The Indian Hair-Wringing Apsaras and her Discriminating Goose

Meanings and Migrations


  • Simona Cohen Tel-Aviv University



apsaras, hair-wringing goose, viveka


The present study investigates depictions of the Indian apsaras wringing water from her hair in monumental religious iconography. It demonstrates the migration of iconography and transformations of meaning from the northern sources to other areas of India and ultimately to parts of southeast Asia. I examine ancient literary and visual sources of the hair-wringing apsaras, mediator of the life-giving celestial waters, and the goose that drinks her hair-water in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain artistic contexts, demonstrating expressions of abstruse theological concepts. The salient virtue of the mythic hamsa (migrating goose) was its ability to separate milk from water (nira-ksira-viveka). This discrimination, already mentioned in Vedic and later sources, was appropriated as a metaphoric image in moral, didactic, theological and philosophical contexts. Connotations implicit in the myth of the potent water that passes through the apsaras’s hair are compared to those of the rejuvenating waters that flowed through Siva’s ascetic locks in the myth of Gangadhara.

Author Biography

Simona Cohen, Tel-Aviv University

Simona Cohen, professor of art history at Tel-Aviv University, began her career as a Renaissance art historian and published extensively on iconography, animal symbolism and representations of time. Following research in India and studies with indologist David Shulman, she introduced studies in Indian art history in the Departments of Art History and East Asian Studies. She was visiting professor at the Harvard University Center at Villa I Tatti, and taught at the International University in Venice.


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How to Cite

Cohen, S. . (2022). The Indian Hair-Wringing Apsaras and her Discriminating Goose: Meanings and Migrations. Religions of South Asia, 15(2), 142–177.