Led by Solor, a group of young warriors is hunting a tiger. Breaking away from them, Solor persuades the fakir Magdaveya to arrange a rendezvous for him 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. Night falls and Solor and Nikia 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.
The Rajah tells his daughter, Gamzatti, that she will meet and marry the man to whom she was betrothed when still a child. The Rajah introduces Solor to his daughter. 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 is requested to dance in the holy rites.
The High Brahmin enters and tells the Rajah of the love vows he has overheard between Nikia and Solor. The Rajah is incensed, but his decision 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.
Gamzatti overheard the conversation. She 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 bayadères would prefer death. She pulls out a dagger to strike Gamzatti, but a slave girl intervenes.
The Garden before the Rajah’s Palace. 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. A slave girl brings in a basket of flowers which Dugmanta declares to be a gift to Nikia. Nikia receive it but a poisonous snake hidden in the basket slips out and bites her. 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 Shades and, as he watches, ghosts of those long-dead appear before him. Among them he sees his beloved Nikia and she beckons to him to follow her…