Amrapali – A royal courtesan


This article was written by Shivangi Kaushik.

The infant Amrapali was reportedly found at the trunk of a mango tree in the city of Vaishali in around 600-500BCE in ancient India. Her name is made up of two Sanskrit words ‘Amra’ which means mango and ‘pallav’ meaning young leaves. She was raised by a couple from the city.

Amrapali grew up to be an extraordinarily beautiful and charming woman. She was trained in many classical dance forms and, she once participated in a dance competition. She won the competition and caught the eye of the nobles and princes. As was the custom, the winner of the competition was declared ‘Nagar Vadhu’ which means city courtesan. They all vied for her love and attention. To avoid conflict among them, she was declared a Nagar Vadhu. It was customary for a ‘Nagar Vadhu’ to dedicate herself to the pleasure of nobles and princes rather than be devoted to only one, but Amrapali had a right to choose her lover. She was also declared a court dancer.

Her beauty and talent attracted people from far and wide. Over time, she became richer than many nobles and princes of Vaishali. By then, Bimbisar, the King of Magadh, had heard about her. Magadh was an enemy state of Vaishali. He entered Vaishali in the disguise of an ordinary soldier, to spy on the democratic practices of Vaishali. He wanted to see how the government of Vaishali elected one Prince from among the many princes of various states. A chance meeting with Amrapali, during which Bimbisar saved her life, brought him in close proximity to her.

Bimbisar was a gifted musician himself. He spent many days with her in her palace. Amrapali found herself falling in love with him, and he reciprocated her feelings before revealing his true identity to her. She was shocked and anguished to find that she had fallen in love with the enemy, and she asked him to leave. However, Bimbisar managed to convince her to marry him. After a few days of their secret marriage, they were found out, and his true identity was revealed to the entire city. People thronged to Amrapali’s palace and blamed her for hiding an enemy.

Amrapali was then taken a prisoner on charges of treason. Bimbisar managed to escape from the palace with the help of his soldiers. Amrapali was sentenced to life in prison. At that point in time, she was also pregnant with King Bimbisar’s child. Bimbisar learnt about the sentence given to his wife. He ordered an immediate attack on Vaishali in order to save his wife and his unborn child. Thousands of soldiers were killed during this attack, and there was vast destruction in Vaishali. Amrapali was heartbroken that her love led to the destruction of her beloved city and its people.

Bimbisar defeated Vaishali and managed to free Amrapali. When she was released from prison, she saw the thousands of bodies of the dead soldiers and women crying over dead bodies of their husbands, fathers and brother. She became dejected and restless, and she refused to go with Bimbisar.

A few days later, she learnt of Gautam Buddha (also known as The Buddha – founder of the world religion of Buddhism) visiting Vaishali. She invited him to her home and expressed her desire to take refuge with him. She donated her palace and the mango grove around it to ‘sangha’. She eventually became a ‘bhikshuni’ (female monk). Her son reportedly also became a monk.

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My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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