The word apsara conjures up visions of beautiful heavenly maidens, who entertain the gods by their exquisite dancing. Mentioned for the first time in the sacred Hindu texts of the Rigveda more than 3 millennia ago and also in the Mahabharata, they are also known by the name vidhya dhari meaning bearer of knowledge in Sanskrit, which becomes widadari in Javanese and bidadari in Malay. Perhaps the most famous was Tilottama, whose exploits in arranging the mutual destruction of the demonic princes Sunda and Upasunda are described in the Mahabharata.
Sandstone bas-relief ca. 967 CE in the Musée Guimet, Paris, from the Khmer Banteay Srei Temple,
Cambodia, showing the demon princes Sunda and Upasunda, in dispute over the apsara Tilottama.
Photograph in public domain, attributed to Vassil, 2007.
With the spread of the Hindu religion to Java the Mahabharata became part of the culture and widadaris appear in stories and a few court dances to this day such as the bedhaya in Java. In Bali, which retained the Hindu religion, the appearance of these celestial maidens in dances is more common. Images of apsaras can be seen on various chandi or temples built during the Hindu-Buddhist era such as at Borobudur and those at Prambanan.
While the above ancient bas reliefs provide an illustration of apsaras, a bronze statue can bring the subject to life. Before showing the pictures of the collection of various Buddhist and Hindu bronzes, the next pictures illustrate the apsara theme with beautiful examples from the Khmer culture.
Candi Borobudur has a relief showing musicians playing various instruments. Although little is known about the music of that time, there are records from the later Majapahit period about music and the gamelan was considered important in the royal court. To this day, gamelan is used to accompany traditional dancing in Java and Bali. The Balinese gamelan may be the closest descendant of that of the Majapahit period. Two short clips of Balinese gamelan and one of Javanese gamelan may be heard by clicking the player at the bottom of the page.