full of grace and were called upon to perform in all kinds of rituals and celebrations. 

Dancing Apsara

Destruction of Asuras

Aside from impressing the gods, Apsaras also served the purpose of seducing tortuous asuras to compel them to destroy themselves and save humanity. The most famous story in this regard is that of Apsara Tilottama. Tilottama’s beauty was created to seduce the Asuras (demons), Sunda and Upasunda. Ultimately, in this seduction, Tilottama’s goal was to entice the two Asuras into battle. Tilottama successfully seduces both Asuras, causing them to kill each other over her love.

Similarly, the Vishnu Purana mentions a charming Apsara, Mohini, has a mention of the charming Apsara Mohini who was also considered an incarnation of Vishnu himself. She evolved out of the ocean during the Amrita Manthan and distracted the asuras from consuming the urn of Divine elixir that came out in the process. She also led to the death of Bhasmasura, an asura who was granted the boon that he could burn people and turn them into ashes by touching their heads. Seeing this, Mohini appears in front of Bhasmasura who is immediately attracted towards her and asks her to marry him. She replied that she was very much fond of dancing, and would marry him, only if he could match her moves in dance. Bhasmasura agreed and hence they started dancing. The event went on for days, as Bhasmasura matched Mohini's move for move. While dancing, Mohini struck a pose where her hand, especially the forefinger was placed on top of her head. As Bhasmasura imitated her, he touched his head with his forefinger and was immediately burnt up and turned into ashes.

Bearing Children for Royalty and Sages

Indra often appoints the Apsaras to distract the sages and kings who are progressing along the path of divinity. He fears that once they complete their penance, the highly spiritual and evolved sages will take over his throne. Hence, Apsaras are sent to seduce them with their charm and beauty, distracting them from their spiritual pursuit. 

One such famous incident is that of Guru Vishwamitra and Apsara Menaka. Menaka used her charm to seduce the great sage Vishwamitra, and queen Shankuntala was born out of their relationship. Apsaras who succeeded in seducing powerful sages and achieving their mission would earn the wrath of the latter and would also be cursed by them. In such cases, the children born of them (usually female) would be abandoned by both the sage and the nymph and would end up being brought up by foster parents such as Shakuntala. Similarly, the Kuru-Pandava teacher Drona was born because his father lost control of seeing an apsara. Kripacharya, Kripi, Shuka and Rishyashringa were all born this way. 

Menaka seduces sage Vishwamitra

Testing True Penance

While many times, sages and kings have fallen for the heavenly charm of Apsaras, there are instances wherein they failed to do so. According to the Hindu Mythology Arjuna, son of Indra was once tried to be seduced by Apsara Urvashi. But considering that Urvashi was like a mother figure to him, as she was married to King Pururavas, whose dynasty Arjuna belongs to, he rejected her. This led to him incurring a curse that he will have to live as a eunuch.

Another instance is that of the divine sages Nara and Narayana who were meditating in the Himalayan forests. Indra sent Apsaras Rambha, Menaka and Tilottama to distract them. However, the sages were intent on their meditation and austerities. So they blessed the apsaras but seeing that they are still to seduce them, the Apsaras continued their dance. Seeing this, Narayana slapped his thigh and manifested a beautiful woman by his power and ability and was named Urvashi. She was far more beautiful than the three apsaras, Rambha, Tilottama and Menaka. This made them realise their mistake of challenging such great sages and bowed in humility.

The Irresistible Daivika Apsara- Urvashi

Depictions of Apsaras Still Present

Archaeological evidence in various parts of India indicates the presence of Apsaras in mythology. Many temples still have the carvings of the celestial nymphs. The dancing panel sculptures found in Prasenajit pillar, Bharhut, Ramappa temple, Kakatiya, Palampet etc. shows the mastery of Indian sculptors in making heavy stones levitate and gyrate. Similarly, the sculpture of a celestial nymph from Gyraspur, Gurjara-Pratihara is also one of the finest creations in this category. The jewellery is minimal, but the undulations of the necklace bring out the swell of the torso, the slenderness of the waist and the ample curve of the hip.

We, at Exotic India, has an exquisite collection of Apsara statues that perfectly captures the ethereal beauty and grace of apsaras. They are available in different postures which are unique to our collection. Standing Apsara, Apsara applying vermillion, dancing Apsara etc. are some from a wide variety of alluring statues which are sure to add an otherworldly aura to your home and other surroundings.

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