The story of Nala Damayanti was probably the first mythological story I read as a child, way back (really way back!). For me, then, it was a simple love story from mythology. A recent reading however, turned out to be much more than a simple love story. But first the story.
Nala was a well known and a handsome ruler of Nishadh region. Damayanti was the princess ofVidarbha and was known for her beauty and virtues. Once Nala caught a golden swan, but before he could do anything, the swan cried out asking for his life to be saved and in return, it would sing praises of Nala to Damayanti and make her fall in love with him. Damayanti was well known for her beauty and it was rumored that even gods wanted to wed her. Nala released the swan. The swan went over to the palace of Damayanti and sang praises of Nala, as to how he was the most handsome man on earth and so on. Soon the swan became the carrier of messages and to cut short the story, both fell in love with each other, without having met in person.
Soon Damayanti’s father decided to hold her swayamvar, to which kings from far and near were invited, including Nala. On the way to the swayamvar, Nala met the gods, Indra, Agni, Varuna and Yama and they insisted that he ought to convey to Damayanti and she should select any one of them for a husband. Nala tried to decline, but was forced to do so. Nala communicated the message to Damayanti, but she was determined that she would choose Nala only.
When Damayanti came with the garland to choose her husband, she noticed that there were five of them looking like Nala, as the four gods had decided to change their appearances, to confuse Damayanti. Damayanti understood that this was a ploy by the gods, but she also knew that man was not perfect like the gods. Some versions say, that she noticed drops of sweat on one of them, and thus knew that that was Nala, while some versions say that the real Nala was the only one blinking his eyes. Anyways, Damayanti got married to Nala and the rest departed.
While the gods were leaving, they came across a demon by the name of Kali (also a personification of the Kali-yuga), who was late for the swayamvar and was both angry and disappointed to know that Damayanti had selected Nala. He could not bear to hear this and decided to avenge this insult!
Nala had one weakness and that was playing dice. While he was not very good at it, he could not resist playing the game. After Nala’s father’s death, he had become the King and conducted Ashwamedha Yagna and expanded his kingdom. Nala’s younger brother was getting jealous of Nala’s fame. Seeing an opportunity, Kali instigated his brother to challenge Nala in a game of dice. His lack of expertise in the game, but the addiction to play on, cost Nala of everything that he possessed and was soon banished from the kingdom with his wife. All this aided by Kali who had taken the form of the dice, unknown to both the brothers.
Nala and Damayanti sent their children to Damayanti’s father, and left the kingdom without anything, except the clothes that they wearing. One day, Nala’s loincloth too was taken way by the birds when he was trying to use it to ensnare them. They were left with Damayanti’s saree to cover them, which limited their movements. It was nearly three days since they had last eaten any food and Nala realized that it was unfair to have Damayanti suffer because of him. He urged Damayanti to leave him and stay with his father, but Damayanti would not hear about it and wanted to stay with him and bear the hardships together. Nala realized that she would never leave him and things would only get worse as time went by.
One night when they were sleeping, Nala tore off a portion of the saree to cover himself and left her alone at night, hoping Damayanti would join her father. When Nala was going his way, he found a snake on top of a tree which had caught fire. Nala saved the snake and as soon as it was out of danger, it bit him which changed Nala into a dark and hunchbacked person. A surprised Nala wondered if this was the way, the snake preferred to repay his kindness. The snake said that it had bitten him for his own safety. The changed look would act as a disguise for him enabling him to get some work, as none would hire Nala as he was. The snake also gave him an ornament, which would bring him back to his original form by wearing it whenever he wished to.
When Damayanti woke up and found herself alone, she was disturbed. As she started walking, she came across a demon who tried to attack her. When Damayanti bravely resisted the demon, the demon showed his true self as a god, who was testing her. The god blessed her and told her that she would unite with her husband after twelve years. Damayanti did not go to her father’s place but took up the job of the queen’s maid at a nearby kingdom. Nala too found a job as a charioteer to King Rituparna of Ayodhya.
Many years passed and Damayanti’s father found Damayanti and brought her home. He decided to hold a swayamvar for his daughter once again. The king that Nala was serving decided to attend the swayamvar and brought Nala along with him. At the swayamvar, Nala wore the ornament given to him by the snake and assumed his original looks and was thus garlanded by Damayanti. Later Nala challenged his brother to another game of dice luring him with the promise that he was willing to stake Damayanti if he accepted the challenge. Nala had by now become adept at the game of dice, which he had mastered by playing with King Rituparna. In the game of dice, he managed to defeat his brother and gain everything back.
The above is probably the most unromantic version of a supposedly romantic tale from the Mahabharat and the reader needs to pardon me for that! Also, it is a brief version with lot of juicy details left out. What is important about this tale is the timing of this tale being told and to who and why.
We will look into that in the second part of this article. Keep reading......
The above pictures are of the "Nala Damayanti" series of paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, Wikipedia.