Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dancing Nymphs - The Apsaras

Apsara of Angkor Wat

Earlier this month, we returned to Cambodia, more specifically, Siem Reap after seven years.

Seven years ago, Duang and I had visited Siem Reap and Tonle Sap for four days.  In the ensuing years I acquired a new more sophisticated camera and acquired some more advanced photographic skills.

This year we decided to spend 6 days in the Angkor Wat area to revist Angkor Wat and associated Khmer ruins as well as to attempt to document the fisheries of  Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake - Tonle Sap.

We arrived in Siem Reap late morning, Monday 3 November.  After checking into our hotel, we headed out to Angkor Wat early afternoon to tour the ruins and be there to photograph the sunset on the temple.  Waiting for sunset is not that great of a wait ... the sun sets around 5:30 PM, 5:35 PM exactly on November 3.

Many things have changed in the seven years since our last visit.  Some changes are not so good and some changes are for the better but greater details of the changes will be addressed in future blogs.  One change, for the better, is the ruins, specifically the towers, are no longer obnoxiously covered in scaffolding and obtrusive tarps.  Some parts of the ruins are under renovation but the tarps are much less visible - a forest green that almost seems to blend into the stones.

Another change, not so good, is the great increase in the number of tourists - specifically bus tours of mainly three groups - Chinese, South Koreans, and Russians.  The ruins are much more crowded than before ... unless you have hired a professional photography guide who knows when and where to go to avoid the tourist hordes.

We had hired a guide service prior to arriving in Cambodia - money very well spent.  We were never overwhelmed by crowds and were shown hidden gems off of the organized tour track.

For many years I was conscious of the "Ugly American" stereotype - you know - the American tourist - ill mannered, loud mouthed, and obnoxious.  Well things have changed - we are no longer the scourges of tourism.  Americans are no higher than 4th on the list, at least in Cambodia - having been surpassed by the Chinese, followed by the Russians and then the South Koreans.  It was nice to no longer be number 1 in that regard.

No matter, we managed through the skill, knowledge, and experience of our guide to minimize our exposure to the tour groups.

Leading up to the sunset on Angkor Wat, we toured the side galleries of the ruins and the upper terraces of the temple.

Devatas of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat has many stone carvings - many large and grand battle scenes and mythological scenes connected to either Hinduism and Buddhism.  However for this trip, I was more focused on the carvings of Apsaras.

Apsaras are celestial maidens - nymphs.  They are beautiful, graceful, young females - who dance to entertain, and sometimes seduce the gods as well as mortal men.  They are somewhat like angels in the Hindu religion.  Apsaras, besides being known for their dance are also known to rule over luck in gambling and gaming.  Apsaras also are involved in fertility rites.

Through the influences of trade and Hinduism from India as well as the spread of the Khmer Empire from 800 AD to 1400 AD, the concept and mythology of apsaras is part of Indian, Thai, Lao, Burmese, Cambodian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese culture today.

During the reign of Khmer King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century, there were an estimated 3,000 apsara dancers in his court.

In the ruins of Angkor Wat there are many depictions of apsaras dancing or waiting to dance.  Other females who typically are larger and appear to be guarding the temple are known as devatas.

Apsara Dancing - Wall Panel at Angkor Wat

Apsara Sandstone Carving

Devatas Decorate a Column of Angkor Wat
Apsara Dance in Cambodia was taught almost exclusively in the Royal Court.  During the reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge (i.e. "The Killing Fields") and their leader Pol Pot, the art of Apsara dance was just about eliminated.  After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the King of Cambodia's daughter, who had been a principal dancer with the royal dance troupe before the reign of the Khmer Rouge, worked to reestablish the art form.

Sixteen years after removal of Pol Pot regime, the Apsara dance returned to public performances in Cambodia.

Apsara Dance has 1,500 intricate gestures and positions for performing the dance with most of them having significant symbolism.  Dancers at the Royal University of Fine Arts commence their training around seven years old. After 9 to 12 years of training they are ready to perform.

People can experience Apsara Dance at many restaurants in Siem Reap and also at the Cambodian Cultural Center.  I am certain that the skill level and authenticity of the restaurants is far less than the performances by the Royal University of Fine Arts.  However, the cultural shows give a good introduction to the art form.

We attended a restaurant show during our last visit in 2007 and returned to the same restaurant, albeit at a different location, during this month's trip.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit once again to Cambodia.  Attending the performance of the Apsara Dance was one of many highlights.

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