Arte-Factual: Apsaras, the Celestial Dancers of Hindu Myth

It recently came to my attention that I still hadn’t written any articles about the Core Design classic Tomb Raider 3, despite having launched this site almost two years ago. So it’s time to set that right.

Tomb Raider 3 introduced new vehicles and a less linear globe-trotting adventure but it also featured some stunning artwork from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, such as the dancers motif seen in the screenshot below and throughout the game’s India levels.

Apsaras motif seen in Tomb Raider 3
The apsaras motif seen in Tomb Raider 3’s India levels. Image credit: Kelly M.

These dancers are apsaras – often described as “divine nymphs” or “celestial dancers” – and are commonly found adorning the walls of Hindu and Buddhist temples across Asia. Apsaras are largely depicted as graceful, youthful maidens with slender waists, curvaceous hips and busts, and serene smiling faces. While they are sometimes associated with fertility rites, they are best known for being skilled dancers. They were often paired with gandharvas, the male singers and musicians who entertained at the court of Indra, the Hindu king of the gods.

Although they look naked at first glance, apsaras often wore collars of beads and pearls, jewellery, elaborate headdresses, and long, transparent skirts of fine cotton or silk. The celestial dancers seen in the screenshot above are striking a pose known as the tribhanga. Tribhang means “thrice bent” and is characterised by an almost S-shaped posture, where the dancer bends her body at the neck, waist, and knees. It may look a little uncomfortable to the untrained eye but the tribhanga is considered a graceful, feminine, and sensual pose, and is commonly seen in traditional Indian art and classical Odissi dance.

All this talk of Indian culture and Hinduism probably gave you the impression that the dancer motif seen in TR3 is based on a sculpture or painting found in India. However, the motif is probably based on a sculpture known as the “Dancers’ Pedestal” which was found further east at an archaeological site in the village of Trà Kiệu in Vietnam’s Quảng Nam Province.

Trà Kiệu is thought to be the site of Simhapura or the “Lion Citadel”, one of the Champa kingdom’s first capital cities. It was once part of what some refer to as “Greater India”. Champa was one of the many Hindu kingdoms that sprang up across Southeast Asia in the first millennium CE. Thanks to maritime trade and military conquest, its art and culture came to be heavily influenced by that of the Indian subcontinent.

Sadly, very little remains of Simhapura and other Champa cities as many of their ancient buildings were destroyed by carpet bombing during the Vietnam War and subsequently looted. Nevertheless, the temple ruins at Mỹ Sơn and Nha Trang bear testament to a sophisticated artistic tradition, one characterized by sandstone sculptures and stunning red-brick temple complexes.

Dancers Pedestal found in Tra Kieu, Vietnam
The “Dancers Pedestal” found at Tra Kieu, Vietnam. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

But let’s get back to the “Dancer’s Pedestal”, which can be found on display at the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Đà Nẵng. This sandstone corner piece depicts a dancing apsara and a male musician (gandharva). It was was carved sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries – the dates vary from source to source – and is one of the finest surviving examples of Trà Kiệu art. Its function is unclear, though some archaeologists believe it may have once decorated the outer walls of a temple sanctuary or tower.

Since all that remains of the Simhapura citadel are some ramparts and a collection of fragmented sandstone sculptures, archaeologists can only speculate as to the pedestal’s true purpose. Will these smiling dancers ever give up their secrets? One can only wonder.

If you’d like to learn more about Vietnamese art, history, and archaeology, you can find some interesting sites and articles in the “Sources and Further Reading” section below!

Sources & Further Reading:

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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