Apsara - Visual Arts - Java and Bali, Indonesia

Java and Bali, Indonesia

Images of Apsaras are found in several temples of ancient Java dating from the era of the Sailendra dynasty to that of the Majapahit empire. Usually they are not found as decorative motifs but as integral parts of a story in bas-relief, as for example at Borobudur, Mendut, Prambanan, Plaosan, and Penataran. At Borobudur apsaras are depicted as divinely beautiful celestial maidens, pictured either in standing or in flying positions, usually holding lotus blossoms, spreading flower petals, or waving celestial clothes as if they were wings enabling them to fly. The temple of Mendut near Borobudur depicted groups of devatas, divine beings flying in heaven, which included apsaras.

Traditionally apsaras are described as celestial maidens living in Indra's heaven (KaƩndran). They are well known for their special task: being sent to earth by Indra to seduce ascetics who by their severe practices may become more powerful than the gods. This theme occurs frequently in Javanese traditions, including the "Kakawin Arjunawiwaha", written by mpu Kanwa in 1030 during the reign of king Airlangga. The story tells that Arjuna, in order to defeat the giant Niwatakawaca, engaged in meditation and asceticism, whereupon Indra sent apsaras to seduce him. Arjuna, however, managed to conquer his lust and then to win the ultimate weapons from the gods to defeat the giant.

Later in the Javanese tradition the apsara was also called Hapsari, also known as Widodari (from sanskrit word Vidhyadhari, vidhya: knowledge, dharya: having, bearer, or bringer), and finally known as Bidadari in the modern Indonesian language (the same form of the word is now present in the Malay language, as well). The Javanese Hindu-Buddhist tradition also influenced Bali. In Balinese dance the theme of celestial maidens often occurred. Dances such as Sanghyang Dedari and Legong depicted divine maidens in their own way. In the court of Mataram Sultanate the tradition of depicting heavenly maidens in dances still alive and well. The Javanese court dances of Bedhaya portray apsaras.

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