Ambapali By Tanushree Podder Is A Lyrical Retelling Of History!

Tanushree Podder’s novel, Ambapali, explores the life and legend of the most beautiful courtesan in the ancient city of Vaishali.

According to legends, Ambapali, one of the most beautiful women to have ever lived, was a courtesan in the ancient city of Vaishali (current day Bihar, India).

From a girl of humble beginnings, found abandoned under a grove of mango trees, Ambapali went on to wield immense influence and power amongst the citizens and nobles of Vaishali after the state awarded her the title of the nagarvadhu janpad kalyani—the bride of the city. It is said that later on in life, Ambapali renounced all worldly pleasures and embraced Buddhism, initiated into the faith by the Buddha Himself.

Tanushree Podder’s new book, Ambapali, explores the life and legend of this woman. Written in a historical fiction narrative, the author has attempted to collate all the different bits and pieces of apparent and assumed stories and created an almost comprehensive chronology of Ambapali’s life events.

A lyrical historical fiction

The prose has a lyrical quality to it, whereby the descriptions of Vaishali, its culture, its people, and the vibrant life of the celebrated city come to life. The vocabulary is wonderfully contextual, and the use of regional terms and phrases enhances the overall reading experience.

The narrative switches between the significant characters in the book—Ambapali; her father, Dharma Datta; her first love, Satyakirti; her dance teacher, Suvarnasena; her friend and companion, Priyamvada; the Magadh Emperor Bimbisara; and various others. Their character sketches are believable, and it is easy to follow them through the story.

What steals the show is Ambapali’s portrayal—the exploration of her internal thoughts, desires and dilemmas. Handled with extreme care and finesse, the reader becomes one with the little girl who loves to dance and wants nothing more than the love and presence of her father and friends.

It is a rude shock when the Vaishali Parishad appoints her as the raj narthaki and then, eventually, predictably, the nagarvadhu of Vaishali. Why? Because her beauty and allure have driven a wedge between the different power factions within the city. As nagarvadhu, in her teens, Ambapali is duty-bound to submit herself to whoever can pay her price.

How can one woman be responsible for ruining a kingdom?

It is almost laughable that one woman could be held responsible for fracturing an entire kingdom. Rather than revisiting and rethinking the state policies, isn’t it easier to single out a single woman as the root cause and thrust upon her shoulders the responsibility of uniting the state?

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Through Ambapali, we experience how insignificant the wants and desires of a single person are when compared to the janpad. Through Ambapali, the author appears to hold a mirror to society and its makers.

Even today, hundreds and thousands of years later, women are still expected to bring disparate elements of different families together in a way not always expected of their counterparts, the men. It makes me wonder how, and why, did, women come to bear sole accountability for the unification and/or separation of a family unit.

Why can’t women and men shoulder this responsibility together?

Ambapali was breathtakingly beautiful and desired by everyone. Yes, she was compensated handsomely for her services by the state. Still, is it okay to dismiss her hopes and dreams for her life? How can making a woman a ganika (a prostitute) be the solution? Why couldn’t the King or the Parishad have asked, rather dictated, its people to trim their fallacies?

Another question that we must mull over is—is this true?

The events described in this book are a version of what’s known and what remains unknown. That’s the thing with history. Over time, it gets blurry around the edges. Who’s to say what is the truth and what’s not? The thing to ponder upon, however, is this—would any merger of circumstances be able to justify the course of Ambapali’s life?

Perhaps not. It is said that Ambapali embraced her role as nagarvadhu and proved to be a true patriot in the end, sacrificing her happiness and the prospects of a better personal life in favour of Vaishali. Some would say that, at times, such sacrifices might even be necessary. I agree. Though, it would help if one is given a choice in the matter.

The book left me wanting a more in-depth study of Ambapali’s thoughts about faith and Buddhism. Even though the narrative speaks about her myriad encounters with the Buddhist monks and with the Sakyamuni Himself, I still felt separated from her eventual acceptance of Buddhism, as though by a veil.

How was the Buddha’s presence affecting the authorities and the populace of Vaishali? Were there other people and families who embraced Buddhism? How did the teachings of the Buddha eventually sway Ambapali to prostrate herself at His feet?

What happens next?

Perhaps these are just my expectations projected onto the book. But I wanted to know more about these aspects of her life. Faith, to me, is a wonderfully complex entity and through Ambapali, I wished to delve into the myriad questions that crop up in one’s mind when one makes such a decision as hers.

Overall, Ambapali is a remarkably well-written historical fiction narrative, and I was completely hooked on it. The story is fast-paced, intriguing and engaging with ample insights into human nature and society.

Tanushree Podder has woven the information in a poetic and enchanting manner, sprinkling the narrative with little nuggets of thought-provoking wisdom that encourage the readers to look into this legend and learn more about these personalities from history.

Politics and intrigue come together in this imaginatively scintillating and ethereal narrative of Ambapali’s life. Was Ambapali merely a scapegoat for Vaishali’s eventual downfall? Do the rights of an individual hold no value when set against the greater good of the nation? Where do we draw the line?

Want a copy of this book?

If you’d like to pick up Ambapali written by Tanushree Podder, use our affiliate links at Amazon Indiaand at Amazon US.

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Image Source: Amazon India, and Aliakesi Serkezelediu free and edited on CanvaPro

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About the Author

Monica Singh

Scientist and Storyteller. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile. My love of reading has led to my passion for writing. I write so others can find comfort and acceptance in my words, just read more...

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