Apsara are creatures, not divinities. Ravishing beauties, they are dancing in the heaven for the amusement of the gods. (The flying dancers in the temples of the Preah Ko era are male.)
The apsaara were created at the Churning of the Sea of Milk. The gods used them in two ways:
- Apsara were to enjoy the gods.
- Apsara had to make an instrument for getting through the superior strength of the gods.
In recent Khmer language apsara means a women in disrepute.
Apsara are to be seen at Angkor Wat. In the great bas-relief, depicting the Churning of the Sea, where they are soaring to the sky (photo on top).
The apsara Tilottama
Sunda and Upasunda , two powerful demon brothers, could not be killed; they could only kill by each other. When they decided to conquer the World together, the gods created an enticing and irresistible apsara. The brothers, overwhelmed by greed for her, battered each other to death. Peace on Earth was restored. (Baphuon. Roveda 2005, p. 104.)
The legend of Mera
The apsara Mera was said to be "most renowned of beautiful deities". Shiva had adopted her as a daughter and gave her to his loyal adherent, the Naga king who owned the land. The Naga king married her to the maharishi (great sage) Kambu, who came from “Aryadesa” and was also a disciple of Shiva. Kambu ruled over the land Kambuja ("born of Kambu"). (Jacobsen, p. 46-48.)
Comparison with the Legend of Soma
(see: Soma) Shiva – in whose name the king is ruling – is now the universal wirepuller, Mera is his puppet. Shiva is declared the lord of Cambodia, which is owned by the Naga king; this is a take-over, a coup.
Mera is a typical apsara: She is beautiful, she is passive; her power may only emerge from her capacity to arouse desire and thus exert control over men. She may be used as an instrument for intrigues. Mera was given to the Naga king and then to Kambu, she was never autonomous. (Jacobsen, p. 45-48, modified.)
Rajendravarman (944 - 968) was the first king to trace his lineage to Mera/Kambu (as well as to Soma/Kaundinya). A new model of women's role in society is announced, effective till nowadays.
Images of Apsara
At the passages of the west gate of Angkor Wat they are depicted in medallions. Then they are at Preah Khan, the Bayon, and at more temples of this era.
Apsara are always dancing, their legs open, theirs hips covered just with a short cloth. They are flying in the sky or based on lotus petals.
Their reliefs are not as well executed as those of the Devata. Many Apsara reliefs at the Bayon are just shown in sketches.
In Angkor Wat they are single; at Preah Khan they dance in a line, at the Bayon they are dancing in groups of two or three.