Led by Solor, a group of young warriors is hunting a tiger. Breaking away from them, Solor encounters the fakir Magdaveya by the walls of the temple, and he persuades Magdaveya to arrange a rendezvous for him that night with the bayadère Nikia, one of the dancers who serves the temple’s sacred flame within.
The High Brahmin comes out of the temple leading a solemn procession, which is a sign for the ritual of fire to begin. Fakirs and bayadères perform ritual dances and then Nikia, the fairest of all the bayadères, appears. Although he has taken vows of celibacy and is leader of the temple’s priesthood, the High Brahmin confesses to Nikia that he loves her, and he promises her wealth and power if she will be his.
Nikia rejects his love and, while she and the other bayadères carry water from a sacred pool to the fakirs, Magdaveya, unobserved, takes the opportunity to tell her that Solor wishes to meet with her that night beneath the temple walls. Nikia is overjoyed.
Night falls and the two lovers meet secretly while Magdaveya keeps watch, though this does not prevent the High Brahmin from eavesdropping on their assignation. Solor asks Nikia to flee with him. She consents, but first demands his vow of eternal fidelity.
It is morning. The Rajah tells his daughter, Gamzatti, that this is the day when she will meet and marry the man to whom she was betrothed when still a child. Dugmanta sends for him, and when he appears it is none other than Solor. The Rajah introduces his daughter and explains that they are to become bride and groom in accordance with the agreement made many years before. Solor is enraptured by Gamzatti’s beauty, but is thrown into confusion as he remembers Nikia and the vows he has just made to her.
The time for the marriage to be consecrated is close and Nikia will be requested to dance in the holy rites. The High Brahmin enters, telling the Rajah that he has an urgent secret to impart. Dugmanta dismisses the court. Gamzatti, however, suspecting that the Brahmin’s sudden request for a private audience concerns her, hides so that she can overhear what is said to her father.
The High Brahmin tells the Rajah of the love vows he has overheard between Nikia and Solor. The Rajah is incensed, but his decision that Solor will marry his daughter remains unchanged. Solor will marry his daughter and the bayadère will die. The High Brahmin did not expect such an outcome and reminds the Rajah of the vengeance of the gods if their servant should be killed at the temple. Their conflict unresolved, they part.
Gamzatti emerges from her hiding place and summons a slave girl to bring Nikia to her. When she appears, Gamzatti tells her of the approaching wedding, showing a portrait of Solor as the man she is to marry. Nikia is horror-struck and protests that Solor has in fact sworn eternal fidelity to her alone…
The Rajah’s daughter haughtily demands that she should relinquish him, but the bayadère would prefer death. She pulls out a dagger to strike Gamzatti, but a slave girl intervenes. Full of wrath, Gamzatti resolves to have Nikia put to death.
Magnificent celebrations for the wedding of Solor and Gamzatti are underway and a succession of dances provides entertainment for all the guests.
Nikia in her turn is ordered to dance, but she cannot conceal her despair and, unable to take her eyes off Solor, her performance is filled with sorrow. A slave girl then brings in a basket of flowers which Dugmanta declares to be a gift to Nikia from Solor. Nikia puts her hand out to receive them but, as she does so, a poisonous snake hidden in the basket slips out and bites her. This, Nikia knows, is the revenge of the Rajah’s daughter, but when the High Brahmin comes forward to offer her an antidote if only she will love him, she refuses him yet again. Nikia dies with Solor kneeling at her side.
Solor is distraught and tormented by remorse. Magdaveya attempts without success to divert him from his grief, and so he calls for a snake charmer. While the man plays, Solor falls asleep to the sound of the flute.
Solor dreams, he is in the Kingdom of Shadows and, as he watches, ghosts of those long-dead appear before him, descending in a long procession from the mountain cliffs.
Among them he sees his beloved Nikia and she beckons him to follow her…