AMLAN HOME CHOWDHURY | 8 JUNE, 2019
A Tryst with Amrapali
Journey to the tree and crumbling fortress
VAISHALI, BIHAR: As the dawn’s cool breeze gently touches your face walking by Raja Vishal ka Garh in Vaishali, you have a strange feeling that someone is beckoning you, “Koi door se awaaz de, chale aao…” (Someone calls from afar, come by…)
Coming to this ancient tila or ruined mound, you feel some sort of jaadu or spell has completely taken over you. So much so that you see the silhouette of a woman calling you to her.
Who could she be? The legendary Amrapali? Amrapali, a historical mystery even after 2,600 years have passed. Raja Vishal ka Garh is indeed made for time travel, and it’s no wonder you are hallucinating, seeing visions of Amrapali.
The subject of continued research, Amrapali finds repeated mention in the Jataka tales and the ancient scriptures of Brahminism, Buddhism and Jainism.
Historians and Buddhist scholars from all over the world come to Vaishali to research Amrapali. Besides, over 350,000 people from Southeast Asia throng Vaishali annually to pay respect to Amrapali at the historic mango grove where she is said to have offered food to Lord Buddha.
Every year during the grand Vaishali Mahotsav organised by the Bihar government, pilgrims throng Vaishali from all parts of the world. It is a wonderful opportunity to make a tryst with Amrapali and her cruel lover Ajatshatru, emperor of the Magadh empire.
Vaishali, an ancient republic whose early ruins can still be seen, is a township in Bihar. It is associated with all the major historical players of the period existing 2600 years ago: Lord Buddha, Lord Mahavira, Magadh Emperor Bimbisara and his son Ajatshatru, and of course, the enigmatic Amrapali.
Strange as it may seem Amrapali, being a nagarbadhu or court dancer, was considered a fallen woman. Yet she is revered by a section of Buddhists in India and Southeast Asia.
Her enchanting beauty made her so influential, the story goes, that even Lord Buddha could not refuse to come to her palace and partake of food. The mango grove where Buddha had come still stands and is visited by saffron-robed Buddhist monks coming from different countries.
As a nagarbadhu of Aryavarta’s first republic, Vaishali, Amrapali performed her dance programmes regularly at the conference hall of Raja Vishal ka Garh attended by rajas or chieftains and members of the parliament at Vajji.
Each and every brick of this massive parliament is a mute witness to the dances of Amrapali. No wonder your imagination is at play and you transcend to the other world, a world gone by.
The Vajji confederacy of the Lichhavis was thriving some 2,600 years ago. Vaishali was very dear to Lord Buddha. Lord Mahavira was born just a few miles away from Vaishali at Kundalgram. Abhishek Pushkarni, the pond where the Members of Parliament would take a dip before taking oath, still flows quietly under that name.
What is most significant, Amrapali’s time saw the fall of what can be thought of as India’s first democracy, Vaishali, following a terrible war with the Magadhan monarchy.
This is one of the reasons why the Lichhavi ganatantra or Vajji confederacy remains one of the most researched topics of history: because two totally contradictory and conflicting political systems existed here during the time of Lord Buddha, Lord Mahavira and Amrapali.
Strange though it may appear, only a river, the River Ganga, separated the flourishing republican government of Vaishali with the supremely powerful monarchy of Magadh. Two diagonally opposite polities existing within kilometres of each other.
And the Vaishali Republic succumbed. Absolute monarchy emerged victorious. It is still believed that Amrapali was one of the reasons for Vaishali’s downfall.
As you roam around Vaishali, your imagination is bound to take free flight unknowingly, and you feel you are attending a dance programme by Amrapali. You hear her ghungroo, belled anklets.
Amrapali whose birth was as mysterious as she continues to be. Placed under a mango tree under a mango tree soon after birth. Hence Amrapali: amra (mango) and pali (leaves). As per the Jataka tale, a man Mahanaman found Amrapali and he brought her up.
At the age of 11, Amrapali was considered the most beautiful girl of Vaishali and many young nobles eyed her. But Amrapali had a childhood lover Pushpakumar whom she wanted to marry. Enter the villain Manudev. Being a raja, Manudev was very powerful, and murdered Pushpakumar on the day of his wedding with Amrapali.
And Amrapali became a nagarbadhu (literally, bonded to the city or court). Talk of her beauty reached the ears of Emperor Bimbisar. Bimbisar was hostile to the Vaishali Republic as he found the existence of democracy just across the Ganga detrimental to the longevity of an absolute monarch.
And Bimbisara, an excellent musician himself, came to Vaishali undercover to take shelter in the house of Amrapali risking his very life. He concealed his true identity. The two fell in love, but Amrapali suddenly came to know Bimbisar’s true identity and ordered him to leave her house.
Later, Bimbisara was killed by his son Ajatshatru. On becoming emperor of Magadh, Ajatshatru invaded Vaishali as he too wanted to destroy the republic and have Amrapali by force. A most violent war broke out, the story goes, buttressed by ruins.
The Lichhavis were defeated. Raja Vishal Ka Garh was almost completely destroyed and the last groan of the dying soldiers of Vaishali rent it all round.
After the victory, Ajatshatru wanted to possess Amrapali. But the dancer had met Lord Buddha and joined his group of bhikshuni or female monks.
And what happened to Ajatshatru?
Ajatshatru too became a follower of Lord Buddha. Incidentally, Ajatshatru had made many attempts to kill Buddha earlier.
On tiptoeing around Raja Vishal Ka Garh and trysting with Amrapali, the first thing that came to my mind was the vintage Bollywood song from Sahab Bibi Aur Ghulam, “Koi door se awaaz de, chale aao…”
That film too tells the sad saga of Chhoti Bahu, the wife of a Bengali zamindar of Calcutta from days gone by.
But that is a different story!