They are everywhere, all over the temple portals…on the walls and the lintels, on broken columns and amidst ruins…
These Apsaras are frozen in time with their eternal smile, exuding grace and serenity.
Their smile is so alluring as if they know the secret of eternal happiness.
Apsaras represent an important motif in the bas-reliefs of the Khmer architecture. Legend has it that they are the most beautiful female beings, born in the Ocean of Milk churned for thousands of years by Devas and Asuras. They are youthful and elegant, and superb in the art of dancing. They dance to the music created by the Gandharvas to entertain and sometimes seduce both gods and men. They embody the feminine forces of the universe. While women and goddesses appear as icons in many ancient and modern societies, the Khmers sanctified women prominently in their imperial temples more consistently and more visibly than any other group.
These celestial maidens are depicted with a pleasing variety of facial features and expressions. They most often appear singly, less often in groups of two, three, or more. They face the viewer. Their legs appear a bit stiff. The head ornament includes a crown, with three or five points, above several rope-like strands of braided hair. Large plugged earrings, multi-stranded necklace, bracelets on upper arm and wrist, a decorated belt, and anklets adorn the body. The upper torso is bare. The lower body is veiled in a light, transparent, patterned shift with pleated folds on one side and curving drapery on the other. The fresh vitality of their youthful figures with supple gestures and slender fingers, holding a lotus or playing with a string of flowers is quite appealing.
There is some suggestion that these Apsaras were modeled after dancers in the Khmer court. Records mention that at one time thousands of dancers were living within the temple enclosure.
They would have been the source of inspiration for the sculptors!
These damsels are an integral part of the superstructure of the temples and they entertain and bewitch travelers today, even as they did in mythological times. The dance that they represent in the carvings of the temples is performed to this day. It is indeed an intriguing story of Khmer history and religion to note that the Khmer classical dance of today is connected by an unbroken tradition to the dance practiced in the courts of the Angkorian emperors. The Cambodian ballet has managed to keep the traditional myths of the Apsaras alive well into the modern day. The choreography performed by the dancers themselves emulates the gestures of the statues, while the costumes replicate the original ornamentation and colours of the figurines.
Haunting and beautiful, the Apsaras keep us company as we stroll through the temples of the Angkor Empire. The quiet of the entire temple complex has a truly magical air to it. We can actually hear their whispers if we pause and listen to them!
As we watch the countless Apsaras adorning the temples, the overarching feeling is that love has been permanently carved into stone. It is as if they are beckoning the viewers to partake of the divine bliss.
With smiles which have withstood the test of time and decay, they are symbols of enduring joy.
You are almost tempted to greet them with your own smile!
And beyond the temples of Angkor (which we savored as much as we could!), an enduring impression of our visit is that the ordinary Cambodian continues to smile in spite of decades of civil war, terrors and multiple hardships. They smile the way we forgot to smile: not just their lips, their eyes smile too…much like the Apsaras!!
We often tend to forget that a smile is a powerful gift but among the most underrated in the world. The only thing more powerful than a person offering a smile is two persons smiling at each other. It is the greatest communication tool and it is free.
Thich Nhat Hanh often emphasizes on the power of smiling as a meditative practice “Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile…by this I open myself to calmness, happiness and peacefulness”
The smiles on the faces of every Cambodian we met and those etched on the faces of Apsaras will linger on in our memories for long . . .
Graceful Apsaras beckon you at: photos.app.goo.gl/tg4cToLeZ5w1kgQC3
Do post your comments (as usual!) here and NOT in Google Photos!!