Fair maidens cast a spell

Cambodian temples

Fair maidens cast a spell

They are everywhere, these smiling women of the famous Cambodian temples of Angkor Wat, in Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Phrom, and in the various other temples, which are the hallmark of royal architecture.

They gaze at you winsomely from the walls in bas reliefs. They entice you with sidelong glances from niches in door jams and in side recesses. Some of them lie on their sides carved into blocks of stone, which have been displaced by giant tree roots in Ta Phrom. Sometimes just a head remains, sometimes just the torso.

In Angkor Thom, I saw just the head transposed on to another block of stone, giving the impression of a disembodied apsara. She still looked enchanting. And who are these women etched in stone in Cambodian palaces and temples?

They are apsaras, the female spirits of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Hindu mythology attributes their origin to the moment when the Ocean of Milk was churned to bring out the elixir of life by the devas in order to counter the curse of Sage Durvasa.

The devas took the help of demons or asuras, also in this undertaking, using the mountain Mandara and the serpent Vasuki as the churning rope. This is one of the most famous episodes in the puranas and is the occasion for the celebration of Kumb Mela, the site of the spilling of the four drops of the amrit.

Apsaras on earth

These beautiful dancing girls are also supposed to be the wives of the Gandharvas who are the court servants of Indra and who make the music for their wives to dance to. They are often referred to as celestial dancers and are noted for their beauty, sensuality and skill in the arts of music and dance, foremost among them are Urvashi, Rambha, Tilottama, Menaka etc.

Zimmer calls them the seraglio of the inhabitants of Indra’s paradise, those who dispense sensual delight on a divine scale. It s said that they also entertain not only gods, but also fallen heroes.

They can change shapes at will and entice men and make them mad. Obedient to Indra, they would use their beauty and power to seduce any mortal, king or ascetic, who may have threatened Indra’s might. They rule over the fortunes of gaming and gambling, and are also associated with water and fertility rites.

I was fascinated by their gracious representations. Sometimes playful, with enigmatic smiles and elongated eyes, they cast a spell on the observer, just as they are supposed to do on the gods and the heroes. They represent an important motif in the stone bas reliefs in Cambodia.

There are supposed to be two types of figures: the apsaras and the devatas. The apsaras are always in graceful dancing poses or poised ready to dance, whereas the devatas are standing still and facing forward in their role as guardians of the temples. While the apsaras are often seen on lotus flowers, highlighting their heavenly nature, and are located mostly on pillars, devatas are in niches surrounding the structure. Their headdresses are varied, some with three diadems, and they are adorned with rich ornaments — earrings, bracelets and anklets.

They are naked on top and the flying curved form of their lower garments copy the sarong-like skirts they wear. However, their feet are inprofiel and not facing forwards, which spoils the perfection of form. I wondered why they did that. In the galleries of the Bayon, I came across a wedding party where the Cambodian bride and groom were getting into their vestments to be photographed.

The bride’s headdress and sarong were reminiscent of the dress of the stone apsaras. It would have been interesting to take pictures of the human apsara alongside the stone one. But we had to move on. The human apsara was taking too long to don her bridal raiment.

In Angkor Wat alone, there are supposed to be around 1,800 of these celestial dancers. They find their human forms in the classical Cambodian dances performed today: originally they were created to entertain Khmer royalty, and are also copied by Thai dancers. But under the Khmer Rouge regime, they were banned from performing, and stories abound of several dancers having been killed for their skills and aristocratic bonds. However, now they are being performed again.

Kent Davis, a researcher and American educationist, has collected thousands of digital photographs of these reliefs in an attempt to determine why there are so many images of women in these temples. He feels that the temples were built to glorify women and not to honour gods or kings. An anthology called Daughters of Angkor Wat is due to be released this year, and it would be interesting to read the opinions of people on this topic.

Meanwhile, these beguiling goddesses on the walls of the temples continue to bewitch and enthral the travellers who get there, as much as they would have in ancient times. They lend a human air to these splendid, if somewhat cold, works of architecture and pomp. And the living apsaras roam around the temples trying to entice tourists to buy their wares. Their smiles are equally enchanting.

Comments (+)