Tracking Apsaras and Devatas in the Angkor Temples

Tracking Apsaras and Devatas in the Angkor Temples

with 32 Comments

Hello Madame ! Welcome to Cambodia, Madame ! Upon our arrival in Siem Reap, our guide greets us with a genuine smile. A smile that shoots directly in our hearts. A smile that we have seen over and over again throughout our trip in Cambodia: on the airplane, at the local market, or in the jungle. That same smile worn by many female sculptures carved on the walls of the Angkor temples. Sculptures that are commonly called Apsaras or Devatas.

 

Right on our first day in Siem Reap, we both fell under the spell of the Apsara’s and Devatas’s smile. Amid the splendors of urban and jungle temples, like silent sentinels, they greeted us with their sensuous smile – a smile carved with elegance and care.

 

 

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In the Hindu and Buddhist mythology, a Devata is a symbol that represents different things in different forms of knowledge, commonly translated as “goddesses”. Whereas Apsaras are known as celestial nymphs or maidens. In Cambodia, these female figures are mostly depicted on the pillars and walls of the Angkorian temples, which flourished between the 9th and 15th century.

 

In fact, they are omnipresent in Angkor: wandering around the ruins in the jungle, we couldn’t help but be mesmerized by their elegance and magnitude. If these ladies are not dominating the whole structure, they will appear as tiny illustrations in the upper or lower corner. There is no spot untouched by their refined grace.

 

 

If Devatas are depicted in a more formal manner (standing still and facing forward as if they were the temple’s guardians), Apsaras are often pictured as youthful, elegant, and superb dancers, adorned with golden headdresses and silken tunics and skirts.

 

Legend has it that they are the most beautiful female beings, born in the Ocean of Milk, an elixir churned for thousands of years by the Devas (gods or benevolent spirits) and the Asuras (demons). In the middle of the 20th century, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia created the “Dance of the Apsara Divinities”. It features professional female dancers who narrate religious stories with codified graceful and sinuous ballet-like gestures. Nowadays, this Khmer classical dance is performed in many places.

 

 

As we stroll through the Angkor temples and contemplate the thousands of Apsaras and Devats, we wonder what role women actually played in the Khmer Empire. According to recent studies, they were important contributors to the Khmer culture, and were very much respected by men. Exactly what roles women played in shaping Khmer society is however still largely unknown. But some scholars have suggested that women were politically, socially, spiritually and economically empowered in the Khmer Empire. As non-experts in this field, we could not help but notice that female representations became more prominent the deeper we penetrated into the temple complex. And even more so as we made it to the tops of the highest towers.

 

When we reached the heart of Angkor Wat, we also reached the heart of our reflection on the image of the Asian woman.

 

Who hasn’t heard of Geisha Girl, China Doll, Lotus Flower, Prostitute and Mail-order Brides? All of them are sexually connoted. And not only men, but also Western women sometimes like to believe that Asian women are nothing but docile housewives and/or dangerous sex toys. But guess what: that’s a fiction. Nothing but a Western projection on the female as an object of desire. An exotic illusion, a colonialist approach, a fetish.

 

 

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Throughout our trip in Cambodia, we’ve seen tourists, may it be Westerners or Chinese, treating young and beautiful Khmer women as if they were hookers. But these women did not respond with rage. They all kept wearing this wonderfully authentic smile. Why ? Are they really submissive? Could they be timid, passive or docile? Or may it be that they just ignore the Western fetishism, because in their eyes it has no credit?

 

We like to believe that Khmer women are above all that. They know their value, and their power. And that’s exactly what their smile is: a sign of strength, and of resilience. In spite of decades of civil war, terrors and multiple hardships, and maybe even because of these atrocities, Cambodians continue to smile. They smile the way we forgot to smile: not just their lips, their eyes smile too.

 

A smile is a powerful gift. It is also one of the most underrated gifts in the world. Think about it: the only thing more powerful than a person offering a smile is two persons smiling at each other. It is the greatest communication tool. It is free, but means the whole world.

 

If you’ve made it to the Siem Reap, you might want to explore the rest of the country by following this off-the-beaten-path itinerary of Cambodia. Or cross the border to explore Luang Prabang in Laos, or spend a day visiting Hoi An in Vietnam.

 

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Tracking Apsaras and Devatas in the Angkor Temples © Travelwithmk.com

 

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Travelers - Storytellers

Travelers at heart, Mei and Kerstin have been roaming the world together since 2002. Expats for over a decade, they used to live in Bordeaux, Paris, Athens, and San Francisco. They recently returned to their motherland to get married, and decided to stay to re-explore Luxembourg in depth. While they both have a full time job, they continue to feed their wanderlust by traveling the world whenever they can.

32 Responses

  1. thestoryteller
    | Reply

    I’m an Asian Woman and I love your thoughts about this. Yes there are a lot of “fetish” women in Asia – and they do it because of poverty and lack of education. For Western Men, it’s stereotype to think that we will cook meals for them and be a “doormat” but as an Asian, we don’t take what they think/say seriously – why? Because they are not part of our family. They’re just tourists and we also think “common beliefs” about them but after all, we realise that all things are differently beautiful. Isn’t it wonderful to live in a world full of variety? It is. Anyway, I was in the province of Cambodia last week – this Ankor Wat is on my list next time. Thanks for the lovely writing!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts on this! I wrote about this because it makes me sad and agree to see how (some) Western men (or even women) treat Asian women… Angkor Wat is a wonderful place. I hope you’ll get to explore it on your next visit in Cambodia. 🙂

  2. Claire
    | Reply

    A smile really is the most beautiful thing we can wear, and it breaks down barriers across cultures too, I’ve never heard of anywhere where smiling does not mean happiness or welcome. It is interesting to think of the role of women in the Khmer culture, in Inca culture for example the sculptures were often of men or gods, I don’t remember seeing many women depicted in the carvings.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes you’re right, Claire! When we were in Peru and Bolivia last year, we also noticed that most sculptures depict men, even though Pachamama is a woman!

  3. Hannah
    | Reply

    A genuinely interesting observational post about the portrayal / perspective of women in Cambodia. Thanks for the history of the Devatas and Apsaras – it is interesting how the role of women becomes more clear as you move further through Angkor.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks Hannah! Angkor Wat was the perfect place for us to reflect on the role of women, as women are depicted everywhere! 🙂

  4. Danik
    | Reply

    Love the smiles but I love the story with the Devatas and Apsaras, the backgrounds etc and how it is shown in the temple. The carvings are simply stunning, never seen anything like this before.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes the sculptures of the apsaras and devatas in Angkor are really wonderful. As of now we haven’t seen anything like this neither!

  5. Kathleen C
    | Reply

    This is a great lesson to everyone. People should smile more and treat others with respect. Also, most of our preconceived notions should be left at out of our travels so we can learn the true aspect of people. I love the photos showing the goddesses smiling. They are quite detailed and lovely.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Kathleen! And yes you’re absolutely right, in order to understand people and their cultures, we need to start by treating them with respect and avoid any preconception. 😉

  6. Rosemary
    | Reply

    I remember the “hello ma’am, yes, ma’am, etc” when we were in Cambodia. Truly lovely people with genuine smiles. Thanks for the background on the Devatas and Apsaras. I was in awe when walking around Angkor Wat and being mesmerized by all the feminine imagery and sculptures. Thanks for this tribute to the power of a smile…for Cambodians and for all.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You’re welcome. The apsaras and devatas in Angkor look amazing, don’t they?! 😉

  7. Debbzie Leksono
    | Reply

    Smile is the greatest communication tool. It is free, but means the whole world. Can’t agree more with you. Sometimes I face language barrier when I travel and most of the time it is saved by a genuine smile 😀
    I have yet to make it to Cambodia (hopefully this year) but I’ve heard tons of beautiful story about this country. I’ll keep in mind to look for these Apsaras and Devatas when I visit the Angkor Temples. I love to see their mysterious smiles on your pictures!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      We hope you’ll get to visit Cambodia this year (or soon). It’s a wonderful country and Cambodians are really nice people. 🙂

  8. A genuine smile is a great way to start your tour day. And so cool that your day brought you to the smiles of the Apsaras and Devatas. They certainly do look content and satisfied. So great to hear the myths about these females carved into the temples. It was good to hear that women were likely empowered in the Khmer Empire. I like to think of their smile as one of strength and resilience. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, and in Cambodia our guide greeted us with a big smile every day!

  9. Carolina Colborn
    | Reply

    It’s nice to know that apsaras and devatas mean that the Cambodian smile is etched permanently into the Angkor temples and into the spirits of the Khmer women.

  10. Nisha
    | Reply

    Happy New Year! Apsaras and Devatas… I agree that people of Cambodia are very warm and ever smiling , willin gto help always. Cambodia and in particular Siem Reap was a very fulfilling trip for us. We were teaching in a school there and the people respected us for that.

  11. Lauren
    | Reply

    These carvings are beautiful! They show such detail. I haven’t been to Ankor but I know I’ll make it there someday. And thank you for sharing the smiles of these pretty ladies 🙂

  12. heatherhudak
    | Reply

    Everywhere we went in Siem Reap, it was impossible not to notice the beautiful smiles on all of the women. They are so warm and wonderful. Thank you for sharing the symbolism of Devata–so enlightening.

  13. Jen Joslin
    | Reply

    Couldn’t agree more with you that Cambodians have the best smiles! It’s one of the reasons that after years of traveling in Cambodia we decided to move to Phnom Penh. People in Cambodia are just lovely 😀

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      How cool you’re living in Phnom Penh now! We only stayed there for two days, so we’ll definitely return to explore it in depth. Do you have some good addresses for us? 🙂

  14. elphie1
    | Reply

    WOw!! The smile and it’s meaning is really cool! I’m also interested to hear the locals called you ‘madame’ a lot! I just got back from Peru and those locals loved to call everyone ‘lady’

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, people kept calling us “Madame” in Cambodia, and also in Vietnam. It’s actually a sign of high respect, more like the British “Madam” than the French “Madame” (which has no connotation whatsoever). We can’t wait to travel to Peru! Let’s see if the locals will call us “lady” too! haha…

  15. I have been to Angkor but did not know any of this, nor did I pay that much attention to some of the carvings and they really are stunning. I guess sometimes it is equally fascinating travelling through the eyes of another.

  16. Peter Korchnak
    | Reply

    Beautiful. “A smile is a powerful gift.” To be embraced rather than seized, perhaps, but nevertheless meaningful. The whole world indeed.

  17. Natasha Haley
    | Reply

    I love your pictures, not the typical ones you see from Angkor. It is wonderful to see more of Angkor and what else there is to offer. Interesting

  18. Rhonda Albom
    | Reply

    What beautiful smiles! This was very informative, I enjoyed reading about the Apsaras and Devatas as well as womens cultural role.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Rhonda! I hope you’ll get to see the apsaras and devatas sculptures in Cambodia too. 🙂

  19. Fascinating story on the differences to both divinities and how they are shown in all of the temples at Ankor, beautiful.

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