The Puranas mention several notable nymphs: Ambika, Alamvusha, Anavdaya, Anuchana, Aruna, Asita, Budbudha, Chandra Jyotsna, Devi, Ghartchi, Gunmukya, Gunuvra-Herrsha, Indar-lakshmi, Kamya, Karmika, Keshini, Kshaema Lata, Laksmna, Manorama, Maarichi, Maneka, Misrasthlah, Mrigakshi, Nabhidarshana, Puarv-chitti, Pushpdeha, Rakshaita, Rambha, Rituashalah, Sahjanya, Samichi, Sor-Bhedi, Saradvti, Suchika, Somi, Shuvahu, Shugandha, Supriya, Surza, Surasa, Surata (Riti Priya), Tialottama, Urvasi, Waraga, Vidyutparna and Vihaachi. They each have a story to tell.
APSARAS, GANDARVAS AND KINNARAS: The Apsaraas are nymphs; the Gandarvaas, singers in Indra’s swargalokha and Kinnaras, human beings with horse’s heads. The Tamil word ‘apsras' means moving in and between waters or clouds. A class of female divinities, they inhabit the skies and often visit earth. They change their shapes at will to look seductive and love playing in water.That is not the only thing they play with! Their Lord is none other than Lord Indra. At each set of 26 apsaras, they filled Indra’s court to represent distinct aspect of the performing arts.
They are not so prominent in the Vedas. However, Urvasi and a few others are mentioned in the Manu. They are prominent in the Ramayana and the Puranas. Many claim their parentage of Prajpati and attribute their origins to the churning of the oceans and Bhasi, the mother of birds. The Bhagavata Purana states that the Apsaras were born for Kashyap, one of the Satparishi and Muni implying Budha. Since they are water born, neither specific gods nor the asuras would have them as wives and they became common t all, hence the appellation ‘wives of the gods’ and ‘daughters of pleasure’. As they embrace promiscuity and hardly have material bonds, it was expeditious for the gods to dispatch asparas to seduce rishis and ascetics and drive them insane. In espionage, the term is ‘swallow’s nest’? They are also said to have an earthly smell but celestial perfumes changes all that, wouldn’t it? Their favourite trees are nyagrodha, asvatta and udumbara trees and play among groves and rest by lakes full of lotus flowers.
URVASI DEPICTION: Nothing more can be added to Vyasa Bhagavan’s words” And her loins of faultless shape, the elegant abode of the god of love, furnished with fair and high and round hips and wide at their lower part as a hill, and decked with chains of gold, and capable of shaking the saintship of anchorites, being decked with thin attire, appeared highly graceful. And her feet with fair suppressed ankles, and possessing flat soles and straight toes of the colour of burnished copper and dorsum high and curved like tortoise back and marked by the wearing of ornaments furnished with rows of little bells, looked exceedingly handsome”.
SATAPATHA BRAHMANA: This Brahmana characterises Apsaaras Urvasi in Hindu mythology. The Rig Veda Book 5, Hymn 95 tells the story. Urvasi had to leave swargalokha due to the imprecation of Mitra and Varuna. One day she was dancing in Lord Indra’s court playing the role of Lakhmi before the gods including Vishnu. Now, in her song-dance, instead of eulogising the name of ‘Vishnu’ she uttered the name – Puruvaras. Who is that? Previously Urvasi had intimations with Pururavas, the son of Budha. His mother was the daughter of Manu. Pururavas, machismo muscled, madly loved the stunning Urvasi. Each dwelled in the mind and soul of the other. They were in love. Now back to Indra’s court.
Sage Baratha, Mitra and Varuna burned with anger hearing Puruvaras’ name. They stood up but the sight of Urvasi was so overwhelming that they could not contain their seeds. Their retentive power was lost and they spilled it! Boy, was it an embarrassment. So they had to find a scape-goat. “We cannot be emitting like this in heaven in unison at the sight of Urvasi in the presence of gods and goddesses. We have to safeguard our retentive faculty and reputation, so we have no recourse than to excommunicate Urvasi to earth!” Thus was the curse.
Urvasi now needs accommodation. According to Vishnu Purana, Pururavas comes to the aid (to aid himself!) “Fair creature, I love you; have compassion on me and return my affection.” Half averting her face through modesty, Urvasi places conditions, in modern parlance the pre-nupital agreement, for the cohabitation (i) “I have two goats which I love as children, they must always remain near me day and night” (ii) “you must never be seen by me undressed and (iii) I must eat only one drop of ghee or clarified butter a day”. Clause (ii) implies that they were to make love in the dark? The business with the goats is also mind-boggling. Anyway that is not our business.
Thus agreeing Pururavas, as if he had a choice, gets a lover and cohabite. We wont know how he tolerated two goats in the bedroom but they seem to be getting on alright! Now, the fellows of heaven were anxious for the ‘pleasure daughter’ to return. So the Ghandarvas, the celestial musicians, attempting to frustrate the pre-nup, sneak by night to steal Urvasi’s goats. Now, Pururavas rushed into the room to engage the theft, little realising that he was naked. He thought that he would not be seen naked in the moonless night. The gandharvas invoke the service of Indra to send a lightning. A flash of lightning filled the room and there stands Pururavas stark naked with a sword.
By golly, the cohabitation condition is breached and she took off from the balcony. Pururavas, whose pathetic hold on the end of her sari slipped, Urvasi ascended to the heavens. You can see this famous scene in art depictions. As for her goats....the ghandarvas had their mission accomplished, cared not for them and Urvasi seems to have abandoned them as well!
Pururavas suffers some sort of ‘post-divorce’ mental condition. Loss of bride has psychological impact unless it is good-riddance! He wandered around looking for Urvasi and finally he finds her. The pre-nup conditions are amended and modified. Urvasi agrees to meet Pururavas yearly for five years after which he had an option to offer a sacrifice for her hand in marriage. Pururavas desperately fulfilled the new conditions, as Mark Antony would for Cleopatra, and becomes a Gandharva. Thus he gained her love and they settle in swargalokha to live happily ever after for 61,000 years.
SAGE AGASTYA: Vishnu Purana states that Varuna’s realms are the oceans but enters the common fray when the gods are at war with the demons. Thus he descends to a lower moral plane. In the heavens, Varuna and Mitra were so aroused by Urvasi’s beauty that their seeds fall on the ground. Apparently this was collected in a jar of water and from it was born Agastya who first takes the shape of a lustrous fish. He later becomes a sage of great ascetic virtues. The Ramayana states that Agasthyar subdued the rakshasas of the south. The demons, Varuna’s enemies were given protection by the oceans’ deep waters and avoiding just retribution. Agastyar takes offence and swallows up all waters. Although it is not very much stated that Urvasi mothered Agastyar, emission of seeds at the instance of Urvasi goes to the issue of causation.
ARJUNA BECOMES A EUNACH: This story is found in Vana Parva of the Mahabaratha. Indra learns that Arjuna’s glances were cast upon the pretty Urvasi. He called up Chitrasena, the King of the Gandharvas to “Go now as my messenger to the foremost of Apsaras, Urvasi, and let her wait for the tiger among men, Arjuna, saying these words of mine, that Arjuna has learnt all the weapons and arts, so should thou make him conversant with the art of acquitting one’s self in female company.” Chitrasena does just that and upon reaching swargalokha, he addressed Uravasi and sang praises of her faultless features. Urvasi hearing the virtues of Arjuna, forms an immediate desire, for kama’s arrow had struck her at an instant, said “Why should I not choose Arjuna for a lover? She sends the Gandharva away ‘took a bath, performed her ablutions and decked herself in charming ornaments and splendid garlands of celestial odour.’ In the words of Vyasa, she exhilarated with a little liquor and excited by desire looked prettier than usual, looking resplendent like a digit of the moon in the firmament shrouded by fleecy clouds.
At the speed of winds or the mind, she reaches Arjuna’s mansions and enters the charming palace. Now, Arjuna, shocked at the sight of such beauty, received her with respect but closed his eyes! Instead of getting the clue of receiving her at time of the day in his mansion, he was fear stricken and offered her worship – “O lady, let me know thy commands, I wait upon thee, thy servant.” Hearing this, Urvasi was shocked and became deprived of her senses. She thus ends up telling Chitrasena’s mandate to her. Hearing this Arjuna became bashful and shut his ears with his hands and said that in his estimation, she should be the wife of a superior and that he was not in doubt about that...“thou art superior to my superior, being the parents of my race”.
Now Manmatha had his arrows driven right to the core of Uravasi and she asks Arjuna not to send her away “O thou giver of proper respect, I am burning with desire”. But that is exactly what Arjuna does, asks that she return because ‘she deserved his worship as his own mother and that Urvasi protect him as a son’. That is it, period. Urvasi was deprived of her senses by wrath as she trembled with rage, contracting her brows, quivering in anger, breathing heavily, cursed him: “Since thou disregardest a woman come to thy mansion at the command of thy father and of her own motion- a woman besides, who is pierced by the shafts of Kama, therefore, O Arjuna, thou shalt have to pass thy time among females unregarded, and as a dancer, and destitute of manhood and scorned as an eunuch”.
The curse was to last for a year as the thirteenth year of Arjuna’s excile, after which he would regain power of manhood. It is said that by one listening to the pure conduct of Arjuna in this Parva, one becomes void of pride, arrogance and wrath of fault-finding. Neither do they run after lustful ends. They ascend to heaven and sport the bliss there.
NATYA SHAHSTRA: This is an ancient treatise on the performing arts, theatre, dance, music, makeup, stage design and literature. Written by the sage Bharata, it is based upon the much older Gandharva Veda. Natya Shastra mentions the following apsaras: Manjukesi, Sukesi, Misrakesi, Sulochana, Saudamini, Devadatta, Devasena, Manorama, Sudati, Sundari, Vigagdha, Vividha, Budha, Sumala, Santati, Sunanda, Sumukhi, Magadhi, Arjuni, Sarala, Kerala, Dhrti, Nanda, Supuskala, Supuspamala and Kalabha.