Bride of the City Volume 1: Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu

Written by A. K. Kulshreshth (trans.) Acharya Chatursen Pratibha Vinod Kumar (trans.)
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Bride of the City, the first English translation of a novel published in 1949, explores the Nagarvadhu tradition of ancient India in which women of exceptional beauty were conscripted (or sometimes competed) to become the “bride” of a city’s most wealthy and powerful men.

The novel centers on Ambapali, a mythically famous Nagarvadhu and later a Buddhist disciple of the 6th and 5th century BCE. Found as an orphaned infant in a mango grove and later forced into what modern readers would see as servitude, Ambapali finds ways to dominate the men around her, ultimately becoming the mother of an emperor.

Weaving through her story is a Bollywood-like panoply of opulent castles, warrior princes, courtesans, dancers, wily courtiers, sorcerers, and divinely beautiful women. Readers accustomed to character-driven literature may find the book challenging for the sheer number of spin-off plots, lengthy lists, and descriptions of mind-boggling opulence and wealth.

Acharya Chatursen (1891-1960) was a prolific writer of Hindi literature. His ten historical novels typically presented an idealized view of pre-Islamic India which later put him at odds with Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of a secular society.

Bride of the City offers an epic, tapestry view of ancient India’s complex social structure, politics, and spiritual foundations, although some readers may be uncomfortable with the idealization of a culture in which sensuality and physical beauty are a woman’s only path to power and self-determination.