Ambapali, the royal dancer of Vaishali, lived over 2,500 years ago. However, every now and then, she dances her way out of the pages of Buddhist scriptures and the Jataka tales, where she was first found, to excite the imagination of creative writers who, in turn, stimulate filmmakers to make elaborate costume dramas. This has been going on ever since the renowned Hindi litterateur Acharya Chatursen Shastri published 'Vaishali ki nagarvadhu' (Bride of the City) in 1948.
The immensely popular historical fiction supplied fodder for three films – the last one was a memorable 1966 production starring Sunil Dutt and Vyjayanthimala – a television serial, as well as a few novels. Indeed, anyone looking for inspiring female characters from ancient India cannot but consider Ambapali’s journey from a talented dancer to nagarvadhu, a state-appointed courtesan – whose most famous lover was Vaishali’s chief enemy – to, finally, a Buddhist nun.
Ancient ingredients, fresh seasoning
The most recent version of her tale comes from Tanushree Podder, a prolific novelist who has written across genres including history, mystery, military, crime and the paranormal. Of her sixteen earlier novels, 'Nur Jehan’s Daughter' and 'Escape from Harem' are historical fiction, a category which the seventeenth, 'Ambapali', joins. In the Author’s Note, Podder writes, "Ambapali lived in the age of Buddha and Mahavira when spirituality and hedonism coexisted without infringing upon each other. While Buddha represented spirituality, she represented the hedonistic side of society. Yet, their paths met." The novel attempts to recreate the main events of Ambapali’s tempestuous life that ultimately led to her renunciation of wealth, status and the adulation of powerful men for the path of a spiritual seeker.
The price of beauty
Typically, the tale of a tragic hero/ heroine, begins with abandonment. A newborn, deserted in a mango orchard, is found by a royal gardener. As he and his wife are childless, the baby girl is a gift from the heavens. An idyllic life in a loving home and strong friendships set the foundation for Ambapali’s youthful dreams. Notwithstanding her obvious beauty, these dreams are about marriage to her childhood friend-turned-sweetheart and the anticipated life of a householder.
In an act that could be attributed to deus ex machina, Ambapali, while attending the annual Spring Festival as an ordinary spectator, finds herself performing before the king. At the command of Suvarnasena, her dance teacher, she competes with the reigning royal dancer whom she surpasses. Result: Ambapali is the new raj nartaki, a role that she emphatically does not want. Much against her wishes, her life is transformed. It is also no longer in her hands as, wrenched from her moorings, she is now controlled by the manipulative and opportunistic Suvarnasena, a set-piece villainess, who cuts her off from family and friends, micro-manages her life and steals from her growing coffers.
As long as she is raj nartaki, Ambapali cannot marry. She is pursued by nobles and merchants who flock to watch her dance and remain, mesmerised by her beauty. As her fame grows, so does the rivalry among her suitors, especially the Licchavi clan chiefs who had united to form the Vajji republic; the discord threatens the security of Vaishali. The risk comes specifically from neighbouring Magadh, and its ambitious monarch Bimbisara. The solution that is found by Vaishali’s council of ministers harks back to an old tradition – a kind of bro code – in which the most beautiful, and hence most coveted, woman, was declared a nagarvadhu. ‘Any man who can pay her price has claim over her,’ is considered an excellent suggestion by all. Says Ambapali, ‘They have sealed my fate. All I can do is put a price on it.’
From powerlessness to power
The price she puts gives her some autonomy: a palace of her own where her writ alone prevails, the right to decide whom she will share her bed with and the fee she will charge for this privilege.
The narrative follows the well-known storyline while charting the changes in Ambapali after she opens the doors of her pleasure house to the wealthy. Her own wealth grows to the point that she is richer than the king. Once generous in her donations to the needy, as she becomes increasingly emotionally detached from her public role, she is less giving, bent more on amusing herself as ‘a ruthless, reckless hedonist.’ As the inner turmoil deepens, she is drawn to the public sermons of the Sakyamuni. Meanwhile, Bimbisara, driven by curiosity, makes a secret trip to Vaishali to see for himself the famous beauty of the nagarvadhu and falls under its spell. Disguised as a trader of perfumes, he charms, loves and leaves her – pregnant. A son is born from the relationship. From an early age, the boy prefers the company of the monks at the monastery Ambapali visits. Bimbisara attacks Vaishali, but fails to get Ambapali who refuses to betray her country.
Blending fact with fiction is an artful skill. It requires not just historical accuracy about the society being described, but also the ability to transfer the motivations and emotions of the characters convincingly enough for the reader to make sense of the events. Podder’s deft portrayal of an unassuming, unworldly girl who, when faced with a cruel destiny, finds the courage and the means to stand up to it is touching.
While Ambapali’s emotions are well tracked, her inner journey is fleetingly glimpsed. How did this fascinating woman finally see her life? A clue emerges from the haunting 18 verses attributed to her in the Therigatha, a compilation of poems by Buddhist nuns. ‘Oh, the beauty of my body in the past –Like a sheet of gold, polished to perfection. Now, with age, fine wrinkles cover it. What the Buddha has said is true – I have no doubt.’
Physical beauty transformed her situation drastically, but it was the Buddha’s teachings, about the true nature of impermanence, that led to an acceptance of it.