Amrapali was more than a luscious courtesan

Book review: The Legend of Amrapali

Author: Anurag Anand

Publisher: Srishti Publishers

Pages: 203

Heroic tales of Lord Rama’s battle against Ravana or the valiant Arjuna in the Kurukshetra battlefield are some of the first images we recall about the Ramayana and the Mahabharata respectively. But we surely find ourselves a bit unaware stumbling upon names like Shikhandi or Shabari who are a fleeting presence in these gigantic epics.

Mythology has always had its favourite child in men or perhaps the history that we read was not very generous in lending space to women who too could have formed important chapters had they not been eclipsed by the glorifying tales of male heroes.

Author Anurag Anand in his latest book ‘The Legend of Amrapali’ reveals a legendary character to readers still struggling to remember the famous courtesan of Vaishali, Amrapali in the pages of male-dominated history.

Amrapali- A courtesan, warrior and lover: An enchanting tale of a woman, who succeeds in dethroning a megalomaniac ruler and emerges out as a character whose identity is more than just a courtesan obliged to gratify sexual desires of kings and emperors; the Legend of Amrapali is a discovery of a woman warrior. The most interesting characteristic of the book is the fact that despite being a tale of a courtesan, the plot does not surrender to explicit innuendos or a narrative solely concentrating on sexual passion. Amrapali’s chamber is called the ‘Swapna Kakshika’ (The room of dreams) and the reader is seldom allowed an entry into its quarters. The Kakshika is not a dream house for Amrapali as much as it is for the patrons spending nights in her arms in exchange of a few gold coins. She may be the queen of dreams in the Swapna Kakshika but is imprisoned in it.

Looking outside one day, Amrapali sees a moth struggling to come out of its cocoon and compares the situation to her own condition that has clasped her into a bondage she wriggles to free herself from. Imagery that Anurag employs in this epic-fiction like the one mentioned stays with the reader for long.

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.

Transition from an orphan to a queen: Amrapali, a woman of unknown parentage found under a mango tree (hence named Amrapali) by a child-less couple went onto become someone who changed the course of history. People remember her not only for her incomparable beauty but also her political acumen, bravery to overthrow a power-drunk ruler and compassion for the society in constructing schools, roads, temples and other institution.

“Amrapali is not only touted to be the most beautiful woman to have ever lived and a danseuse par excellence, but her magnanimity and interventions toward uplifting the socially downtrodden are undisputed. For me, Amrapali’s enigma is second to none of her more popular contemporaries,” says the author.

The book goes beyond Amrapali’s physicality; it focuses on her subjectivity, her relationship with society and people she loved and lost in accident, plague or deliberate killing. She lives to avenge the death of all. The author informs, “I have traced Amrapali’s tribulations that saw her being lodged to the morally depraved altar of the Nagarvadhu, her inner awakening and the eventual revenge that moulded her into the revered figure we know of today.”

Author speak: When asked how much of the book is fiction and about the challenges that an author faces while representing a period through a character who is herself not clearly visible in history, Anurag answers, “The book is largely fictional with a slight garnishing of history. The practice of recording (writing) history was brought to India with the arrival of Mughals, much after Amrapali lived. The only corroborative evidence of her existence can be found in some Buddhist scriptures since she had become a follower of Gautama Buddha in the later years of her life. It is the absence of recorded facts and fables about Amrapali passed through generations that I have attempted to weave together using fiction as a base,” shares the author.

An enigma for some and a messiah for others, Anurag Anand’s Amrapali is a brave, soulful woman.

Book Review: The Legend of Amrapali

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