Saturday, 2 July 2011


Apsaras have been variously described as fairies, angels, nymphs and sirens. Actually they are celestial maidens of exquisite beauty and alluring charm, and have the power and will to use both. Like other divine creatures they are able to change their form as and when desired. Hierarchically, the Apsaras were under the control of Indra, the king of the demi-Gods. Under his directions they seduced mortals, kings and sages, who were becoming powerful enough to threaten Indra. They also danced at his court and entertained his guests. The male counterparts of the Apsaras were the Gandharvas. The Gandharvas were the custodians of music and the arts.

The sage Kashyap, through his many wives, fathered many races of celestial beings. The demi-Gods were born from Aditi, while a race of demons from Diti. The Bhagavata Purana states that the Apsaras were born from Kashyap and Muni. In the Mahabharata the mother is stated as Pradha. This kind of inconsistency between the texts is common in Hindu mythology. In a later canto in the Bhagavata Purana an alternative version of the origin of the Apsaras is given. When the demi-Gods and Demons churned the ocean to bring forth the elixir of life, several treasures and divine beings emerged from the ocean depths. Among them were the Apsaras.

Individual Apsaras play important roles in some narratives in the mythological texts. Collectively, however, very little is said about them. Mr. Subhash Mazumdar in his book Who is Who in the Mahabharata has compiled a list of characters appearing in the epic. Fortunately he has listed all the Apsaras together. This is the most exhaustive listing of the Apsaras I have come across. The list of forty-five Apsaras is reproduced below in alphabetical order.

Adrika, Alamvusha, Ambika, Anavadya, Anuchana, Aruna, Asita, Budbuda, Devi, Ghritachi, Gunamukhya, Gunuvara, Kamya, Karnika, Kesini, Kshema, Lata, Laxmana, Manorama, Marichi, Menaka, Misrasthala, Purvachitti, Rakshita, Rambha, Ritushala, Sahajanya, Samichi, Saurbhedi, Sharadvati, Shuchika, Soma, Suvahu, Sugandha, Supria, Suraja, Surasa, Surata, Tilottama, Umlocha, Urvashi, Vapu, Varga, Vidyutparna & Vishvachi

This is not claimed to be a complete list of all Apsaras. For example the Apsara named Harsha is not mentioned here because she plays no role in the Mahabharata.

My earlier articles include some tales that revolve around Apsaras. I shall briefly recapitulate these narratives before recounting the adventures of some of the other celestial maidens in the next article.

 Urvashi is referred to in the Riga Veda, the earliest Hindu text. She is famous for her love affair with King Pururava. This liaison was not at the instructions of Indra, but a matter of love at first sight. Pururava's wife was barren and the dynasty continued through the son borne by Urvashi.

Generations later Urvashi encountered the Pandava Arjuna, a descendant of Pururava. Arjuna was in heaven at the invitation of Indra, who instructed Urvashi to take good care of the guest. Urvashi was besotted by Arjuna's manliness and invited him to her bedroom one night. Arjuna refused, saying that she is his ancestor and therefore like a mother.
He could not imagine any other relationship between them. A scorned Urvashi cursed Arjuna to become a eunuch for one year.

Ghritachi was responsible for the birth of several personalities, many of them in unusual ways.

Prominent among them was Drona, a brahmin well versed in military skills. He was the tutor of the Pandava and Kaurava princes and later played an important role in the Mahabharata war. Drona's father was the revered sage Bharadwaja.

Once he was performing some meditation at the source of the river Ganga. Early one morning he went to the river to bathe before he started his rituals. There he saw the voluptuous apsara Ghritachi emerge from the river with a single garment wrapped around her. As she was languorously ascending the steep slope on the river bank her garment came loose. Bharadwaja, who was watching her, could not control his desire and his 'vital fluid' was released. Bharadwaja collected this in a vat, the Sanskrit word for which id 'drona'. A child emerged from this vat and was named Drona. Later the same incident was repeated. This time the sage collected the semen in a cup made from the leaves of a tree. A girl emerged from this cup and was named Sruvavati.

The sage Vyasa was the compiler of the Vedas and the author of the Mahabharata and the Bhagwat Purana. Once Vyasa was about to start a fire by rubbing two sticks of wood. The apsara Ghritachi happened to come there. The sage saw her and was smitten by desire. The apsara saw that the sage was agitated by her appearance and transformed herself into a parrot, but did not leave. The image of the sexy apsara was retained in the mind of the sage and try as he might he could not get rid of it. However he continued starting the fire and as the wood started to burn his seed fell into the fire. From the flames emerged a dazzling child whose brilliance outshone the flames. He was named Shuka from the Sanskrit word for parrot. Shuka was the first to hear the Bhagwat Purana from his father and later recited it to King Parikshit, who was destined to die of a snake bite.

Not all births were unusual. Bhrigu was an illustrious sage and Chyavana was his equally illustrious son. Chyavana had a son named Pramati. Pramati cohabited with Ghritachi who bore his son, Ruru. There were many famous sages in this line.

Ghritachi is mentioned several times in the Mahabharata along with a host of other apsaras. These apsaras had been invited to dance at special occasions. King Pandava was cursed that he would die if he had intercourse. Hence his wife Kunti invoked a few of the demi-Gods with a special mantra that she knew. The demi-Gods so invoked were bound to bless her with a son. One of the demi-Gods so invoke was Indra and thus Arjuna was born. The apsaras, including Ghritachi, assembled to dance at the celebrations of Arjuna's birth. Later when Arjuna was a guest in Indra's court in heaven Ghritachi and the other apsaras danced to entertain him.

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