900 AD - 2000

Sringara Rasa: Apsaras of the Temples

American Institute of Indian Studies

Women in Sculpture and Poetry

The heaven is described in the Matsya Purana in terms of the sound of tinkling of the waist girdles and anklets of beautiful apsaras. Of the nine kinds of emotions or rasa described in early literature such as the Natya Sastra of Bharatmuni, sringara rasa holds a special mention.
The idea of sringara has well been represented in the temples in India. Here the nayika or surasundari or the apsara applying collyrium in her eyes.

Nayika is adorned with jewelry and admiring herself. Looking is not just an act of seeing rather it translates, interprets and also shows the awareness that one is being seen.

Here the nayika is helped by the attendant as she wears anklets. According to Abhinavagupta, 12th century philosopher, the aesthetic expression, i.e. rasa is a form of ananda, a much sought after bliss of the yogic path.

The nati i.e. the female performer, poses and has a serene look which makes her graceful. The focussed gaze draws attention to an action, a place or part of the body.

The leg of the dancer is beautifully painted.

Here she is shown applying paint on her foot.

She has arched brows and is adorned with fine clothes and jewels. Bhartrhari, a 7th century poet describes in his work, Srngarasataka, the depth, beauty and vital power of love.

The nayika is sometimes shown as a damsel in distress.

The nayika is shown holding a branch

She is trying to wade off the monkey teasing her.

Sringara rasa in poetry has two main manifestations: sambhoga and vipralambha sringara, i.e. meeting the beloved and separation.
The beautiful nayika writing a letter to her beloved.

The apsara is generally shown along with attendants. She is usually shown touching the attendant.

As compared to the women the attendant is small and generally shown helping her as she dresses up.

She is also shown holding a child, thus motherly aspect is also emphasised.

Mother and child shows women as life-giver and life-sustainer.

Apsara holding her breast is seen as a mother, as a provider.

The dancer carved around the temple walls portrays the description of heaven with apsaras playing instruments and dancing.

They are shown adorning themselves. Also can be seen removing thorn from her foot.

The celestial nymphs stands in various poses sometimes carrying box of jewellery or mirror or kohl.

In the Khajuraho temple, 10th century CE, the wider shelves has the apsaras while on the narrow brackets are vyala, a mythical beast.

The yali or vyala sometimes called a leogryph has bird like features. They have decorated body of a lion and are part human. Sometimes have head of a horse or a dog.

A rider is seen on the mythical beast.

They are believed to be protector of the temple.

Sringara rasa as portrayed through the sculptures of apsaras in the temple walls has aesthetic as well as philosophical renditions. Sringara rasa is understood as bright, ujjawala, pure, suci and beautiful i.e. darsaniya. It is sacred and at the same time worldly. Classical sanskrit poetry mentions love as an elite phenomenon belonging to the world of humans. By adorning the temples with apsaras the heaven and Earth come together celebrating the beauty of life.

Centre for Art and Archaeology, American Institute of Indian Studies
Credits: Story

Dr. Shatarupa Bhattacharya, Assistant Professor, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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