Dances with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Bridging the World

Dances with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: Understanding Apsaras in the Buddhist Arts
Text | Jeanne H. Tuan 

I. Introduction

Visitors at the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum can take a pleasant walk along a covered walkway that stretches 254 meters.  The walkway has a lining of beautiful bas-reliefs depicting stories from the Buddha's life and 22 Buddhist Verses written in One-stroke Calligraphy by Venerable Master Hsing Yun.  As visitors admire the artistry of the bas-reliefs, they may feel a sense of transcendence, as if they are hearing celestial chants celebrating the Buddha's greatness.  "Nothing in heaven or earth compares to the Buddha.  He is matchless throughout the worlds of the ten directions.  There is nothing in the world like the Buddha," the verses proclaim.  In the meantime, the visitors may perceive an illusion of two lifelike figures gracefully soaring on each bas-relief podium.  One figure scatters flowers, and the other holds a plate of offerings.  Their elegant and dancing postures seem to hooray the enchanting atmosphere, adding to the sense of wonder and beauty.  When the visitors wake up and see the beautiful figures on the podiums, they might wonder, "What are these?" 

In fact, these flying figures are called Apsaras or Feitians and are not meant to be worshipped.  Instead, they are there to create a cheerful, lively, and celebratory scenario.  Hey, let's explore the fascinating origins of Apsaras!  We'll trace their roots to India and see how they evolved into sculptures, paintings, and décor in Chinese Buddhist art.  Plus, we'll go into their significance in Fo Guang Shan.  So, please listen carefully!


Pic |  The podium of the bas-relief adorned with Apsaras

II. Apsaras in Indian Arts

Apsaras are like "celestial nymphs" in Sanskrit. They originally had to do with clouds and water in ancient Indian traditions. As time passed, they turned into these fabulous "fairies" or "nymphs" in myths. You can see them in Buddhist art as musicians and dancers in sculptures, paintings, and temples. They can look different, but they're still important symbols in the art and stories of Indian, East, and Southeast Asian cultures.

Let's trace the premier debut of Apsaras back to the early period of Buddhist art in the Mathura style, dating to the 1st Century CE.  Picture 2 depicts a Kapardin Buddha sitting cross-legged on a lion throne, with the left hand resting on the left leg and the right hand raised in the Abhaya Mudra, a gesture of reassurance, protection, and safety.  The Buddha is flanked by attendants, surrounded by a nimbus, and dressed with a tuft of coiled hair.  The use of red sandstone suggests that the sculpture originates from Mathura.  On each side of the Buddha is an Apsara, keeping a straight posture during flying, with one hand scattering flower petals and the other holding a basket.  The atmosphere surrounding Buddha's preaching is one of joy and celebration.   The sculpture from Mathura is a fantastic piece of art that shows incredible creativity, especially in how it captures realistic physical features and portrays divine beings in a very lifelike way.

Sarnath, along with Mathura, holds significant importance in Buddhism as the site where Buddha delivered his first sermon after enlightenment. The Mathura Buddha statue, a prime example of local Indian cultural influence, portrays a more human-like and naturalistic form. In contrast, the Sarnath Buddha adopts an idealized and symbolic representation, accentuating his role as a spiritual guide. Let's closely examine this statue in Picture 3.  The Sarnath preaching statue is in the Dharmachakra Mudra, a symbolic gesture representing the teaching and turning of the Wheel of Dharma. The statue is made of cream-colored sandstone, giving it a unique appearance.  Similar to the ones found on Sarnath figures, the figure of Buddha is dressed in a plain, see-through cloth that covers both shoulders. There is also a simple and modest nimbus around the head.  In this composition, two Apsara figures come into our sight.  The Apsaras maintain an upright stance, clothed in diaphanous garments, billowing stylishly.  Despite the damage to the Apsaras' facial features, we can still conjure an image of them showering flower petals with joy as they greatly praise the Buddha's sermon.

Pic |  Amohaasi Bodhisattva, Seated Buddha

We continue onward, and our focus now shifts to another renowned center of Buddhist art, the Ajanta Caves.  They are located about 1300 to 1400 kilometers away from Mathura. The caves feature a variety of artistic styles that beautifully depict Buddhism. The Buddhist art in the Ajanta Caves differs from that in Mathura and Sarnath.

Cave 1 of the Ajanta was carved out between the 6th and 7th Centuries.  On the rear wall of this cave, there is a shrine designed to house a striking seated Buddha statue against an incomplete stupa (see Picture 4).  The Buddha's hands are posed in the Dharmachakra Mudra, symbolizing the turning of the dharma wheel.  Positioned above the Buddha are chubby cupids-like Apsaras, their youthful forms artistically bending and one leg elegantly lifted, while they are offering garlands to the Buddha.  Their presence adds a celestial beauty to the scene.  

The mesmerizing pillar capital catches our eye as we step outside Ajanta Cave 1. In the scene, Buddha sits in padmasana at the center, surrounded by male and female flying figures and clothed devotees. The female Apsaras are now depicted in a more sensual manner, unlike those angelic figures we saw in the shrine (refer to Picture 5). The female Apsaras on the pillar capitals stand out with their softly rounded breasts, graceful hip curves, and expressive poses, highlighting their femininity as the central theme.

Pic | Buddha in Teaching Mudra with Apsaras above, Pillar capital details of Ajanta Cave 1

In Ajanta's Cave 17, there are two outstanding artworks that stand out: the flying Apsara and the Indra Descent. These are truly memorable pieces of art.  This image (Picture 6) portrays an Apsara as an elegantly adorned female dancer with a deep complexion. The Apsara symbolizes the timeless beauty of classical Indian femininity. She holds a small flower with slender eyebrows and a warm skin tone while glancing back at her companion. Her hat sparkles with gems, and a string of pearls dangles from her collar, creating a sense of movement as if she's flying through the clouds.  

In the same cave, we couldn't help but notice the stunning mural depicting the moment the deity Indra paid homage to Buddha (see Picture 7). The scene was brought to life with the addition of Gandharvas and Apsaras, who are the court musicians adorned with beautiful ornaments. They move charismatically through the air, playing an uplifting blend of music using cymbals, flutes, and drums. The sight leaves us wholly amazed and stunned.

Pic | An Apsara flying to worship Buddha, Indra Descent with gandharvas and Apsaras

We then head to the Konark Sun Temple in Odisha! The Apsaras there are depicted in a way that highlights their feminine beauty and evokes sensuality (see Picture 8). Their curves are delicately rounded, their gestures expressive, and their gaze captivating. The S-shaped pose, they assume, embodies a range of exquisite emotions. This portrayal also reflects the ancient Indian appreciation for physical beauty and reproduction.

Pic | Apsara in detail of a chariot wheel of the Sun Temple

III.  Tracing the Evolution from Apsaras to Feitians in Chinese Buddhist Arts

During the 1st Century CE, Buddhism entered China through the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty. Emperor Kanishka I of the Kushan Empire expanded his rule to include present-day Afghanistan and Central China. This expansion played a significant role in spreading Buddhism. The Silk Road wasn't just a route for trading goods; it was like a bridge where different cultures and religions met and exchanged ideas. Among the many historical sites on this path, the Kizil Caves in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were important spots for Buddhists to go and worship. Inside the caves are very detailed paintings showing different parts of the Buddha's life, tales from his past lives, and other stories from Buddhism. These paintings are a mix of styles from India, Central Asia, and China, showing how different cultures came together to create something unique.  

Let's shift our attention to Cave 38, which stands out for its exceptional preservation of murals.  At the highest point of the cave, a rhombus-shaped Jataka tale takes center stage, while expansive paintings on the eastern and western walls depict stories connected to karma and cycle of life and death.  The artists incorporated arched doorways and windows reminiscent of Buddhist niches to achieve a sense of depth.  In each slot, two musicians dance or play musical instruments (see Picture 9).  These figures are depicted from the waist up, visible through the windows, and are half-naked.

Male and female celestial beings are depicted in pairs, and each distinguished by distinct crown adornments and skin tones.  The man wears a crown of three jewels, while the heavenly woman wears a crown of flowers, revealing her prominent breasts.  The color of heavenly beings varies. Some are depicted with dark brown hue, while others are portrayed with a white smudge, signifying their fair complexion.   On the other hand, the goddesses are often portrayed in darker shades and the gods in lighter tones.  

In Kizil Cave 38, you can observe the collaboration between male and female celestial beings, who exhibit a strong mutual interest and flirting glances.  In Picture 9, which you can see on the west wall, there's a pair of celestial beings. The male celestial on the left side looks at the maiden's panpipe among them. He's holding a bell in each of his hands and using them to keep the beat for her music. Another interesting example can be seen on the upper east wall, shown in Picture 10.  Within this scene, a male being is deeply engrossed in playing the pipa (i.e., Chinese mandolin), simultaneously entranced by a celestial maiden on his right. The portrayal of these flying figures is both fascinating and intricately detailed.  In contrast, the celestial female on the right offers a notable juxtaposition. She holds a fife in both hands and appears poised to play it. Her unwavering gaze is fixed upon the celestial being to her right, almost as if she's awaiting the commencement of the music's rhythm, preparing to harmonize with it.  In essence, the painter skillfully freezes a moment where two celestial entities merge in a musical duet, showcasing profound creativity and ingenuity.  The art style is undeniably influenced by India, Iran, and Sogdian cultural traits. The use of lapis lazuli pigments from Central Asia creates remarkably vivid "blue and green" colors, while the outlines are skillfully contoured with expertly drawn lines.

Pic | Musicians in the Cave of the Musicians, Kizil Cave 38

There are some depictions of Buddhist teachings observed in the caves.   Most of the mural art within the caves has an identical composition.   Above the statues of Buddha, there are drawings of pairs of Apsaras flying opposite each other. This presentation follows the traditional style of ancient Indian art.  The east wall of Cave 207, taken from the German Le Coq collection, illustrates the traditional arrangement. In this scene, Buddha is depicted preaching while seated in the padmasana position, wearing a red cassock. Besides, celestial beings are in flight in each upper segment. On the left side, the flying Apsara extends one hand forward, forming a shape resembling scattered flowers, while the other rests on its hip. The Apsara on the right holds a basket of flowers with one hand and showers flowers with the other. Both Apsaras in flight are depicted with beards and represent male celestial beings (see Picture 11).  Moreover, Cave 207 is adorned with subtle tone-on-tone Indo-Iranian murals featuring prominent shades of brown, orange, and green.  

Kizil New Cave 1, found during the 1970s, contains fragments of clay statues of Buddha passing into nirvana within its rear chamber.  Picture 11 shows perfectly preserved images of Apsaras on the ceiling of this chamber.  The Apsaras are relatively large, occupying the upper area of the room. The foremost Apsara holds a ribbon in one hand while the other hand extends gently in a gesture of scattering flowers.  The second Apsara has a plate of flowers in the left hand and sprinkles them with the right hand. The final Apsara holds flowers to his chest in a graceful pose while scattering petals with his other hand.  Interestingly, these three Apsaras are depicted as male, with their forms and movements appearing somewhat rigid, which could suggest murals from the later Kucha period.  The paintings mentioned above show more influence from Indian, Iranian, and Sogdian cultures than Chinese elements.

Pic | Kizil Cave 207, Kizil New Cave 1

With the rise of Buddhism in Central China starting from the 2nd Century CE, cave temples were created in Kizil, Dunhuang, and other places.  Dunhuang was a significant crossroads between the East and West, flourishing as an oasis on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert along the Silk Road from the 4th to the 14th Centuries. The Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang is an exceptional collection of cave temples showcasing a thousand years of exquisite Buddhist art.

Apsaras, divine figures associated with clouds and waters in Hindu Mythology, traveled from India to China through the spread of Buddhism. As Buddhism became more popular in Central China, the Apsara became intertwined with Taoist figures, resulting in the creation of the term "Feitian." This term referred to celestial beings or fairies in Taoism. Surprisingly, Feitian played a more prominent role in Chinese art than in its country of origin. The Golden Age of the Tang Dynasty (713-765 CE) was a time when Buddhism reached its highest artistic peak. During this period, the depictions of Apsaras or Feitians took on a unique Chinese flair and no longer showed any foreign or Indian influence.

Join us now on a captivating adventure through the Mogao Grottoes and experience the irresistible appeal of Feitians. These elegant Apsaras, dressed in traditional Chinese garments, move sophistically through the walls adorned with depictions of Buddhaland scenes. Get ready to be mesmerized!

Jingbian (經變), meaning sutra illustrations, is the artistic practice of visual representations of Buddhist teachings through intricate paintings and sculptures. During the Tang Dynasty, Jingbian pictures were prevalent in the Buddhist art of cave temples, significantly contributing to China's cultural heritage.  Shi Pingting (1998), a Dunhuang scholar, revealed that the art in the Mogao Grottoes drew from a list of thirty-three Buddhist scriptures. These cave murals depict several scriptures, including the Amitayurdhyana Sutra, the Medicine Buddha Sutra, the Maitreya Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and the Vimalakirti Sutra. Particularly abundant are the murals of the Medicine Buddha Sutra, totaling an impressive ninety-seven depictions.

Undoubtedly, one of the most exceptional examples of Jingbian art can be found in Mogao Cave 172 (see Picture 13). The murals on the north and south walls are impressive and leave a lasting impression on those who see them. The north wall, in particular, features a stunning depiction of the Amitayurdhyana Sutra (觀無量壽經), where Amitabha Buddha imparts teachings from a lotus platform, surrounded by devoted Bodhisattvas and followers.  Apsaras or Feitians move elegantly to the heavenly melodies of the Gandharvas band, creating a joyous atmosphere. The scattering of flower petals further enhances the depiction.   Comic strips of Buddhist scriptures, stories of Ajatashutra, and 16 forms of meditation as means of reaching the Pure Land add the flank embellishments. The splendid sutra illustration is sure to enchant anyone who looks at it.  

When you look up at the truncated pyramid ceiling of the cave, you'll be amazed by the enchanting Apsaras there (see Picture 14). These celestial beings are strategically placed on both sides of the canopy to further enhance their otherworldly beauty and spirituality.   The Apsara fluidly glides through the air, cradling his head in his hands and stretching his body like a leisurely swimming fish.  The other Apsara descends with buds in both hands, floating like a swallow carrying mud.  Their agile movements create a dynamic scene, enhanced by rolling clouds, adding a decorative touch.  

At the four corners of the ceiling are four Apsaras or Feitians flying (refer to Picture 15).  They move poised and smoothly in the air, adding a magical and spacious feeling to the scene. The Feitians' appearance adds the perfect finishing touch, reminiscent of the "eyes" described by ancient poets as the most crucial and wondrous verse in a poem.  Despite the absence of a vast background, the Feitians emit a sense of unrestrained freedom and expansiveness.  Their flowing ribbons gently move, giving off a peaceful feeling and subtle liveliness.  The rolling clouds perfectly complemented their relaxed and carefree stances. Thanks to the Feitians, our minds can now soar beyond limitations, much like elegant beings ascending toward the sky. This depiction evokes the ascent of a Taoist immortal to the realm of the fairies.

Pic | North Wall of Mogao 172, Ceiling of Mogao Cave 172

Sha Wutian (2016) observed a recurring theme in Buddhist sutras where music and dance are associated with the Pure Land. She cites verses from the Amitabha Sutra as an example.

[In] that Buddha land heavenly music is played continually.
The ground is made of gold. Six times during the day and night māndārava flowers rain down from the sky.
[T12n0366_001 0347a07《大正藏》第12冊,第347頁; in English, Pure Land, 2003, p. 91]

Apsaras, the "celestial nymphs" in Hinduism and Buddhism, are renowned for their musical prowess, often portrayed playing exquisite instruments and dancing with elegance. In Chinese Buddhist art, their skills shine and glow through murals and sculptures, even though their physical features differ from those found in India and Central Asia.

The mural on the south wall of Mogao Cave 112 (see Picture 16) distinguishes itself among the grottoes. It features a fascinating musical ensemble from the Medicine Buddha Sutra Illustration. The mural captures attention with a celestial figure playing the Chinese pipa or mandolin atop her neck. She radiates elegance with her movements and fascinates every being with her alluring eyes. Other celestial beings enchant with flute and paiban (a percussion instrument) melodies on the left, while others strum string instruments on the right. The moment frozen in time holds its enchantment.

The illustration of the Medicine Buddha Sutra in Mogao Cave 148 is a remarkable work of art from the Golden Age of the Tang Dynasty (see Picture 17). This representation is the most magnificent of its kind in Mogao Grottoes. It's located on the northern side of the eastern wall. The Pure Land, under the Medicine Buddha's guidance, is surrounded by music, chants, and dance.

The large-scaled illustration of The Medicine Buddha Sutra depicts more than twenty 'Pu Ku Tzu Ming' (不鼓自鳴), i.e., automated musical instruments that play heavenly music without human intervention (see Picture 17).  The term 'Pu Ku Tzu Ming' originates from Buddhist scriptures.  It refers to musical instruments that can produce sounds without striking, meaning they are self-playing.  Automated musical instruments are a prevalent motif in Buddhist art, especially in the artistic illustrations of sutras.  This motif follows a distinct arrangement: preachers, like Buddhas, are at its core.  Below them are the music and chanting ensembles, and above unfolds the marvelous scene of instruments that produce music without human intervention.  Through this arrangement, the celestial melodies of Buddhist realms come to life, filling the air. Shown in the detail on the upper right of Picture 17, the 'Pu Ku Tzu Ming' instruments, adorned with fluttering ribbons, seem to levitate as they produce heavenly melodies.  From percussion to plucked string and wind instruments, they can produce music that looks almost self-played. The focal point of the music and chanting ensembles is the two grand harpies, or konghous, with a magnificent presence.  These instruments have frames with beautifully decorated elements.  Strings that flow down their structures are portrayed subtly and delicately.  

The dancers in the mid-front stage catch your eyes, depicted in the detail on the lower part of Picture 17.  They are dancing likely identified as the "hu xuan wu" or Sogdian whirl dance, renowned for its swift spins.  The dancers grasp lengthy silk ribbons in each hand to accentuate this aspect.  Amidst the cadence of strings and drums, celestial pairs join in the dance on a modest carpet, tirelessly twirling left and right, executing countless revolutions without pause.  This portrayal closely echoes the words of the renowned Tang poet Bai Juyi (772–846 CE).  The illustration shows the Buddhist Pure Land with bright colors, music, dance, and lights. This scene is similar to the luxury of the royal courts and wealthy families in the Tang Dynasty. On the other hand, it evokes devotion and a longing to witness the visual splendor of the Pure Land.  The Medicine Buddha Sutra uses music and dance imagery to depict the lapis lazuli realm as a joyful "Land of Bliss," where heavenly music plays continually, and flowers fall from the sky all the time.  It is like the Western Pure Land!

Pic |  Illustration of Medicine Buddha Sutra

IV.  Dancing Apsaras Across Fo Guang Shan

The sound of camel bells on the Silk Road fades out as the Dunhuang Grottoes' vibrant art recedes in time and space.  Across the strait, Venerable Master Hsing Yun, founder of Fo Guang Shan, still blends Buddhist art with traditional Chinese architecture to create a harmonious space.  Let's embark on Fo Guang Shan in Taiwan and observe how the enchanting Apsaras grace the surroundings.

As we step into the Main Shrine of Fo Guang Shan, the sight that greets us is nothing short of awe-inspiring: three majestic seated Buddha statues that command our attention. These statues find their place within sleek wooden niches, seamlessly blending tradition with a modern touch. The wooden Buddhist niche is a testament to meticulous craftsmanship, adorned with intricate art and carvings that shape its delicate contours. As we peer into the niche, we're met with Shakyamuni Buddha at the center, flanked by the Medicine Buddha on the right and Amitabha Buddha on the left. This arrangement arouses a deep sense of reverence, devotion, and artistic beauty within us. When we look closer at the niche pillars (see Picture 18), our gaze falls upon exquisitely sculpted Apsaras embellished there. Their presence serves as a symbolic ode to the Buddha's teachings.  As they elegantly dance midair, their traditional Chinese attire and ribbons fluttering add grace to the sacred scene.  

The Great Compassion Shrine, where Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Guanyin) resides, is visited daily by many pilgrims and tourists.  The architrave of the shrine's architecture depicts joyful Apsaras or Feitains, as shown in Picture 19.  These figures dance and play music as a tribute to Guanyin, known for compassionately helping those in need.  Moreover, as we stroll around Fo Guang Shan, our gaze is quickly drawn to the street lamps.  Each has a Feitian adornment, which metaphorically hoorays the spread of dharma throughout this Buddhist realm.

Pic | The Main Shrine of Fo Guang Shan, The Great Compassion Shrine, Feitian adornments on the street lamps

You might be wondering if there are depictions of Pure Lands at Fo Guang Shan, similar to what we observed in Mogao Caves 148 and 220 with rich dance and music scenes. Well, the answer is affirmative. Join us on a journey to the Buddha Museum, where you can explore large-scale sutra illustrations.

Upon entering the Jade Buddha Shrine at the Buddha Museum, we sense a telepathic connection: the space imbued with immense compassion is truly sacred.  We cannot help but kneel, join our palms, and bow to the magnificent view in front.  The reclining jade Buddha statue is centered, with a crystal reliquary enshrining the Buddha's tooth relic above.  On the right side of the statue is a jade relief carving of the Eastern Pure Land of Medicine Buddha, while the left side depicts the Western Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.

Let's examine the composition of the Eastern Pure Land of Medicine Buddha more closely (refer to Picture 21). This jade relief carving portrays the vibrant scenes and celestial energy of the Eastern Pure Land, creating a feeling of serene beauty. The jade's delicate beige white tones and gentle translucence infuse the setting with a profound sense of tranquility.  In the heart of the scene, the compassionate form of the Medicine Buddha radiates a tranquil aura. His hand extends in the Abhaya Mudra, a gesture of reassurance and protection. Around this figure, a gathering forms, including bodhisattvas, celestial beings, disciples, and devoted followers, all drawn to the lecture delivered by the Medicine Buddha.  Above this sacred setting, celestial Apsaras or Feitians take flight with fluttering ribbons, their jade-like forms ethereal and graceful. Some engage in music from the instruments of pipas, flutes, conches, cymbals, and waist drums.  Others scatter flowers. These celestial musicians and dancers layer the scene with harmonious melodies that echo the healing essence of the Eastern Pure Land and create an atmosphere of divine connection and exhilaration.

Some viewers might express that the celestial musicians and dancers appear too small to show their colors.  A 5.8 cm gilt-bronze Apsara holding a Chinese mandolin or pipa, displayed in the Museum of Buddhist Underground Palaces of Buddha Museum, creates an "aha" moment. As you gaze upon the statue (Picture 22), she seems to enchant you with celestial music as she strums the pipa in her hand.  At this moment, the notes of the pipa harmonize with the verses by Bai Juyi, a famous poet in Tang Dynasty: 

      A dance of alternating low and high pitches akin to a cascade of pearls upon a platter.
      At times, it mimics the delicate melodies of orioles serenading amidst flowers;
      later, it transforms into the portrayal of a babbling stream struggling beneath a veil of ice. 


As the music resonates, you feel like you are being transported to a Buddhist pure land. And there you stand, within Fo Guang Shan, a living Buddhist Pure Land. Rooted in Humanistic Buddhism, Fo Guang Shan places the needs and aspirations of people at its core. It is committed to social and environmental responsibility by adapting Buddhist teachings to local cultures, advocating for sustainability, compassion toward all living beings, and addressing social injustices.

Pic | Sutra Illustration of East Pure Land of Medicine Buddha, Gilt bronze Apsara

At Fo Guang Shan Monastery and Buddha Museum, you experience the convergence of tranquility and enlightenment. The surroundings are breathtaking, with landscapes stretching forever, graced by splendid flowers emitting sweet scents. People of diverse cultural backgrounds and ethnicities express wisdom and compassion through their serene gazes and warm smiles, fostering profound connection and mutual understanding.

In this realm of Buddhism, Apsaras perform rhythmic and lively dances in the void.  The flying beings offer fragrant flowers as a gesture of reverence to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas while engaging in pure hymns and chants to honor the virtues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in all directions.  The imagery of dance and music creates an elegant and solemn atmosphere that evokes deep emotions and brings together divine and earthly realms.