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AMRAPALI (Sixth century BCE)

Amrapali (Pali: Ambapali) was a famous courtesan of the kingdom of Vaishali in ancient India, a cultured, wealthy and accomplished woman who renounced the world to become a follower of the Buddha.

Mahanama, a rich Shakyan noble of Vaishali, found the baby Amrapali in his mango grove, hence her name, which means mango bud or blossom, and since he was childless, adopted her. She grew to be an exquisitely beautiful girl and many rich and noble suitors sought her hand. The question of whom she should choose was likely to cause social and political difficulties, so Mahanama decided to place the matter before the Assembly of the Lichchhavi gana (clan) to which he belonged. The members of the Assembly were so struck with Amrapali’s amazing beauty that they decided that she was a striratna (jewel of a woman) and could not belong to one individual but should be enjoyed by all: gana bhogya. The custom is probably a relic of ancient group marriage as practised by the Lichchavis.

This decision was a shock to Amrapali’s father, but he dared not disobey the Assembly. Amrapali saved his position by agreeing to abide by the decision, but only if the assembly would fulfil five conditions: she should be provided with a house in the best locality, only one customer at a time would be allowed inside her premises, her fee would be 500 karshapanas, if there were a general search for an enemy or a culprit her house could be inspected only on the seventh day, and no watch could be kept on persons entering and leaving her house. The assembly accepted all the conditions and thus Amrapali became a courtesan. The courtesans of the day were well-versed in the sixty-four arts, and Amrapali excelled in all of them. She entertained many kings, nobles and rich merchants and amassed great wealth. King Bimbisara of Magadha had a son by her called Vimala Kondanna, who was recognised by Bimbisara as his son and enjoyed a high position in the royal court. Later Vimala renounced the world and became a Buddhist monk.

During one of his wanderings, the Buddha was attracted by the cool shade of Amrapali’s beautiful mango grove at Kotagrama. He decided to spend some time there and when Amrapali heard of this, she hurried there to pay her respects. She was very deeply influenced by his discourses and the Buddha’s honoured her invitation for a meal at her house. Later she served food to him and his companions at the mango grove, then gifted the grove with its buildings to the bhikkhu sangha for the establishment of an arama or monastery. Soon afterwards, she heard a discourse by her son Vimala and decided to become a bhikkhuni. She realised the impermanence of worldly existence and gained an insight into truth when she saw the changes that had overcome her once beautiful body. She obtained arhat-hood, or spiritual perfection, wrote many poems about her spiritual transformation and remains one of the most renowned followers of Buddhism. Some of her poetry is collected in Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha, Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present, volume 1 (New Delhi: OUP, 1993).

Rita Dalmiya
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