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 7,707 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 7,707 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.
Now, 16-year-old Ambapali, dressed in her finest clothes, was goading her father to hurry. “You are taking too long to dress!” she scolded. “My friends will be here soon. We want to spend some time in the market before going to the rangshala. The amphitheatre must be so crowded already. I am so keen to see Nishigandha’s performance.”
“You forget I am not as young as you,” the indulgent father said, laughing. “In any case, I think you dance much better than Nishigandha. You can easily win the contest.”
Ten years of training under a retired court dancer had honed young Ambapali’s innate talents. Imbued with grace and beauty, she was her teacher’s favourite student.
“I have no interest in participating in the competition. All I want to do is to watch the contestants pit their skill against the court dancer,” Ambapali said, straightening her father’s uttariya. “You should wear brighter colours. These dull ones make you look older than you are. I wish you paid a little more attention to your clothes.”
“I will leave the brighter colours for you.” Dharma Datta pinched her cheek affectionately. “Imagine what will happen if the women are attracted and want to flirt with me,” he teased.
“Pali, where are you?” they heard Priyamvada call out. Ambapali peeped out of the window and saw Priyamvada and Urmimala waiting impatiently near the gate. Her heart leapt with excitement at the sight of the young man who was loitering in the background. Her friends were here. In keeping with the mood of the season, they had worn yellow. The two girls were wearing yellow uttariya, while Satyakirti had put on a yellow turban over his jet-black curls.
“Coming!” she called back. Turning to her father, she said, “Don’t take too long.”
“I will be with you in a couple of minutes,” Dharma Datta reassured his daughter as he fussed with his headgear, and Ambapali skipped out of the house, patting her hair.
“There you are,” said Satyakirti, drawing his breath sharply at the sight of the girl he loved. She looked beautiful. The four of them had grown up together, playing pranks, ribbing and comforting each other. The orchard was their playground, where they escaped during the summer months to steal fruits, play hide-and-seek and share secrets. The trees were a witness to their sorrows and joys. It was under a mango tree that Satyakirti had confessed his love for Ambapali and stolen his first kiss from the blushing girl.
Excerpted with permission from Ambapali, Tanushree Podder, Penguin.