Apsara is the traditional dance of Khmer. It is a highly stylized dance with over 4500 basic hand gestures. These gestures make up a sort of alphabet and are used to represent natural things such as flowers, plants, and fruits. Depending on how the gestures are combined, they tell different stories of the Khmer people. Banned by the Khmer Rouge, and almost lost, this art has been revived and made quite a comeback. We were lucky enough to attend a performance this evening.
In Hindu mythology, Apsara is a female cloud or water nymph with supernatural powers. According to Hindu legend, Apsara were created during the churning of the milk sea. At the suggestion of Vishnu, the gods and demons churned the milk sea in order to get Amrita, the elixir of life. To churn the ocean, they used Mt. Meru and the great serpent king, Vasuki as their churning stick and string. Vishnu helped out by changing into his turtle form and holding the mountain steady in the ocean. The gods (Devas) and demons (Asuras) each took one end of the snake and churned up the sea. During this time, many of the creatures in the milk sea were reincarnated as celestial beings – the Apsara.
This powerful story is present throughout the temples and cities of Angkor and is most often seen in depictions of the gods and demons churning the milk sea with the great snake. But Apsara are seen throughout the temples and cities as well, always shown dancing or about to dance. Apsara women were an important part of royal life, and many lived in and around the palaces, providing entertainment for the King and other royals.