This is a remarkable and poignant novel about the dazzling glamour, daring romance, and sacrifice that marked Ambapali’s life
Author Tanushree Podder
Book House

This is a remarkable and poignant novel about the dazzling glamour, daring romance, and sacrifice that marked Ambapali’s life

This is a remarkable and poignant novel about the dazzling glamour, daring romance, and sacrifice that marked Ambapali’s life
  • The book “Ambapali” by Tanushree Podder is a fictionalised story of Ambapali.

  • Not every courtesan has gone down in the annals of history like Ambapali. She was beautiful, intelligent, talented and, as the nagarvadhu janpad kalyani-the bride of the city-she went on to wield immense power amongst the nobles. Until she renounced all worldly pleasures to embrace Buddhism.

  • This vivid narrative tells the story of a young woman forced to follow a path because of the machinations of powerful people. Propelled onto the cultural centerstage in the Vajji republic against her wishes, betrayed in love, disappointed by friends, Ambapali’s is yet the story of a strong woman determined to take control over her life.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

The melodious chiming of hundreds of temple bells across the city announced the dawn. Vaishali stirred awake. It was the day before the Spring Festival, the much-awaited annual event that was celebrated with pomp and gaiety. Feverish activity overtook the city for many days before the week-long festival of entertainment and pleasure. Set on the banks of River Ganga, the capital of the Vajji republic was pulsating with excitement for the forthcoming festivities, dressed up to welcome spring.

The first rays of the sun kissed the myriad golden spires looming over the skyline—all 7707 of them. Symbols of the affluence of the clan rulers, they reflected the importance of the confederacy of Vaishali.

Flowers bloomed in 7707 gardens across the city, athwart splendorous structures, their fragrance permeating the air. The streets filled with morning ragas as people stepped out of their homes. Musicians who had heralded the dawn with their mellifluous renditions ended their practice with invocations to god and good fortune. Maidens, freshly bathed, giggling, picked flowers to weave garlands for the deity and to adorn themselves. Young men swaggered towards the bathing ghats and kitchens buzzed with activity.

The Licchavis were proud of their capital and justifiably so. Among all the neighbouring states, theirs was the only confederacy; the others were ruled by monarchs. The opulent palaces of the 7707 rajas dotted the beautiful city. The rulers of the Vajji confederacy met every seven years to vote for one of their members as the maharaja, to function as the chief of the confederation, assisted by one uparaja, a deputy king, and a parishad of nine. The rulers were just, and the people cultured. There was prosperity, unity and peace in the land.

All roads led to Vaishali on that day, as people from all over the kingdom headed there. Tents sprung up by the wayside as bullock carts trundled along the roads fringed with fluttering flags and ribbons hanging off poles. Vasant Utsav, the celebration of a bountiful harvest, was a time for thanksgiving, an occasion to indulge one’s hedonistic side in good food and wine. It was a day to proclaim good fortune without guilt. It was a celebration of the end of winter—of love, life and renewal. Colours were smeared on faces. People sang, danced and congratulated each other, gossiping and bantering.

Garlands of flowers festooned the doors of freshly painted houses.

A carnival was set up in the huge open ground near the city centre. The grand amphitheatre near the royal garden on the banks of the Gandak hosted the crowds who had gathered to enjoy gymnastics and various kinds of competitions: chariot races, bull racing, swimming and boating events. There were wrestling, archery and javelin-throwing competitions for sports enthusiasts. For the artistically inclined, there were poetry competitions, and dance and music recitals.

Fortunes were made and lost at these events, as spectators flouted the law to bet clandestinely.

For weeks before, young men could be found on playgrounds, training for the games, and the river was dotted with swimmers and rowers. Dance and music rehearsals would go on at the Kala Kendra. The prizes were big, and the prestige earned by the winners was even bigger.

The grand finale was held on the last evening when the raj nartaki performed before a gathering of the rajas and the common citizens. It was the one day when aristocrats and plebeians rubbed shoulders to watch the court dancer’s performance. Even more exciting than her performance was the competition that followed—it was when the next court dancer was chosen; either the incumbent raj nartaki would dance better than the other competitors and hold on to her position, or be replaced.

The position of court dancer was a coveted one: the rewards and the monthly allowance were generous, but little compared to the privileges that came with the position—a luxurious mansion, a retinue of guards and servants, a chariot drawn by white horses. Not just that, she would mingle with royalty and nobility at all the major events, where her presence would be avidly sought. The richest and most influential men vied for the raj nartaki’s attention. To cap it all, several privileges continued to come her way even after her retirement.

No matter what they did during the day, evenings drew people towards the amphitheatre. For two days, drum-bearers had gone around town announcing the date and time of the events in the amphitheatre. Excitement travelled far and wide, through the city and beyond, leaving none untouched.

It was impossible for the two people living in a small house on the fringe of the king’s orchards to escape the excitement overtaking the city. Dharma Datta was employed as a royal gardener and lived with his daughter, Ambapali.

This is a remarkable and poignant novel about the dazzling glamour, daring romance, and sacrifice that marked Ambapali’s life

Excerpted with permission from Ambapali, Tanushree Podder, Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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This is a remarkable and poignant novel about the dazzling glamour, daring romance, and sacrifice that marked Ambapali’s life