Apsaras: Hindu Mythology Fairies (Portrait, Origins, Roles)

Apsaras are the dancing girls of Indra’s court. They rose from the milk ocean when it was churned, and are of resplendent and celestial forms.

An Apsaras, a Hindu mythological water fairy, dancing above a lake
An Apsaras, a Hindu mythological water fairy, dancing above a lake

However, the Apasarases did not undergo purification and hence no god could wed them.

So they became women of easy virtue and dwelt among the Gandharvas (Hindu class of mythological beings skilled in dance and music).

The Apsaras are six hundred millions in number; and some of the most important among them are Urvasi, Menaka, Rembha and Thilothama.

The Apsaras occupy in Hindu mythology the position of the fairies of Western mythology.

The Apsaras, like the Gandharvas, and Kinnaras do not live in heaven but inhabit the valleys of the mythical mountains.

They are a law unto themselves in matters moral. They are, more or less, social outcasts and represent the actors, dancers and singers of this world of whom the Code of Manu speaks with such contempt.

Overall, the Hindu’s generally believed that the Apsaras was a harmful creature, injuring man by shattering his mind by love, this idea being retained in the tradition that the (unnamed) mother of Apsarasas is an infant-stealing fiend.

Description of the apsaras

The Apsaras nymphs dance and sing. They are called “gods girls”.

Their female companions are the Devapatnis, proper wives of the gods. Like all Hindu celestials they are depicted as overloaded with gems and garlands.

They also wear necklaces, golden girdles, and anklets, which tinkle as they welcome saints to heaven.

Saints or warriors ride to heaven on musical cars drawn by geese, lions, or tigers and are greeted by the music of musical instruments such as vina, vallaki, muraja and bells, while the nupura of the waiting nymphs delight their ears as well.

The nymphs wear their locks in five braids.

They wear fine clothes and throw them aside when they bathe in the heavenly Mandakini, but are much ashamed when seen naked by Vyasa (a mortal sage).

Ordinarily they are not so shy, and are often described as lewd and pitiless.

It is sometimes said they do not have husbands and are free to all.

Thus, the Asparas nymphs are free in love and ordinarily care only for love and play.

When a hero dies in battle, thousands of them hover above him, each one seeking his soul and saying to herself “May he be my lord”.

They also dance at human weddings, while Gandharvas sing finely, but the Apsarasas themselves sing sweetly with “song beautified by elocution”.

The purpose of Apsaras in Hindu mythology

Apsaras denotes a kind of nymph that appears almost completely separated from her physical basis.

The long-haired ascetic with semi-divine powers is spoken of as able to move on the path of the Apsarases and the Gandharvas.

The Apsaras commonly reffers to the aqueous nymph (apya yosa), the wife of the Gandharva in the waters. The Apsarases of the sea are described as flowing to Soma, with reference to the water which is mixed with the juice.

The natural dwelling of the Apsaras is in the waters, whence they come and go in haste; and they are often asked to depart from the vicinity of men to the river and the bank of the waters.

The goddesses accompanying the Gandharva Visvavasu are described as connected with clouds, lightning, and stars.

They are expressly called wives of the Gandharvas.

The Apsarases are described as transforming themselves into a kind of aquatic bird.

In the post-Vedic literature they are very often spoken of as frequenting forest lakes and rivers, especially the Ganges, and they are found in Varuna’s palace in the ocean.

The etymological meaning of the word is most probably “moving in the waters”.

The above evidence indicates that the oldest conception of the Apsaras is that of a celestial water nymph, already regarded as the consort of a sage named Gandharva.

In other Hindu texts, the sphere of the Apsarases extends to the earth and in particular to trees.

They are spoken of as inhabiting banyans (nyagrodha) and sacred fig-trees (asvattha), in which their cymbals and lutes resound.

Elsewhere the same trees as well as other varieties of the fig-tree (udumbara and plaksa) are said to be the houses of Gandharvas and Apsarases.

The Gandharvas and Apsarases in such trees are entreated to be beneficial to a passing wedding procession.

Post-Vedic texts even speak of mountains, both mythical and actual, as favourite resorts of the Apasaras and Ghandarvas.

Some Hindu texts add the traits that the Apsarases are fond of dice and bestow luck at play, but that they are feared especially as causing mental derangement, magic therefore being employed against them.

The love of the Apsarases, who are of the great beauty, is enjoyed not only by the Gandharvas, but occasionally even by men. A myth describing such a union describes at least one individual Apsaras in Vedic literature.

The names only of several other Apsarases are there mentioned. The Vedas refers to three, Ugrajit, Ugrampasya, and Rastrabhrt, while other texts speak of Urvasi and Menaka.

Another mentioned Apsaras is Sakuntala, the ancestress of the royal family of the Bharatas as well as Urvasi.

The tale of Urvasi and Puruvas

One of the most important of the Apsaras is Urvasi.

She is once invoked with the streams. She is there described as aqueous (apya), as filling the atmosphere, and traversing space (also applied to the celestial Gandharva).

Apsaras is said to have spent four autumns among mortals, where she married the king Pururavas, but left after the contract of the union is broken. Later on, Puruvas asked Urvasi to return.

The request is apparently refused; but Urvasi promises Pururavas that his offspring shall worship the gods with the offering, while he himself shall enjoy bliss in heaven.

In a slightly different variation of this tale, it is said that the Apsaras UrvasI joins herself with Pururavas, son of Ila, in an alliance, the permanence of which depends on the condition that she shall never see him naked.

The Gandharvas, through one of their tricks, produce a noise during the night. Pururavas springs up naked, when he is seen by Urvasi, illuminated by a flash of lightning. UrvasI vanishes immediately.

Pururavas wanders about in search of her, till he at last observes her swimming in a lotus lake with other Apsarases in the form of an aquatic bird. Urvasi discovers herself to him and, in response to his entreaties, consents to receive him for one night a year later.

He returns at the appointed time, and on the following day the Gandharvas grant him the boon of becoming one of themselves by producing fire in a particular way.

The name of Pururavas, which means “calling aloud”, once occurs in a passage of the Rigveda where Agni is said to have caused the sky to thunder (vasaya) for the righteous man(manave) Pururavas.

The word may here, however, have the adjectival sense. Pururavas and Urvasi have by some scholars been interpreted as sun and dawn.

An Apsaras gives the god Indra a thousand eyes

The tale of Tilottama, speaks of an Apsaras so beautiful that when Indra looked at her, a thousand large red-edged eyes, appeared all over his body, before, behind, and on his sides.

Five Apsarases are turned into crocodiles

The Apsarasas do not wait to be sent on seductive errands and have an agency of their own. Thus, Five of them (Varga, Saurabheyi, Samici, Budbuda, Lata) try to seduce a saint of their own accord and are cursed to become crocodiles for a hundred years until they are redeemed by Arjuna.

An Apsaras monster

Gandhakali was an Apsaras who became a Grahi, or seizing monster; she took the lives of all she seized and even devoured gods and Gandharvas till the sight of Hanumat put an end to the curse of the Muni Yaksa.

Atlas Mythica
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