Indian art and culture is filled with tales of several musicians and
dancers, many of who left an indelible mark on the very psyche of this
vast and diverse nation. Amrapali is one such character. She was one
of the best ever court dancers that India has produced. She ruled the
roost for many years, till one day, she decided to give it all up to
lead the life of a celibate.
Amrapali, also commonly referred to as Ambapalika or Ambapali, was the
famous royal courtesan or nagarvadhu of Vaishali. Vaishali was a
republic of ancient India, dating around 500 BC. An extremely
attractive woman and one of the greatest dancers that ever lived, she
ruled her field till she finally decided to give up her luxurious
life; follow the Buddha and became an arahant.
Here is the story of the alluring Amrapali.
Amrapali was born around 600-500 BC. There is no proper record of her
birth, parents and early life. She was given this name because she was
found under a mango tree in the royal gardens of Vaishali.
Etymologically speaking, the name is derived from the two roots,
"Amra" (meaning mango) and "Pallawa" (meaning tiny sprouts or leaves).
Incidentally, her legend originated in the Jataka Tales, which were
penned about 1500 years ago.
A person named Mahanaman found her when she was a child. Lured by her
great beauty, he abandoned his own kingdom and set up residence in
Ambara village, a small hamlet in Vaishali.
Amrapali Becomes the Nagarvadhu
Amrapali grew up to be a woman of extraordinary grace and charm. She
became famous in the entire city of Vaishali for her looks and was
declared as the most beautiful girl in the region at the tender age of
11. As she grew older, many young nobles desired to spend time in her
company. In order to avoid any confrontation with her suitors, she was
then bestowed the status of being the state courtesan of Vaishali.
Manudev, the King of Vaishali, once watched her performance in the
city and wished to have her for himself. Arrogant and inconsiderate
about her feelings, he decided that he had to "own" her. Amrapali, in
the meantime, had a childhood love, by the name of Pushpakumar. They
were deeply in love with each other and planned to wed each other.
The Legend of Amrapali - An Enchanting
Saga Buried within the Sands of Time
Not wanting to lose Amrapali, Manudev killed Pushpakumar on the day of
their wedding. Wanting to possess her completely, he then declared
that Amrapali was the "bride of Vaishali", that is, the Nagarvadhu.
In accordance with his wishes, Amrapali was made the nagarvadhu and
Vaishali Janpath Kalyani (the most beautiful and talented girl in the
kingdom). This post of Janpath Kalyani would last for seven years.
During this period, she had the right to choose her lover and also
choose the person with whom she wished to maintain physical relations.
She also remained the court dancer of the Vaishali democracy.
Tales of her beauty and talent soon reached far and wide. King
Bimbisara, ruler of the neighboring hostile Magadha region, was
enamored by these stories and wished to see her. He attacked Vaishali
and then took refuge in Amrapali's own residence. He was an excellent
musician and would often sing to her. In due course of time, the two
fell deeply in love with each other.
It was only a few weeks later that Amrapali learned of Bimbisara's
true identity. Angered, she asked him to call off the war and leave
immediately. Totally smitten by Amrapali, Bimbisara readily agreed to
her wishes. He did not care that it made him seem like a coward in the
eyes of the residents of Vaishali. In the next few months, Amrapali
bore him a son, who she named Vimala Kondanna.
Bimbisara Meets His End
There are several versions of how Bimbisara met his end. One of them
relates that he was poisoned by Ajatashatru, who was getting tired of
waiting to take over the throne. Ajatashatru was Bimbisara's son by
Queen Chelna. He was a contemporary of both Mahavira and Gautama
Buddha. A powerful and arrogant character, he imprisoned his own
father and forcefully took over the rule of Magadha from him.
Here are a few other versions of the story:
The Jaina Version
According to the Jaina version, Ajatashatru was one day eating his
meal with the rest of the family. Holding his newborn son on his lap,
he proudly asked his mother, Queen Chelna, if she had ever seen a
devoted father as he was. His mother then narrated several incidents
from his childhood, where his father had showered all his love and
devotion on his son.
An emotional and guilty Ajatashatru immediately decided that he would
free his father from imprisonment. He hurried to the dungeon with an
axe, in order to pry open his chains with it. When Bimbisara saw his
son approaching him with an axe, he misread the situation and thought
that he was going to murder him with it. Not wanting to die at his
son's hands, he decided to take his own life, by consuming the
Talaputa poison present in his ring. He said a last prayer and almost
immediately breathed his last.
Ajatashatru repented much for the loss of his father. However, none of
it was of any use. Finally, he moved his headquarters to Champa and
made that city his capital.
The Buddhist Version
The Buddhist version of the story narrates how cruelly Ajatashatru
kept tormenting his father in prison. He ordered that Bimbisara be
given no food and also tortured him physically, injuring his body.
Queen Kosala kept finding different ways of reaching food to her
husband. However, when she was caught, she was altogether stopped from
visiting her husband.
Bimbisara gradually started growing weak, but derived comfort by
looking at a distant mountain from his cell window. The mountain was
then inhabited by Gautama Buddha and his disciples. When Ajatashatru
realized this, he ordered his people to block the window and make his
One day, the Buddha and his disciples visited the city. An overjoyed
Bimbisara got to see him through the holes of his prison door.
Incensed that his father got a chance to be happy again, Ajatashatru
ordered his henchmen to skin his feet. After this incident, Bimbisara
could no longer move around. Ultimately, he kept getting weaker and
Then one day, Ajatashatru was sharing a meal with his mother, Kosala
Devi. Wanting him to see sense and free his father, she told him how
much Bimbisara had sacrificed so that his son could be happy in his
life. Hearing all the stories and being touched by his father's kind
heart, he decided to free Bimbisara.
The news spread all around the city and everyone was talking about
Bimbisara's release. However, Bimbisara suspected that his son had an
ulterior motive behind this move. Not wanting to die at his son's
hands, he decided to take his own life.
Ajatashatru Wages War over Vaishali
Soon after his father's death, Ajatashatru decided to invade all the
hostile regions around Magadha. He then waged war against Vajji, which
was then ruled by the Lichchhavis, also conquering Vaishali, Kosala,
Kashi and many other neighboring regions.
Ajatashatru Meets Amrapali
Having conquered Vaishali, Ajatashatru was roaming the streets in
triumph. He had heard much about Amrapali and wished to have an
audience with her. A short search led him to her residence. Seeing
her, he immediately fell for her beauty and charm. She too liked him
and, gradually, grew to reciprocate his love.
The residents of Vaishali, however, were against their relationship
and demanded that Amrapali be imprisoned for her promiscuous behavior.
Seeing her imprisoned and helpless, he became so upset that he burned
down the whole of Vaishali. Several hundreds of people died in the
huge massacre and the city was almost completely ruined. But he saw to
it that his love Amrapali was safe all the way through. When she came
out of prison, she was aggrieved seeing the amount of damage the
invasion had caused to her motherland. Disgusted with Ajatashatru, she
walked away from him for good.
Interestingly, it is not clear if Amrapali knew that Ajatashatru was
her lover's son; or that he had killed his own father, who was also
the father of her own child.
Ajatashatru Becomes a Monarch
Ajatashatru eventually became the monarch of a vast kingdom, which
spanned almost all areas of present-day North India, including
Chandigarh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh,
Delhi, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, a bit of Jharkhand and a fourth of
Madhya Pradesh as well. Ajatashatru was considered to be one of the
most powerful rulers of North India at that time.
With the help of his two ministers, Sunidha and Vassakaara, he built a
massive fort by the banks of the Ganga, in order to further strengthen
the security of Magadha. He named this place Paatali Grama, which
later became popular as Pataliputra (modern-day Patna).
The Mahaparinirvana Sutta states that, when Pataliputra was being
built, the Buddha happened to pass through and praised the city for
its beauty. He however pointed out that three things could prove
detrimental to the city, namely, water, fire and general discord
amongst the people living there.
Accounts of Ajatashatru's death differ vastly in Buddhist and Jaina
traditions. However, it is generally believed that he was brutally
murdered by his own son, Udayabhadra, around 535 BC. The latter was
greedy and wanted to take over his kingdom. Ajatashatru was then
reborn in the hell called Lohakumbhiya.
According to yet another version, he is believed to have passed
through many births, till finally, he was born as a wise prince, who
later became a monk and attained nirvana (liberation).
In spite of his horrible deeds, Ajatashatru enjoys a respectable
position in both the Jaina and Buddhist traditions. According to the
Aupapaatika Sutta, he had the highest regard and respect for Mahavira.
He took great care to look after the latter and appointed several
officers to fulfill all of Mahavira's needs.
According to Buddhist legend, he was closely associated with the
Buddha. After repenting for all his past deeds, he completely
surrendered himself to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. He
became an avid follower of the Buddha and even erected a massive
Stupa, built on the bones and ashes of the Buddha, after his funeral.
Further, he was also present at the first Buddhist council at the
Sattapanni (Saptaparni) caves, Rajgir.
Amrapali Becomes a Bhikkhuni
In the meantime, Amrapali had heard a lot about the life and teachings
of the Buddha and wished to see him and serve food to him. Though the
general public of Vaishali was against this, Buddha accepted it, as it
was a direct invite from the ruling aristocracy. A thrilled Amrapali
received the Buddha with due respect and offered meals to him and his
One version of the story narrates that Amrapali was so taken in by the
Buddha's presence and his innate peace that she decided to renounce
her position as courtesan and chose, instead, to follow in his
footsteps, as a Bhikkhuni (female monk or nun). Throughout her life,
she actively supported Buddhism.
The Monk Who Converted Amrapali into a Bhikkhuni
There is yet another interesting version about Amrapali becoming a
Bhikkhuni. This version relates that Amrapali happened to fall in love
with one of the Bhikkhus (male monks) from Buddha's retinue. Spotting
him from her terrace, she was immediately smitten by him. She then not
only invited him for a meal, but also asked him to stay on for the
next four months, till the ongoing monsoon season got over.
Sworn to a life of celibacy, the young monk replied that he would
agree to her wishes only if the Buddha gave him permission to do so.
The other young Bhikkhus came to know of this and became jealous of
him. They reached the news to the Buddha's ears, much before this
young monk could request an audience with him. The other monks were
hoping that the Buddha would become angry and throw him out of the
To the surprise of all present, though, Buddha merely smiled and gave
him permission to stay at Amrapali's residence. The Bhikkhu stayed
there for 4 months, as was required of him. Everyone was convinced
that the monk would have had a physical relationship with her during
After the said time period elapsed, the monk returned to the
monastery, with a saffron-clad Amrapali in tow. Much as the Buddha had
expected, he had successfully converted her into a Bhikkhuni. Amrapali
told everyone present that she had tried to seduce the young monk many
times, but had utterly failed in all her attempts. In the end, he had
spiritually seduced her; making her renounce her highly materialistic
life and join the Buddhist monk order.
She then requested Buddha to take her into his Sangha as a Bhikkhuni.
Initially, he refused to grant her the wish, saying that there were
only Bhikkhus in the Sanghas and that there was no arrangement for
Bhikkhunis to join in. Amrapali boldly questioned his stand. The
Buddha patiently tried to explain that a woman could end up tempting
the Bhikkhus, making them break their vow of celibacy. Amrapali hotly
debated that as well, saying that if the monks were spiritually strong
enough, they would not be swayed by a mere woman. Finally, Buddha gave
in to her wishes and accepted her into his fold.
In due course of time, Amrapali, who became deeply involved with the
Dhamma and the Sangha, achieved enlightenment and remained as one of
the main disciples of the Buddha. She was also posted as the head of
the Bhikkhuni Sangha. A few years later, her son Vimala Kondanna too
joined the order and became a Buddhist monk.
Amrapali is mentioned in the ancient Pali and Buddhist texts;
particularly her association with the Sangha; with the Buddha and his
monks staying at her mango grove. She eventually donated this Ambapali
vana (garden) to his order. Here, he preached the famous Ambapalika
Amrapali: A Brave; Truly Spiritual Soul
The tale of Amrapali is truly inspiring. It is the tale of a woman who
successfully dethroned a megalomaniac ruler and emerged as a powerful
character, who dared to rise and go beyond the order of the day. As a
courtesan, she was expected to remain a mere object of sexual desire -
one who was born only to please the kings and emperors. She, however,
had the courage to fight the society and surfaced as one of the most
commanding and influential women in the history of that era.
A Braveheart; a Warrior
She was a woman of unknown parentage - someone that was found under a
mango tree. However, so strong was her personality, that she is
remembered, even today, as someone who verily changed the course of
history. She is known not only for her incomparable beauty, but also
for her excellence in the arts (especially in dance and music); her
sharp political acumen; her bravery to overthrow chauvinistic rulers;
and her compassion towards society, especially towards downtrodden
women. She tirelessly worked to improve society and actively involved
herself in constructing schools, roads and temples.
Breaking Away from a Life of Dreams
Hers was a life that seemed like one that dreams were made of. She had
thousands of male admirers and commanded respect wherever she went.
Yet, she felt imprisoned within her own life. Her room was called
"Swapna Kakshika" (the room of dreams). She spent her nights pleasing
royalty, in exchange for a few gold coins. Though she satisfied the
men that visited her, she was left utterly dissatisfied with her own
life and yearned to break away from it.
The Turning Point
Looking outside one day, Amrapali saw a moth struggling to come out of
its cocoon. Watching it, she compared it to her own life and her own
struggle to break free from the oppressive society that she was in.
That thought went on to become the turning point in her life. Deep in
her mind, she knew that she was made for a much higher purpose and had
to work towards achieving that mission.
Amrapali in Popular Culture
In the year 1962, Vimala Raina penned a work of historical fiction,
titled "Ambapali". This narrates the life of the beautiful courtesan
of Vaishali, who went on to become a follower of the Buddha.
Amrapali features in several other books, including "Vaishali Ki
Nagarvadhu", penned by Acharya Chatursen; "The Legend of Amrapali: An
Enchanting Saga Buried within the Sands of Time", penned by Anurag
Anand; and so on.
Several biopics have been filmed on her life and times. Most famous
among them is the film, "Amrapali" (1966), starring the gorgeous
Vyjayanthimala in the title role and the dashing Sunil Dutt as King
A serial named "Aamrapali" was telecast on the Indian national
television network (Doordarshan) in 2002. Later, popular Bollywood
actress Hema Malini produced, directed and starred in a TV series,
called "Women of India". In this series, she featured the story of