From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
"Amrapali greets Buddha", ivory carving, National Museum of New Delhi

Amrapāli, also known as "Ambapālika" or "Ambapali", was a celebrated nagarvadhu (royal courtesan) of the republic of Vaishali in ancient India around 500 BC.[1][2][3] 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.[4][5][6][7] The legend of Amrapali originated in the Buddhist Jataka Tales some 1500 years ago.

Early life[edit]

Amrapali or Ambapali was born around 600-500 BC to unknown parentage, and was given her name because at her birth she was said to have been spontaneously born at the foot of a mango tree in one of the royal gardens in Vaishali.[8] Etymologically, the variants on her name derive from a combination of two Sanskrit words: "amra", meaning mango, and "pallawa", meaning young leaves or sprouts.[9] Even as a young maiden, she was exceptionally beautiful. It is said that a feudal lord by the name of Mahanaman was so lured by her looks that he abandoned his kingdom shifted to Ambara village, a small hamlet in Vaishali.[10]

Becoming a Courtesan [edit]

Vaishali was the capital city of the Lichchavi clan, one of the eight Khattiya (Sanskrit, Kshatriya) clans that had united to form the Vajjian confederacy.[11] Here, the King was elected by an electoral college consisting of princes and nobles from the Kshatriya clans. There was a custom in the land that the most perfectly beautiful women were not allowed to be married to one man but had to dedicate themselves to the pleasure of many.[12]

Amrapali grew up to be a lady of extraordinary charm, and grace and was extremely talented in many art forms[12] Many young nobles desired her company. It is said that Manudev, king of Vaishali, saw her dance performance in the city, he planned to 'own' her. He murdered Amrapali's would-be-groom, Pushpakumar (her childhood love) on the day of marriage and made an official announcement declaring her as the 'bride' of Vaishali i.e. the Nagarvadhu. She was also conferred the title 'Vaishali Janpad Kalayani'. Janpad Kalyani was the term given to the most beautiful and talented girl of the kingdom who was selected for a period of seven years, and a palace was given to her. She also had the right to choose her lover but could not be committed to any one man.

After being conferred the title of nagarvadhu, Amrapali also became the rajanartiki or court dancer.[13] Her talent and beauty attracted a lot of men that the glory of Vaishali in this period is often attributed to Amrapali's fame.[12] Her price was fifty kahapanas per night and her treasury grew much larger than some kings.[12]

Legends associated with Amrapali[edit]

Amrapali and Bimbisara[edit]

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) or Queen Kosala Devi (according to Buddhist traditions), later invaded Vaishali due to 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 for him.

Amrapali and the Buddha[edit]

In Buddhist records, Amrapali is noted as having had the opportunity to serve food to the Buddha during his last visit to Vaishali, shortly before his death.[14] Amrapali attended his sermon at a nearby grove and was so deeply moved by it that she invited him for a meal at her quarters.[15] In other accounts, it is stated that the Buddha himself took shelter in her mango groves and was visited by Amrapali who paid her obeisance to him and then extended the invitation.[16] He consented to her proposal with silence.[15] On her way back, her chariot collided with that of the princely nobles of Vaishali who were also heading to invite the Buddha to dine with them. They berate her by calling her a 'mango-woman' and ask her, a woman of ill repute, to move aside and let her superiors pass. It is then that she announces that the Buddha was coming to her house for a meal. The princes were upset and offered her gold in return of the privilege of hosting the Buddha but she refuses.[16][17] Buddha also turns them down, having already committed to Amrapali.

Buddha recognised her beauty and advised his disciples to be mindful in her presence lest they become infatuated with her.[17] Amrapali received the Buddha with her retinue in her grand residence which had been specially decorated for the occasion.[18] It was no less than the palace of any king;[18] such was the wealth she commanded. At the conclusion of the meal, she offered to the Buddha and his order her entire property including her groves which became the venue for several sermons on mindfulness.[18] Soon thereafter, she renounced her position as courtesan, accepted the Buddhist way, and remained an active supporter of the Buddhist order. She dedicated her life to the service of the poor and the destitutes.[18]

On growing up, Amrapali's son, Vimala Kondanna also became a Buddhist monk and a renowned elder.[14]

Attitude towards courtesans in scriptures[edit]

The story of Amrapali is significant for understanding contemporary attitudes of courtesans. Though she received much fame as a talented artist,[12] she was also berated by the noble princes of Vaishali by calling her 'ganika' (i.e.prostitute) which carried derogatory connotations.[16] However, unlike them, Buddha did not have share that kind of prejudice towards her. He ate at her residence and accepted his grove for the Buddhist order. This is often quoted as an example for his unbiased regard towards women.[15] However, what has been noticed is that with the passage of time and as the Therigatha was collated, this bias also entered the Buddhist fold.[16]

Amrapali's possible alliance with Bimbisara has also survived mainly through an oral tradition and has not found its way into the Pali canon of Buddhism. This is because Bimbisara was a great royal patron of Buddhism and his links with Amrapali may throw a negative light on him.[16] Amrapali's mention in the canon also focuses mostly on the later part of her life when she converted to Buddhism.[16]

However, records of Chinese travellers who came to India in search of Buddhist texts have made note of Amrapali's early life and her relationship with Bimbisara. The latter is found in the Chinese Recension of the Buddhist tripitaka.[16] This narrative has been written in the Mahayana tradition and therefore did not have the onus of representing Bimbisara in a positive light.[16] Hence, their relationship is highlighted.

A third set of scriptures which refer to the story of Amrapali, and do so most elaborately, come from the Gilgit area of Kashmir and are therefore known as the Gilgit Manuscripts.[16] These are the Tibetan-Sanskrit scriptures of the Mulasarvastivada branch of Buddhism which hold her in high esteem. However, the negative connotation of being a courtesan is still present.[16] Thus, the cultural memory of a courtesan shows a complex pattern, varying across time and place.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Under the title Ambapali Vimala Raina wrote in 1962 a work of historical fiction on the life of the Vaishali courtesan who became the most prominent woman disciple of the Buddha.
  • Amrapali has also been the subject of biopics, Amrapali (1945) starring Sabita Devi, Jagdish Sethi, Prem Adeeb and Amrapali (1966), starring Vyjayanthimala as Amrapali and Sunil Dutt as King Ajatshatru.[19]
  • 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.
  • Amrapali has also been a subject of various books including Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu a Hindi novel by Acharya Chatursen in 1948.[20][21][22]
  • A new work in English, The Legend of Amrapali:An enchanting saga buried within the sands of time was done by author Anurag Anand in 2012.[23][24][25]
  • A mega TV serial named Amrapali was telecast on DD National in 2002.[26][27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Sunday Tribune - Spectrum". Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  2. ^ History of Vaishali
  3. ^ "The Sunday Tribune - Spectrum". Retrieved 2017-04-18. 
  4. ^ Ambapaali vana Pali dictionary
  5. ^ Khanna, p. 45
  6. ^ Ambapaali Sutta Pali dictionary
  7. ^ "Amrapali's Encounter with The Handsome Renunciate". The Times of India. June 30, 2006. 
  8. ^ "The Sunday Tribune - Spectrum". Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  9. ^ "Ambapali or Amrapali c 600 BCE - India". 
  10. ^ "Here's something different". Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  11. ^ "Another historical serial on DD". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 2002-07-15. 
  12. ^ a b c d e Channa, Subhadra Mitra (2013). Gender in South Asia: Social Imagination and Constructed Realities. Daryaganj: Cambridge University Press. pp. 21–22. ISBN 978-1-107-04361-9. 
  13. ^ "Inside programming: On the sets of Aamrapali". Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  14. ^ a b Buswell Jr.1, Lopez Jr.2, Robert E.1, Donald S.2 (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press. pp. 36–37. ISBN 978-0-691-15786-3. 
  15. ^ a b c Garling, Wendy (2016). Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha's Life. Boulder: Shambhala Publications, inc. pp. 268–269. ISBN 9781611802658. 
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Verma, Archana (2011). Performance and Culture: Narrative, Image and Enactment in India. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 109. ISBN 978-1-4438-2735-5. 
  17. ^ a b Strong, John S. (2001). The Buddha: A Beginner's Guide. Oxford: One World Publications. ISBN 978-1-78074-054-6. 
  18. ^ a b c d Gupta, N.L. (2000). Women Education Through the Ages. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company. p. 92. ISBN 81-7022-826-3. 
  19. ^ Amrapali on Internet Movie Database
  20. ^ "An artiste set to dazzle". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 2002-07-11. 
  21. ^ "Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu". Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  22. ^ Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu (Hindi) -
  23. ^ "Amrapali was more than a luscious courtesan - The Times of India". The Times Of India. 2013-01-31. 
  24. ^ "Amarapali, an inspiration for many - The Times of India". The Times Of India. 2012-01-30. 
  25. ^ "From humour to horror". The Telegraph. Calcutta, India. 2012-02-09. 
  26. ^ "A rarity called professionalism". Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  27. ^ "Inside programming: On the sets of Aamrapali". Retrieved 4 July 2016. 


  • Khanna, Anita (2004). Stories Of The Buddha. Children's Book Trust. ISBN 81-7011-913-8. 
  • Vyasa & Vigneswara Malayalam Novel written by Anand
  • Novel: Vaishali ki Nagarvadhu by Acharya Chatursen, 1948
  • Khuddaka Nikaya, part 9 (Therigatha) Canto 13
  • Digha Nikaya 16 (Mahaparinibbanasutta - part 2, 16-26)
  • Malalasekera: Buddhist Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (s.v.)
  • The Legend of Amrapali by Anurag Anand [1]
  • Rev. Osho - A story on Buddha and Amrapali

External links[edit]