Pataliputra, the capital of the Mauryan Empire, India, 3rd century BCE
Madhuri, a courtesan, lived in Courtesan Street in the imperial city of Pataliputra. If you looked upon her objectively, you might be hard-pressed to say she was more beautiful than other women, for surely there were thousands of young women of every caste and every kingdom equal to her. In some ways she was quite plain. She even had a few defects, truth be known. However, she had two advantages over other women. First, Madhuri understood glamour. She knew how to bring out her particular glamour in such a way that almost all men and women noticed and respected her. Secondly, she knew how to turn the attention she received into profit.
There were those – jealous, neglected wives and those men who could not have her – who said the Madhuri was just a whore who had sex with men for money. She did not see herself or her lifestyle this way at all. Instead, she saw herself as the director and star of her own personal, on-going spectacle. Men were willing to pay a small fortune simply to be part of her show, and if they were fortunate enough to share her bed, now and then, as part of the entertainment, so be it. She saw herself as two people, really – an artiste devoted to her calling and the development of her skills as a courtesan, and a shrewd businesswoman. Her lovers gave her gems and jewels and other rare and precious gifts, competing with each other for her favors; she kept some of these gifts as mementos, but most of them she sold, raising money which she loaned at interest or invested.
Some of the wealthy men she “milked” like this, no doubt, would have been appalled if they had known that Madhuri had a few lovers who didn’t pay her anything at all. In fact, she took them into her chambers for free because they were willing to teach her things, such as the skills among the sixty-four arts that normally were not part of a young lady’s education – the skills of a lapidary, for instance, how to mix poison, or how to fight with a sword, shoot an arrow, or conduct a siege; how to make invisible ink and break codes; how to cast magic spells and make ingenious machines that seemed to move on their own. She learned everything she could, because… well, you never know. Until Ashok finally murdered his brother and seized the throne, the political situation in Pataliputra was touch-and-go.
Madhuri was, in fact, a rich person. She derived so much profit from loans, speculations, and rented lands that she did not have to lead the life of a courtesan. Instead, she continued “in the game,” as she put it, because she was addicted to the thrill and power, and the accolades she received as a celebrity. She loved the luxurious setting of her city mansion, with its crying peacocks, and the cultured, respectful attention of her selective little circle of clients. On Courtesan Street that was, indeed, what they called this life: “The Game.” Women like Madhuri were called ganikas – quite literally “Players.”
Madhuri had everything she wanted except a daughter who could take her place when she was old. And “old” for a woman in Madhuri’s profession was twenty-eight. She reckoned she had only three more years left before her most loyal admirers began to take their affections – and their money – elsewhere. Meanwhile, she relied more and more upon art in order to try to look younger than she was. It was a game, she realized, she would eventually lose.
Most courtesans eventually bore the child of one of their lovers, and Madhuri was no exception, but her first-born turned out to be a boy, and that was no good. Most women prayed for a boy, but not the women of Courtesan Street. After all, what does a boy do, raised up amongst ganikas? The good ones became musicians, which was at least useful, but mostly they became idle gossips, gambling and drinking too much and generally causing trouble. And the worst of them? Well, they were recruited as pimps and spies by the nobles or even by enemy agents – they were drawn into criminal acts and political conspiracies. A daughter, however, was a valuable prize in Courtesan Street: she could be raised up and carefully trained, and she would take care of her mother in her old age.
Madhuri eventually resorted to extreme measures. She called an unscrupulous sadhu, or wandering holy man, to her mansion, and the man appeared, covered in white ash, with matted hair, wearing only a rather scant loincloth – all symbols of his having renounced the desires of the world. Madhuri, who knew this was a sham employed to convince people that he was a saint, spoke frankly:
“Now, baba, I have a proposition for you. I’ll pay you a bag of gold panas if you procure me a little girl, seven or eight years old, no more or less. I don’t care how you do it, and I don’t want to know. You will receive two bags of gold if she seems especially promising. But no rough stuff. Understand? She mustn’t be afraid. Entice her with toys and sweets – whatever works – but bring her to me quickly.”
“Stealing a little girl is very bad karma, my dear – I will come back as a snail or a locust for this, surely. How about four bags of gold?”
“How about two bags of gold, and I won’t tell the Inspector that you’re a spy for the Satavahanas.”
“But I’m not!” the saddhu smiled. “No one will believe you.”
“I have ways of making men want to believe me even if they know I’m lying. What can you do, sadhu? Pretend to curse me? Save your fables and magic tricks for gullible fools from the countryside. Now, go get me a suitable little girl. The sooner you get back, the sooner you can have your money.”
The sadhu accepted these terms philosophically and disappeared into the evening bustle of the capital. Madhuri trusted that he would have the good sense not to perpetrate his crime personally, or to try to snatch a child from her family inside the city walls, under the noses of the city watch. She went to the shrine of the Goddess, a stone slab leaning against a peepul tree in her own garden, and chanted a brief mantra, kneeling and bowing so that her forehead touched the earth. She prayed for success.
Eventually, the sadhu returned, disguised as a porter carrying a basket, inside which Madhuri found a very sweet-looking little girl, sound asleep.
“What is this?” she snapped.
“A potion, only, I think – it will wear off,” the sadhu replied, swaying his head in a vague gesture that could mean almost anything.
“She’s brown!” Madhuri cried. “What in the hell am I supposed to do with a girl who looks like her father was a fisherman and her mother was a tribal savage? Have you completely lost your mind? No one is going to want this girl – no one. A proper ganika is supposed to have golden skin, you fool.”
“What do you expect for two bags of gold? Anyway, you didn’t say, ‘Kidnap me a Brahmin or Vaisya girl with milky-white skin.’ Most people are brown, my dear – it’s just the law of averages.”
“I said ‘suitable.’ Everyone knows what that means.”
“Excuse me, lady, but what exactly makes a girl ‘suitable’ for the kind of life you intend her to lead?”
“Get out of my sight.”
“What about my money?”
“What about my money?”
“Yes, that reminds me… the Inspector is coming over later tonight….” She tapped her lips with her fingers and said, “Oh, and last I heard, you were still an enemy agent working for the Satavahanas, or was it the Seleucids?”
“Aiyo….” The sadhu sighed, deeply, and finally said, “So what am I to do? Do you want the girl or not?”
“Take her back,” Madhuri muttered, wrinkling her nose. “Get her out of here – the very sight of her disgusts me. She defiles the place just by being here.”
“I can’t,” he said, insistently. “I found her on the riverbank. She was already drugged. All I had to do was pick her up and put her in the basket. It was so easy….”
Madhuri wanted to yell at the sadhu some more, but his unexpected reply silenced her anger and instead aroused her curiosity.
“What?” she asked, furrowing her brow.
“Women who want to get rid of kids often put them on the riverbank. Because, well… the crocodiles. They’ll eat anything, even corpses. They’re not picky.”
“Well, what do you suggest we do, then?”
“My dear,” the surly old vagabond said, “there was a time, long ago, when Chandragupta was still emperor, and I was a true renouncer – before the snares of worldly desire tempted me. Perhaps this is a boon? After all, we don’t know who this girl really is, do we? She may as well be the daughter of the Ganga, since she was found upon its banks. Everyone knows the great river is a Goddess. Clearly, child of her own or not, Ganga favors her.”
Madhuri raised her eyebrows, glancing at the little sleeping girl. “A Goddess-born foundling… the Child of Ganga!” The courtesan’s eyes suddenly blazed. “Yes, yes, sadhu… I can work with that. Thank you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, shut up – you wouldn’t understand.” Madhuri’s mind was teeming with ideas, already weaving the first layer of the little girl’s glamour. I shall name her Rambha, after the Queen of the Celestial Nymphs!
“Do I get paid, then?”
Madhuri pursed her lips and gave the holy man a narrow-eyed look. With a petulant noise, she threw him one bag of gold.
“One? You know that a sadhu’s curse can hurt even the Gods?”
“You’ve already cursed me with this damned low-caste girl – now, go away before I have you arrested! Trust me, you don’t want to see the inside of Ashok-the-Cruel’s dungeon. Our young emperor is a hard man who doesn’t believe in anything: he fears no one, not even the Gods. Ashok will have you torn to pieces, slowly, just for fun – and just because I asked him to.”
The sadhu pressed the palms of his hands together and retired from her presence, cutting his losses. A life spent amongst cunning men had made Madhuri perhaps too devious for her own good.
Years passed, and Madhuri retired from public life. She was touched that a few of her lovers continued to ask for her, but these were old friends. Most of the others, as she knew they would, lost interest in her once she was in her thirties, growing plump and increasingly clever, even dangerous. She acquired other young women, in addition to Rambha, setting herself up as a proper guru, or instructor in kama – the art of love, or, more accurately the art of seductive glamour. She hired tutors, dancing-masters, even a priest. No expense was spared. If the elite men of Pataliputra would not come to see her, then they would beat down the doors of her mansion to see her young ladies, whose virginity she would sell for a prince’s ransom.
Rambha grew up amongst the other young ladies, and like them she learned how to sing, dance, and play musical instruments, how to arrange flowers and drape cloth, how to carry on witty and informed banter with well-educated men, and how to flirt. Most of all, Madhuri herself showed Rambha and the other young ladies how to dress, how to arrange their hair, how to apply their makeup, but most of all how to look at people, how to carry themselves – how to appear elegant and desirable, not silly and ill-mannered.
“Always remember,” she smiled, “that the value of anything increases when it’s hard to get.”
It wasn’t that Rambha did not hear her mistress’s advice. Madhuri simply did not like her ‘daughter’, and never had a good word to say to her. If Rambha seemed idle, even for a moment, she was given some demeaning chore to do, and generally treated as a servant. However, Madhuri’s son could not take his eyes off Rambha. He smiled at her, followed her like a puppy, and passed little gifts to her, secretly, whenever he could, with the aid of one of the maids. At length, nature took its course, and Madhuri discovered her foundling charge’s lapse of chastity immediately. She beat her son so hard that she broke his nose and nearly blinded him in one eye: Rambha she threw out onto the street.
“You’re no use to me, now – go earn your rice as a strumpet amongst the emperor’s soldiers!”
Rambha wandered for two days around the city walls, not eating, pausing only to squat by the river, watching corpses being burned on the ghats, or steps leading down to the water. It was there that the Inspector found her.
She remembered the Inspector, a cynical man who had stopped visiting Madhuri, rather abruptly. But he was not an imperial official, not any more. He wore the ochre robes of a Buddhist monk, carrying a staff and a begging bowl. He recognized her, in fact, before she saw through his… well, his disguise?
“Are you spying?” she asked, for the emperor, being paranoid, had spies everywhere, all the time.
“No – I’m really a monk. No more sneaking around. After the campaign in Kaling, many of us retired from the army, and the emperor, saddened by the destruction his policies had caused, set his feet on the path of Dhamma – the way of the Buddha, the Enlightened One. Do you know of him?”
“Of course,” Rambha said, sniffling as she tried to dry her tears with the hem of her sari, pulling it over her head. “I heard the emperor married a Buddhist princess after his campaign in Ujjain.”
The former Inspector laughed and said, “This is an excellent time to become a Buddhist. We’re held in high esteem right now. Ashok is inclined to be generous, and he has a lot of sinning to make up for. Are you interested?”
“Forgive me, monk, but these don’t sound like the words of a renouncer.”
Madhuri’s former lover laughed and said, “I’m working on it. This Enlightenment business may take a while… two, maybe three lifetimes in my case. But you? You’re a natural. You’ll break the cycle of rebirth on the first go, I’m sure of it. Have you heard of the theris – the Buddhist sisters? There are even more of them than there are of us.”
“What would they want with someone like me?”
“Would you believe that the abbess at the convent was a courtesan, when she was younger? We don’t care about your past in the Sangha, or what caste you were – we’re all running away, you see, so it doesn’t matter.”
Rambha smiled, her eyes shining, for the Inspector truly seemed to be a different man – kindly, happy, even wise.
“Do you have to be poor to be a nun?”
“Ha! No, not really. Individually, the nuns own nothing, but the Sangha is rich. Many of the theris bring their dowries to the convent, and the laymen bring offerings, to earn merit. It’s a good life. But the best part of all is that we’re completely free.”
“Alright, then, where is this abbess?”
“Come with me, I’ll show you,” he said, watching her slowly rise up, turning her back on the river.
1. What do you learn about Mauryan India from this story?
2. What ethical issues arise in this story?
Copyright, William Lailey, 2012