Amrapali...and her choice

(This is my first A2Z blogging challenge. For the uninitiated, there will be a blog post everyday in April (barring Sundays), and we kickstart with a post drawing inspiration from the alphabets – so we start with ‘A’ today.)
Courtesy - http://indiaopines.com

I also thought it’s a great idea to start with my pet peeve – people in general moaning about how good things were ‘back then’. The Back Then is usually many centuries earlier, when the moaner was not around in the present form. The moaning is usually triggered by anything that the moaner perceives as ‘outrageous’. Like the recent daft ‘My choice’ video. I say it is daft because it was poorly worded, intentionally or unintentionally. Firstly, when any corporate entity that endorses and reinforces notions of physical beauty talks about ‘empowerment’ – they are bound to get it wrong. Secondly, when they rope in a lady who works in a highly sexist environment, and her profession makes demands on the way she projects herself – from appearance to body language – they've simply lost the battle. Unfortunately, in the Indian context, such glamourised packaging of serious gender issues have reduced the value of the words ‘empowerment’ and ‘freedom’ – freedom has come to connote only sexual freedom; and empowerment has come to connote exercising a choice when it comes to sex and physicality. Don’t even get me started on ‘equality’ – that’s been reduced to a battle of ‘ladies only’ compartments in trains vs. ‘general’ compartment.

But coming back to the moaners of Back Then When Moralilty Was At Its Peak – I thought I’ll talk about Amrapali.

Amrapali was an abandoned girl child. Her foster parents found her under a mango tree – hence her name. This was Back Then in 500 BC or so, in the kingdom of Vaishali (parts of modern day Bihar). Vaishali was a powerful kingdom, with a sophisticated political system – and therefore, a prosperous one.

I don’t know much about Amrapali’s childhood...but it was obvious she was a very pretty little child, who’d grow into a stunning beauty. She was a very talented child, a great dancer. I suppose she had a happy childhood till she turned about 10-11. Remember – even as late as early twentieth century, we were cool with child marriage – the law did not ‘interfere’. So think of the time back in 500 BC. By the time little Amrapali turned 11, she already had many ‘suitors’ clamoring for her hand in marriage. Even the king of Vaishali lusted after the child. Think of the societal setup – where the parents are probably proud of the attention their child has brought on them – the problem as they see it, is not about protecting the little girl, but about ‘how to avoid offending the powerful men who are all after their daughter’.

Anyway, Amrapali became the headache of Vaishali. There was serious danger of infighting amongst the princes and such like of the republic – possessing Amrapali had become a conquest for many. It was such a serious issue that the parliament actually held a discussion for this ‘problem’.

These learned men came out with a solution that was acceptable to all. They’d make Amrapali the ‘Nagarvadhu’ or Bride of Vaishali. A posh name for prostitute. Of course – they’d be fair though. They’d give Amrapali her own palace, probably enough money for her parents...and accord one of the highest ‘honours’ to her by naming her Janpad Kalyani. It meant that she was declared the most talented and beautiful girl in the entire kingdom. It also meant that unlike ‘ordinary’ women, she was given the right to choose her lovers. I think of that child. Maybe she had just entered her teens when all this happened – 13-14 years – maybe she did not even understand fully what was in store for her. That right to choose one’s lover is such humbug – as if a child has any powers if the king or the prince or some royal asshole wants to rape her. Yes, even Back Then, society found ways to justify sexual offences against children and women.

And thus began her journey. History books gloss over her life – as if being a ‘royal courtesan’ was easy. Imagine the number of painful abortions and miscarriages and physical abuse she must have endured. No wonder she fell in love with Bimbisara – the neighbouring king of Magadha. Legend has it that Bimbisara had heard so much about her beauty that even though Vaishali was an enemy state, he disguised himself as a musician and entered the kingdom. He truly fell in love with her – it must have been a refreshing change for her – from all the royal psychos who’d visit her only for her body, to this handsome musician who seemed to respect her, and her talent. But Bimbisara also wanted to annex Vaishali – so he mixed business with pleasure and carried out an attack on the kingdom. It was only then that Amrapali came to know of Bimbisara’s real identity. Bimbisara wanted to make her the empress of Magadha, but she refused.

What a painful decision it must have been for her! Returning with Bimbisara meant freedom from the life she had to endure in Vaishali. She’d be someone’s legitimate wife, she’d have children...she’d have a family. But she knew that Vaishali would never sit quietly – stealing someone’s Nagaravadhu was an affront on collective ego of the ruling class. There’d be war – millions of deaths – all because she wanted a normal life. Amrapali makes her choice - she gives up that once chance at love.

Bimbisara returns to Magadha heart-broken, only to endure a coup by his psychopathic son Ajatashatru. Bimbisara is imprisoned, and eventually dies in prison. Some records suggest that Ajatashatru too falls in love with Amrapali. By then Amrapali is thrown into prison for conspiracy against the state. Enraged, Ajatashatru burns down the entire city – when Amrapali emerges to see her burning city – she decides to renounce everything and become a nun.

In another version, it is said that Amrapali falls in love with a travelling Buddhist monk. A plausible scenario – her own life was in shambles, her body and mind ravaged. The peace radiated by the monk must have been very healing for her. Indeed, meeting a man who is not sexually aroused by her – that itself must have been therapeutic. She eventually becomes the first Bhikkuni  or a nun in the Buddhist order. Abandoned on account of her gender at birth, and victimised all through her childhood and adulthood, once again on account of her gender – shedding that identity that was so tied to her body and sexuality – it must have been absolutely liberating for her. I think she finally found happiness when she became a Bhikkuni.

Whenever I think about this outstanding woman – I can’t help but think – to truly find yourself, to truly understand your identity with self-awareness – empowerment comes from within. Only then can you make the right choice. This is true irrespective of gender, isn't it?

(To the moaners of Back Then – hope your moaning has come down a notch.)  

© Sumana Khan - 2015

Comments

  1. The story of Amrapali has been one that has fascinated me over the years and more so since last year when Anurag Anand published his book on this character. And the sequel to the book was also quite good.

    You could hop over to my blog to read reviews of both the books.

    Lovely post, and will surely read all the posts from A to Z

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    1. I must pick up the book then! Thanks for the pointer. Will go over and read your reviews right away :)

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  2. Ahhh, I hate all that Back Then talk. But I loved Amrapali's tale. I've never heard it before.

    Good luck with the 2015 A to Z Challenge!
    A to Z Co-Host S. L. Hennessy
    http://pensuasion.blogspot.com

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  3. Nice post....
    planning on s theme or it just random?

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    1. No theme Satyavathi...just 'this and that' :) Thanks for stopping by.

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  4. Sumana, this is such a promising first post! You've done your research, you write well, and you've chose an interesting subject. I'll be your official A to Z minion for this Challenge, and I look forward to coming back!

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    1. Aww! Thank you Susan :) Looking forward to your visits :)

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  5. I had watched some songs from the movie Amrapali, where Vyjayanthimala played the title character. I didn't know the story. Though the topic was a serious one, I couldn't help but laugh at some of the phrases you have used like "royal psychos". Honest people and a**holes have existed in all societies at all times. So, yes, were good old days really good old days? :)

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    1. oh yes it was sunil dutt and vyjayanthi right? see that's the thing...we've not changed as a race. at all.

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