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Last week at Angkor Wat Temple, we met with our good friend Doriane for the Buong Suong blessing ceremony.

As part of the ceremony, Apsara Dancers stood in serene observance as the monks called out their blessings, before performing their majestic dance for the worshippers.  The Apsara Dance is the Khmer classical dance, the indigenous ballet-like performance art of Cambodia.  The Khmer believe that this classical dance of today is connected by an unbroken tradition to the dance practised in the courts of the great Angkorian kings, which in turn drew its inspiration from the mythological court of the gods and from its celestial dancers, the apsaras.

Afterwards, Doriane was asking me about the distinction that I make between apsaras and devatas.

I explained that I follow the tradition set by scholars of Khmer art in trying to make a distinction between the large figures standing alone or in small groups on many architectural elements of the temples, which they name devata (or tevoda), while the smaller figures in sculptural reliefs, often depicted flying in groups, are given the name apsaras.

I tried to justify the need for that distinction, explaining that “apsaras” are somehow more trivial, they are celestial nymphs frolicking through the heavens, they are dancing fairies, whereas “devatas” are more serious, they are minor deities, heavenly courtesans and faithful guardians of the temples.

The renowned scholar Sappho Marchal once wrote:

“The devatas seem to epitomize all the elements of a refined elegance.”

I even wrote an article on this subject called “You say Apsara, I say Devata!

And yet, as we stood watching the ceremony, there was nothing “trivial” about the Apsara Dancers before us.  These “apsaras” certainly looked like “devatas” to us!  I was struggling to explain the distinction clearly, and what I was saying just felt wrong.  There’s a heuristic that I’m fond of which states “If something is so complicated that you can’t explain it in 10 seconds, then it’s probably either wrong or just not worth knowing anyway”.  I needed to think this through!

Today, we met up with Doriane again for a trip to the top of the 10th century CE temple-mountain of Pre Rup, one of the first temples where the need to distinguish between devatas and apsaras really solidified in my mind, and I thought that being here would help me to explain my position.  At Pre Rup Temple, two of the guardian ladies, the “devatas”, are very serious indeed; Sarasvati and Varahi are the consorts of Brahma and Varaha (Vishnu) respectively, two of the Sapta Matrikas, or mother goddesses, and I expect they would be most upset at being referred to as ‘celestial nymphs’ or ‘fairies’.

Sarasvati, Study I, Pre Rup Temple, Angkor, Cambodia

Sarasvati, Study I, Pre Rup Temple, Angkor, Cambodia
This is the spot where my conversation with Doriane took place, next to the southwestern tower of Pre Rup Temple, watched over by the brick/stucco relief of Sarasvati, the four-faced, four-armed consort of Brahma.

I tried again to explain the scholarly distinction, and still it just didn’t feel right.  As we talked, it occured to me that Sarasvati and Varahi, these ladies in front of us that had convinced me of the need for a grander term since they are certainly not mere apsaras, are not actually devatas either, they are not minor deities, they are full-blown devas, they are goddesses!

I felt there were three main problems with my “scholarly” thesis.

Firstly, in preparation for this temple excursion I had revisited my research, I wanted to try again to explain, to justify, the distinction.  The term apsara has been used in Hindu and Buddhist scripture for over three millenia!  Yes, a reasonable English translation of the Sanskrit word apsarāḥ (अप्सरा) would be ‘celestial nymph’, but then so would ‘celestial maiden’.  The apsaras Urvasi, Menaka, Rambha, Tilottama, and Ghritachi, to name but a few, are described in epics such as the Rig Veda, the Mahabharata, and in the Natya Shastra.  These ladies were certainly not “trivial”.

Secondly, the term devata is just too generic!  I understand the urge of scholars to elevate these ladies to the status of minor deities rather than mere nymphs, but the word they chose seems ill-used.  Devata refers to all minor deities of the Hindu pantheon, male or female, whereas the term apsaras specifically refers to celestial maidens in the service of the gods.  In fact, according to the scriptures, apsaras are a specific type of Hindu-Buddhist heavenly beings that belong to the group devatas.  The male counterparts of apsaras, the gandharvas (heavenly musicians) are also devatas.  The word apsara, meaning female cloud and water spirits, may feel a little too specific to encompass all of the ladies described in the reliefs of Angkor, but surely devata is way too broad!

And finally, most importantly, the Khmers themselves don’t make the distinction, and they never have!  They have always used the term apsaras, and their creations have tremendous variety, they weren’t all grandiose female deities, they didn’t have to be “serious”, but some of them were.  During the 8th-13th centuries CE, images of apsaras assumed great importance in Khmer architectural decoration.  They appeared regularly in the skies within reliefs as witnesses to sacred events.  They appear in great numbers at Angkor Wat.  Sensuous young maidens, often in pairs, stand with full breasts and sophisticated hairdos, with or without mukuta, gently holding flower buds as if to encourage them to flower, or clutching twigs to transfer their life-giving forces to nature.  In other reliefs these enticing maidens play with parrots or small birds and coyly stand looking out from their niches.  Apsaras are the main device used to create a magic ambience in the temples, which may otherwise seem rather severe.

The Khmers do use the term devata, the Khmer word is tevoda (ទេវតា), as in Chau Say Tevoda, meaning 'prolific grandchildren of a deity', but again this refers to the whole pantheon of minor deities, male and female.

So, after much deliberation, I’ve decided to join the Khmers and start using the term apsaras to describe all of the otherwise unnamed heavenly maidens that adorn the marvellous temples of Angkor, be they frolicking fairies, guardian deities, or any of the sensuous, beautiful, magical, celestial ladies that lie somewhere in between.


You can enjoy more of my images from Pre Rup Temple by clicking here:  My Work at Pre Rup Temple, and from Angkor Wat Temple here:  My Work at Angkor Wat Temple.

The image at the top of this page was made at Preah Khan Temple, and you can find it here:  My Work at Preah Khan Temple.


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