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Kach and Devjani
Nala and Damayanti - Legedary Love Stories
410    Dibyendu Banerjee    11/07/2023

The love story of Nala and Damayanti is an episode depicted in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. The episode dealing with their passionate union, their unfortunate separation and the ultimate reunion, is considered one of the great legendary love stories of the country. According to the story, Nala, the son of Veerasena and the king of Nishadha, was known for his skill with horses and was the commander of a great army. He conquered many countries, extended the frontiers of his kingdom and was a good administrator, loved and respected by his people.

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In addition, he was also one of the most handsome eligible bachelors of his time. One day, after completing his daily chores, while he was leisurely relaxing in the royal park, a flock of swans waving their white wings and pearl plumage descended on the park with graceful gait. He was charmed by the sight, carefully made a move to catch at least one of them and was delighted like an immature boy to catch one of them, while the others escaped. However, the swan made no move to escape and prayed to the king to make him free in a human tone and also promised him in return, to talk highly about him to Damayanti, the beautiful princess of Vidarva, considered the most beautiful girl in the world and convince her to make a match with him. By that time, Nala had also heard about Damayanti, the daughter of Bhima (not of the Pandava clan), the King of Vidarva and her unearthly beauty, so he readily agreed to the proposal and freed the swan, expressing his hope that the swan would keep his word.

nala and damayanti
Painted by Raja Ravi Varma

The swan kept his promise, flew to Vidharva and repeated his performance, when caught by Damayanti and her friends, speaking highly about Nala. The swan also reported that the handsome young king is keen to marry her and also added that it would be an ideal match, if she agrees to the proposal. Although they never mate, Damayanti was well aware of the physical beauty and bravery of Nala.

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She felt flattered to hear the report of the swan and got infatuated with the idea of spending her life with the man of her dreams. Like Nala, she also freed the swan and when the bird flew away beyond her sight, Damayanti stood on the spot for a few minutes, looking at the horizon unmindfully and silently heaving a sigh unknowingly. Unknown to each other and separated by distance, both of them started to suffer from love sickness and spend sleepless nights, struck by the floral arrow of cupid.

nala and damayanti
Lovelorn Damayanti, painted by Raja Ravi Varma

When the maids-in-wait informed King Bhima that recently the princess has become very much absent minded, even not taking her food properly, the king thought that a prompt marriage would make Damayanti happy and cheerful. Therefore, he announced arranging a Swayamvara Sabha for her daughter and invite all the eligible kings and prices from whom she could select her future husband. The great news of the Swayamvars Sabha for Damayanti spread out like fire to the countries near and far, even Narad Muni, a sage divinity, traditionally famous as a travelling musician, visited the court of Indra, the king of gods, to inform the journey of the mortal kings and princes to Vidarbha, all of whom sought Damayanti's hand. As the gods were also aware of the famous beauty of Damayanti, the news prompted five traditional Hindu gods, including Indra, Agni, the fire-god, Varuna, the god of rain and the seas and Yama, the god of the dead to attend the event.

nala and damayanti
Arrival of Damayanti in the Swayamvara Sabha

On the scheduled day, the royal court became packed up with handsome young kings and princes, eagerly waiting in trembling hearts for the arrival of the beautiful Damayanti, the princess of Vidarbha and hoping to win her hands with their looks and dignified identity. The four interested gods were also present among them, who made a trick to look alike Nala and sat just next to him. When Damayanti arrived on the scene with all the royal fanfare, holding the bridal garland in her hands, she became momentarily puzzled to find five Nalas in a row, instead of one, whom she decided to marry.

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However, immediately she realised it to be a trick by the divine beings. She took a moment to compose herself and find the truth, then directly stood before Nala, the man of her choice, with the bridal garland in her extended hands, as only he has his shadow, while the gods do not have any, instead they have static eyelids and non-sweating bodies. Moved by Damayanti's intelligence and love for Nala, the deities revealed their true forms and blessed the couple for their happy conjugal life, before leaving for their abodes and after the marriage was celebrated with royal splendour, the royal couple left for Nishada.

nala and damayanti
Damayanti in Swayambar Sabha, painted by Nandalal Basu

However, Kali, the spirit of the evil age Kali yuga, who intended to be a contender for Damayanti’s hand, but was too late to participate, became jealous of Nala, enraged as he was not allowed to participate in the Swayamvara Sabha and decided to take revenge. He patiently waited for years together, before getting the chance to enter the body of Nala, when Nala inadvertently did not wash his feet carefully before his evening worship. He influenced Nala and induced him to play the game of dice with his brother, Pushkara. However, Damayanti was apprehensive about the outcome of the game of dice involving gambling and she tried her best to discourage her husband to participate in it and repeatedly implored him in vain, to abstain from it. Finally, finding no way out to avoid the unavoidable calamity, she sent away her children, a boy and a daughter, to her parents in Vidarbha by a chariot driven by Varshneya, the faithful charioteer of Nala. During the course of the game of dice that lasted over several months, Nala gambled away the royal treasure, even the kingdom of the Nishada and when Pushkara suggested Nala to stake Damayanti, Nala decided to retreat and the couple left the kingdom to take shelter in the forest, donning a single garment each. Roaming through forests and meadows for days together, when the couple became exhausted with fatigue and hunger, Damayanti suggested Nala to take shelter in her father’s kingdom, where they would be cordially received. But Nala refused to accept the proposal, as he felt ashamed to show his face to his in-laws, because he alone was responsible for their present pathetic condition. However, he advised Damayanti to leave him and go to her father’s place, where she can spend her days comfortably, which she refused, as she felt an ideal wife should always remain by the side of her husband, even during his worst days. But the thought of Damayanti’s sufferings due to his wrong deed was harshly tormenting Nala and one day, when she was in a deep slumber under the shade of a tree, he deserted her, believing that she would be happier without him.

nala and damayanti
Nala deserts Damayanti, by Raja Ravi Varma

When Damayanti woke up and found herself all alone, abandoned by her husband, she became panicked, could not believe that Nala has deserted her, called him cruel and wailed aloud in the wilderness. Burning in anguish and weeping in woe, she started to search Nala behind the trees and the bushes, hoping to find him hiding somewhere to make a fun. While she was busy and absorbed in her mission of search, suddenly a python grabbed her and when she shouted for help, a hunter saved her by killing the snake with his arrow.

nala and damayanti

However, completely taken away by her ravishing beauty and finding her alone, the hunter tried to rape her, when she cursed him to die and the hunter instantly died and fell on the ground, like an uprooted tree. After that, she came across a hermitage, where the ascetics blessed her and assured to find her husband soon, then joined a caravan on their journey to the kingdom of Chedi, but a herd of elephants trampled the sleeping traders while they were asleep at night. Extremely shocked by the series of misfortunes and bemoaning her fate, she joined a group of Brahmins and finally reached the capital of Chedi, where she attracted the attention of the Queen Mother. After knowing her identity, the Queen Mother invited her to stay with her, to which she agreed.

nala and damayanti

Meanwhile, while wandering alone with a heavy heart, Nala suddenly came across a fire in the forest and a voice beseeching for help. As he approached nearer, he saw an immobile python lying in coil, suffering terribly from the heat of the fire, which may devour him any moment. After being rescued by Nala, the snake introduced himself as Karkotaka and confessed that as he had deceived Narada, the great Rishi cursed him to become immobile, until Nala comes to help him. Addressing him as the king of Nishadas, Karkotaka requested him to proceed on his way by counting his steps and as he proceeded, the snake bit him on the tenth step, which abruptly changed his feature and form. However, Karkotaka assured the amazed Nala that he would regain his physical beauty in proper time, till then it would help him to remain disguised. Apart from that his venom would cause distress to the evil spirit, dwelling in him and make it inactive. The snake king also advised him to go to Ayodhya and meet King Rituparna, who would become his friend and allow him to gain mastery over the dice and finally, he would be reunited with Damayanti. Accordingly, Nala made his way to Ayodhya and after arriving in the city on the tenth day, presented himself before king Rituparna as Bahuka, an expert in managing steeds. Impressed by his attitude and personality, the king appointed the disguised Nala as his charioteer, as well as the superintendent of the royal stables and arranged to stay him with Varshneya and Jivala, who would always be under his instruction. Since then, Nala kept himself busy with his duty throughout the day, but every evening recited a verse, remembering the distress of a faithful wife for which she was not responsible and repentance for his inconsiderate decision, which was responsible for her fate.

nala and damayanti

By that time, the King of Vidarva had sent his messengers to different kingdoms throughout the length and breadth of the country in search of his beloved daughter and one day, a Brahmin, named Sudeva, came to report that he has seen and recognised the princesses, living with the queen mother of Chedi. Immediately, arrangements were made to bring the princesses to the royal palace with all the royal fanfare and although Damayanti was reluctant to return without her husband, ultimately she decided to return to the kingdom of Vidarbha, after taking permission and thanking the Queen Mother of Chedi for her kindness. After a few days, another messenger from Ayodhya, named Parnada, returned to report that the king’s new charioteer recites a verse every evening, depicting his repentance for deserting his wife, without any fault of her. Damayanti took the information as a clue, plotted a plan and called for Sudeva, whom she confided, and requested him to go to Ayodhya, straight as a bird, and tell king Rituparna that Damayanti will hold another Swayamvara and tomorrow at sunrise she will choose a second husband, as she does not know whether the heroic Nala is alive. He also reported that the ceremony will take place on the next day, attended by all the eligible kings and princes, so it would be better to arrive at Vidarva a day before, by the evening. The news broke the heart of Nala, disguised as Bahuka, but he pledged to fulfil the king’s desire. Although the distance between Ayodhya and Vidarva was too long to cover within a day, with his skill with horses Nala made it possible and when they arrived in the city just after dusk, Damayanti rushed to meet the charioteer, ignoring all the royal decorum, but was stunned to see a dark, short and deformed man instead of her husband, a fair, tall and handsome Nala. Yet, when she stood straight before the man and wanted to know, why should a man leave his devoted and faithful wife all alone, he truthfully replied that the man was helpless, as he had lost his kingdom and was not in a position to support his wife in the manner she was accustomed to before their marriage and wanted her to go back to the safe custody of her father. He then put on his magic garments gifted by Karkotaka, and was returned to his original form to the delight of the lovelorn Damayanti.

nala and damayanti

However, the story continued even after the happy reunion, when Nala proposed to stay for a while with Rituparna and teach him everything that he knows about horsemanship, if in return, Rituparna agrees to impart to him all the techniques of gambling, because he wants to win back his kingdom. As Rituparna gladly accepted the proposal, Nala and Damayanti moved to Rituparna’s kingdom of Chedi and within a short time, Rituparna became an adept horseman and Nala an expert gambler in the game of dice. After that, Nala challenged Pushkara in a game of dice, willing to stake Damayanti if Pushkara staked the entire kingdom and Pushkara gladly accepted the challenge, as he felt that his earlier victory was incomplete without his brother’s wife. However, at the end of the game, Pushkar lost the kingdom and Nala regained all that he had lost. Although Nala could oust Pushkar from his kingdom, along with his wife or treat them as slaves, but as he was a large-hearted man, he gave Pushkar a portion of the paternal kingdom and suggested that he mend his ways. At the end, Damayanti and her children returned to join Nala in the kingdom of Nishadha and since then, they spent the rest of their lives in happiness and fame.

nala and damayanti
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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