Amrapāli, also known as "Ambapālika" or "Ambapali", was a nagarvadhu (royal courtesan) of the republic of Vaishali in ancient India around 500 BC. Following the Buddha's teachings she became an arahant. She is mentioned in the old Pali texts and Buddhist traditions, particularly in conjunction with the Buddha staying at her mango grove, Ambapali vana which she later donated to his order, and wherein he preached the famous Ambapalika Sutta. The legend of Amrapali originated in the Buddhist Jataka Tales some 1500 years ago.
Amrapali or Ambapali was born around 600-500 BC to an unknown parentage, and was given her name because at her birth she was found at the foot of a mango tree in one of the royal gardens in Vaishali. A feudal named Mahanaman of Vaishali, now a district on the bank of River Ganga, had traced the rare beauty of Amrapali when she was a child. Lured by the beauty of Amrapali, Mahanaman abandoned his kingdom and shifted to Ambara village, a small hamlet in Vaishali. (Etymologically, the variants on her name derive from a combination of two Sanskrit words: "amra", meaning mango, and "pallawa", meaning young leaves or sprouts.
Amrapali grew to be a lady of extraordinary beauty, charm, and grace in the city of Vaishali, the capital city of the Lichchavi clan, one of the eight Kshatriya clans that had united to form the Vajjian confederacy. The Vajjian confederacy is reputed to be the world’s oldest democracy where the King was elected by an electoral college consisting of princes and nobles from the Kshatriya clans. Many young nobles of the republic desired her company. To avoid confrontations among her suitors, she was accorded the status of the state courtesan of Vaishali. Amrapali was declared the "most beautiful" girl at the age of 11. When the undisputed king of Vaishali, Manudev, (belonging to the illustrious Lichchavi clan of the confederacy) desires to possess Amrapali after he sees her dance performance in the city, he plans to 'own' her. He lets his greed get the better of him; murders Amrapali's would-be-groom, Pushpakumar (her childhood love) on the day of marriage and makes an official announcement declaring Amrapali, the 'bride' of Vaishali i.e. the Nagarvadhu only to satisfy his mounting sexual urge. Amrapali was made nagarvadhu and Vaishali Janpad Kalayani.(Janpath Kalyani was the term given to the most beautiful and talented girl of the kingdom. A Janpath Kalyani was selected for a period of seven years and a palace was given to her. A Janpath Kalyani had the right to choose her lover and get a person of her choice for a physical relationship but it did not necessarily work the other way round.) Soon after being conferred the title of nagarvadhu, Amrapali became the court dancer as per the rules of Vaishali democracy.
Stories of her beauty travelled to the ears of Bimbisara, king of the hostile neighbouring kingdom of Magadha. He attacked Vaishali, and took refuge in Amrapali's house. Bimbisara was a good musician. Before long, Amrapali and Bimbisara fell in love. When she learned his true identity, Amrapali asked Bimbisara to leave and cease his war. Bimbisara, smitten with love, did as she asked. In the eyes of the people of Vaishali, this incident made him a coward. Later, Amrapali bore him a son named Vimala Kondanna.
Ajatashatru, Bimbisara's son by Queen Chelna according to Jaina traditions (Queen Kosala Devi according to Buddhist traditions), later invaded Vaishali due a dispute with his brothers. He was so moved by her beauty that when Amrapali was imprisoned, he burned the whole of Vaishali. Almost everyone died in the massacre, except his beloved Amrapali, but when she saw the condition of her motherland, she renounced her love to him.
At one time, Amrapali desired the privilege of serving food to the Buddha. The Buddhist traditions state that Buddha accepted the invitation against the wishes of the ruling aristocracy of Vaishali due to King Ajatashatru. Amrapali received the Buddha with her retinue, and offered meals to him. Soon thereafter, she renounced her position as courtesan, accepted the Buddhist way, and remained an active supporter of the Buddhist order.
On growing up, Vimala Kondanna too became a Buddhist monk.
In popular culture
Bollywood actress Hema Malini produced, directed, and starred in a TV Series called Women of India which showed the story of Amrapali. The music for the Amrapali segment of the TV Series was composed by composer Hridaynath Mangeshkar, in conjunction with composer Ravindra Jain.
In June 2009, popular mythology and historical serial creator Sagar Arts announced that they were planning to make a historical serial on the legend of Amrapali on Star Plus, but nothing came into effect after that.
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