The beauty and dancing prowess of two courtesans could well have brought down two great empires - the Kingdom of Magadha in 5th. Century, BC, and the Mughal empire during the time of Emperors Akbar and Jahangir. If legend is to be believed -- classically captured by Bollywood in Amrapali (1966) starring Vyjantimala, Anarkali (1953) starring Bina Roy and Mughal-e-Azam (1960), starring Madhubala -- the influence of these dancing courtesans could well have altered the history of Ancient and Medieval India. Authentic Pali texts and Jataka Tales, which narrate the stories of Buddha, refer to Amrapali, a beautiful dancing courtesan of Vaishali. Her life story appears to be true. The Mughal period accounts written by a traveller, William Finch, and by Abdul Halim Sharar, have references to Anarkali. However, there is surprisingly no mention of Anarkali in other authentic sources. Nevertheless, Amrapali and Anarkali have captured the imagination of cultural connoisseurs, due to their roles as powerful and enchanting dancing courtesans.
Amrapali, or Ambapali, is said to have been born under a mango (amba) tree in the republic of Vaishali, which was inhabited by people of the Lichchavi clan. Amrapali was a beautiful girl, with immense grace. It is believed that the Vaishali King, Manudev, who witnessed her dance performance, was besotted with her. He desired to possess her - exclusively. As was the practice in those days, Amrapali was declared a ‘Nagaravadhu’ (Bride of the Kingdom). This meant that there could be no rivalry among the royals to possess this beautiful girl, who had been married to the entire city or kingdom. However, Bimbisara, the brave ruler of Magadha, the most powerful kingdom of ancient India, heard about her beauty and dancing talent, and invaded Vaishali. He thereafter lived with Amrapali, who bore him a son named Vimal Kondanna. Later, on Amrapali’s request, Bimbisara returned to his kingdom. Amrapali’s beauty continued to enchant people of royal birth. Bimbisara’s other son, the brave Ajatashatru, who conquered many kingdoms, imprisoned his father and set out to capture Vaishali…and Amrapali. The people of Vaishali imprisoned Amrapali, to stop her union with Ajatashatru. Incensed, he burnt the city. Amrapali renounced him and asked him to leave. Around this time Amrapali came upon Buddha and his disciples, who were visiting Vaishali. She was moved by their kindness and joined Buddha’s order, becoming a begging saint.
The life of Anarkali, the medieval period dancing slave girl, is hazy. She was originally known as Sharf-us-Nisa or Nadira Begum, and came to the Mughal empire through Lahore. Legend attributes her meeting with Emperor Akbar in a garden. Akbar was besotted by her beauty and wished to bestow upon her a reward. Nadira Begum asked for a pomegranate, and thus was christened Anarkali (pomegranate blossom) by the Emperor himself. Anarkali became the Emperor’s favourite court dancer. However, due to her subsequent love affair with Akbar’s son and heir-apparent, Prince Salim, she was entombed alive by an enraged Emperor at Anarkali Bazaar, Lahore. The story goes that Prince Salim, who later became Mughal Emperor Jahangir, had become enamoured by Anarkali’s looks and skillful movements while watching her dance performance at Akbar’s court. The Emperor tried to convince his son against having a relationship with a dancing girl - dancers were considered to be born of low birth. Another plausible reason for Akbar dissuading his son was that Anarkali was rumoured to have given birth to Akbar’s second son, Prince Daniyal. Jahangir revolted against his father. In the battle that ensued, the defeated Jahangir was sentenced to death by the Emperor. Anarkali pleaded with Akbar to spare her lover’s life…and sacrificed her own. Emperor Jahangir is believed to have lived in this sorrow of separation till the end of his life.
Both Amrapali and Anarkali were extraordinarily talented dancers. Anarkali was also supposed to have been a talented miniaturist. However, though sympathised with, she was not given any respect due to her being a court dancer. Amrapali, on the other hand, has been respected - not for her dancing talents, but for her renouncement of the world under the influence of Lord Buddha. Both Amrapali and Anarkali, though born in different times, were dancer-courtesans who had a profound influence on the powerful rulers of the day. They were able to enchant, enamour and embolden powerful kings. Could the lives of these two dancing girls have altered the course of India’s history? What would have happened if Ajatashatru had not burnt the city of Vaishali, and not returned alone to his kingdom of Magadha after being renounced by Amrapali? Amrapali might have become the dancer-queen of Magadha. Had Prince Salim married Anarkali, she would have taken the place of his powerful Queen Noor Jehan. And the Bollywood Classics would have had happier endings.
The writer is a renowned Kuchipudi danseuse and choreographer