Solor, a warrior, asks Magdaveya the head fakir to set up a meeting with Nikiya, a temple dancer or bayadère. Nikiya’s beauty has also dazzled the High Brahmin, who confesses his love to Nikiya. She rejects him, because he is a man of God. The Brahmin is deeply hurt by Nikiya’s rejection.
Magdaveya conveys Solor’s message to Nikiya, and she agrees to meet him. The High Brahmin grows suspicious when he sees Nikiya with Magdaveya. Nikiya and Solor meet in the woods and pledge eternal love to one another. Infuriated, the High Brahmin invokes the gods to help him kill Solor.
The Rajah announces that he will reward Solor for his valour by giving him the hand of the Rajah’s daughter, Gamzatti, in marriage. Solor is unable to resist Gamzatti’s charms and the Rajah’s wishes despite having pledged his eternal love to Nikiya. The High Brahmin informs the Rajah of Nikiya and Solor’s love with hopes that the Rajah would have Solor put to death. The Rajah, however, decides that it is Nikiya who must die. Gamzatti overhears the conversation and attempts to bribe Nikiya to leave Solor. Nikiya refuses and in desperation attempts to stab the Princess. Gamzatti now agrees with her father: Nikiya must die.
A betrothal party is arranged for Gamzatti and Solor. The High Brahmin brings Nikiya to dance at the ceremony. Unable to accept the engagement, Nikiya expresses her sorrow in her dance. Nikiya receives a basket of flowers that she is told is from Solor. Actually, the basket was sent by the Rajah and Gamzatti, and hidden among the flowers is a venomous snake. The snake bites Nikiya. The High Brahmin offers her an antidote to the venom, but just as she is about to drink it, she sees the Rajah and Gamzatti lead Solor away. Nikiya chooses death.
Despondent and depressed by Nikiya’s death, Solor smokes opium and sees the dead Nikiya in a hallucination. She is in the Kingdom of the Shades, and her vision is multiplied by the corps de ballet. Solor reminisces about her dance of love by the sacred fire. As Solor prepares for his wedding to Gamzatti, the vision of Nikiya continues to confuse him.
A bronze idol dances in the shadow of the Great Buddha as the High Brahmin and other priests prepare for the wedding of Gamzatti and Solor. The bride and groom enter, but Solor is still haunted by Nikiya. A basket of flowers identical to the one given to Nikiya mysteriously appears, and Gamzatti, terrified and consumed by guilt, urges her father to complete the marriage ceremony. Solor is unable to pronounce the wedding vows. The enraged gods destroy the entire temple, burying everyone in it. Eternal love brings the spirits of Solor and Nikiya together.