Love conquers all, the high and the lows the joys, and the sorrows. While the newer generation begs to differ, examples have been set about the undying love in history books and religious ones as well. Even Gods weren’t immune to the charm of love. Wars were fought, curses have been thrown all in the name of Love. But one such story emerges from the epic Mahabharata where love doesn’t just mean attraction or lust, but perseverance and hope, and that is the story of Nala and Damayanti.
Sage Brihadasva in his attempt to console the Pandavas over their loss in gambling stated the story of King Nala and Queen Damyanti and their sufferings and faith during their trail of adversities, according to the Vana Prava book of Mahabharata.
The story runs parallel with Bhakti raas that means complete belief and undying faith in the divine.
Like all great stories, this comes with their share of love, opposition, deceit, war, and finally sweet reunion in the end. Their story also runs parallel with the Pandavas.
Damayanti is a young princess of the Vidarbha kingdom. Such was her beauty that princes and kings and God aspired to marry her. Due to this, her mother insisted on marrying her daughter to God instead of marrying her to a simple human.
They considered Lord Indra to be the perfect match for Damayanti and so a swan with the invitation was sent to God. However, the goose that had been sent to Indra holding the invitation to the marriage was hit by a storm and lands in the kingdom of a handsome king named Nala.
Nala was the ruler of Nishada. He was a very capable king, and his country prospered under his rule. Nala was a gifted charioteer. He was also very fond of playing dice, but not adept at it. However, despite being one of the most handsome men of his time, he was still unmarried. When the swan arrived inured, Nala takes care of the goose and instead of continuing its journey, the goose decides to choose Nala as the rightful husband of Damayanti.
The swan flew to Damayanti’s palace and finding her alone in the garden, sang praises of Nala
Lord Indra finds out that Nal is in love with Damayanti and demands him not to marry her or else he will have to pay for his actions. However, Indra realizes that he must resort to deceit in order to win Damayanti, and so he decides to take the form of Nal.
Damayanti father’s announces a swayamvara. This was attended by gods and humans alike. Damayanti is presented with two Nala and so she must choose the one she loves. “Anguished, she calls upon Hari who guides her actions and enables her to know which is truly Nal. She calls after Hari and is bestowed with an idea. Among all gods, She chose Nala because of his shadow. The gods have no shadow.
Some legend has it that the Gods took the form of Nala, which meant 5 Nalas could be seen visiting to marry Damyanti. Damyanti being the ever so wise princess could spot out the Gods with their static eyelids and bodies that did not sweat. While King Nala sat rosy-cheeked with tiny beads of perspiration. With confidence, the princess went on to secure the garland on Nala’s neck and was soon married.
The downfall after Marriage
After the Swayamvara was over, King Bhima called together his Brahmans and they joined the youth and maid in marriage. A few days later King Nala took leave of King Bhima and in his chariot bore Damayanti away to the country of the Nishadas. There he gave her as a dwelling a beautiful palace surrounded by woods and pleasure grounds so that in all India there was no happier queen than Damayanti. Nor was there anywhere a king so glad or so fortunate as Nala.
Now it so happened that as Indra and Agni and Varuna and Yama were returning from the Swayamvara they met the god Kali and with him was his companion Dwapara. “Lord Kali,” said Indra, “tell me, I pray you, where you are going with Dwapara as your companion.” “Lord Indra,” said Kali, “the fame of the beauty of Damayanti, princess of Vidarbha, has reached my ears and has filled me with longing for her. And, hearing that she is to choose her husband in a Swayamvara, I am going to Vidarbha to win her.” “Lord Kali,” laughed Indra, “I fear you will be late. The Swayamvara is over. For we were present at it, hoping also to win her as the bride of one of us. But she scorned us and chose King Nala as her husband.” Then Kali grew angry and wished to punish Nala.
I shall enter into him and possess him. And I shall drive him forth from his kingdom, and from the arms of his bride. Thus all men shall know that it is evil to slight the Immortals.”
Kali and Nala
Then Kali turned from Vidarbha and went to the country of the Nishadas. But so pure was Nala’s life and so strict were his observances that Kali, watching day and night, saw no chance to enter into him and possess him. Thus for twelve years Nala and Damayanti lived together without a break in their joy. And Damayanti bore her lord a son whom she called Indrasena and a daughter whom she also called Indrasena. But in the thirteenth year, their happiness perished.
For King Nala, hearing grave news of state, hastened to consult his ministers, and in his haste he forgot, before doing homage to the Immortals, to wash his feet. Thus impure he entered the presence of the pure. Instantly Kali saw that his time had come, and entering the body of King Nala, he possessed him.
Forced by Kali he went to the palace of his brother Pushkara and engaged with him in a game of dice. But such skill in gaming as Nala had become useless now that he was but the creature of Kali. And through his careless play and the fall of the dice, which at Kali’s command fell always in Pushkara’s favor, the king never ceased to lose his stakes to his brother. At last the news of the king’s senseless gaming spread through the city. His subjects, who loved Nala devotedly, came with the king’s ministers to his palace. And they begged Queen Damayanti to ask the king to see them. For they wished to implore him to abandon his dicing. But when Damayanti went to the hall where Nala gambled with his brother, the king, possessed of Kali, would not speak with her.
King Nala has lost his reason, and his gaming brought ruin on himself and all his house. Varshanaya, the charioteer obeyed the queen’s commands and bore away the young prince and princess to their grandfather’s palace. But day after day Nala lost stake after stake to his brother Pushkara. At last Nala, who had lost all the wealth of his treasury, staked first his army and then his kingdom and lost them both. Nala’s brother Pushkara then asked Nala to stake Queen Damayanti, But King Nala would not stake the lovely queen, who for his sake had slighted the Immortals. Rising from his seat he took off his rich robes and flung them at Pushkara’s feet. Then with only a single piece of cloth to cover him he walked out of the city.
Damayanti saw what he did from the palace window. She too cast aside her royal robes and, clad only in a single piece of cloth, she walked out of the palace gates and followed the king. Pushkara, fearing that the subjects would take Nala’s part and restore him to his lost throne, proclaimed that he would put to death anyone, no matter what his rank, who showed any pity to the fallen king. The subjects, terrified at the threat, refused to give Nala food. So he and Damayanti lay outside the city eating only such herbs.
One day, as he gathered them, he saw at his feet a flock of birds. In size, they seemed wild geese but their wings were of pure gold. The king tore the cloth off his loins, hoping to catch them. But directly the cloth fell on their backs they rose into the sky, taking it with them. And as they flew, one of them said mockingly, “My lord the King, we are the dice which robbed you of your wealth and your kingdom. And we could not be happy until we had taken from you the single cloth which you still possessed. Now that you are stripped we are at rest.”
The king went back to Damayanti and said in his grief, “O Queen, it is useless any longer to stay with the one who is the victim of ill-fortune. The dice in the guise of birds have spoiled me of my loincloth, my sole possession. Do you, therefore, go back to Vidarbha and live with King Bhima and leave me to suffer alone.” But the queen smiled bravely at him and said, “it is because you have fallen on evil days that I cannot leave you. For, in times of trouble, there is no such remedy as a wife’s love. So come with me to Vidarbha. And my father will pay you such honor that you will soon cease to grieve over the loss of your kingdom.”. King Nala refused.
There hungry and thirsty they flung themselves down on the ground. And the queen, worn out with fatigue and sorrow, fell into a deep slumber. But King Nala’s mind was so troubled that sleep would not come to him. Thinking his departure would send Damyanti to her father he left his sleeping wife and went to the forest.
The next morning Damayanti awoke refreshed by her sleep. She looked around for Nala but couldn’t find him. Overwhelmed with grief, she forced her way through the bushes, As she moved ahead, she met a demon that threatened to eat her. Impressed with her fearlessness he came into his real form. He was actually a god, who told her that she would unite with her husband after twelve years. Damayanti proceeded to Achalpura kingdom where she became the queen’s maid. Nala went to the kingdom of Samsumara and became a servant of the king. Many years passed. There he worked as a charioteer to King Rituparna.
One day, King Bhima’s men found Damayanti in Achalpura and brought her back to her father. King Bhima tried to find Nala but failed, so he made a plan. He arranged the Swayamvara of Damayanti knowing that when Nala came to know about the second marriage of his wife, he would certainly come to her. King Bhima was right. Nala came with his master, the king of Samsumara. A day before the Swayamvara, Damayanti saw the dark hunch back servant. She immediately recognized him. Nala also put on the ornament given by his father and regained his original looks. But the swayamvara had been arranged to Damayanti asked him to be present there. On the day of swayamvara, she put the garland around Nala’s neck and they were united.
But King Nala longed to return to his kingdom, the country of the Nishadas. For he had learned the whole art of dicing from King Rituparna. And he knew that if he gambled again with Pushkara he would certainly recover all he had lost from him. So he took leave of King Bhima, and with a small escort started again for the country of the Nishadas. On reaching the chief city, he sent word to his brother Pushkara that he had earned vast wealth and wished again to dice with him.
On hearing the message, Pushkara received King Nala and asked him what he would stake on the throw of the dice. “Let your stake” answered King Nala, “be your kingdom and your life. My stake shall be my wealth and my peerless queen, Damayanti. And if you do not care for such high stakes, take your bow and arrows and let us fight each other in the open plain outside the city.” Pushkara, who felt sure that he would win as before, said with a laugh, “You are indeed fortunate, my brother, to have won such wealth. And I will gladly gamble with you. For I have always loved Damayanti and now am sure that she will be mine.” King Nala could hardly control his rage. He answered hotly, “Before boasting, Pushkara, of your love for Damayanti you had better wait for the fall of the dice!”
Then the two brothers began once more to dice. And Nala by means of the knowledge he had learned from King Rituparna soon defeated Pushkara, who thus lost in a few moments not only the kingdom which he had won but his life. And King Nala said to him with a laugh, “Now that you are a slave, Pushkara, do you still hope to win Damayanti’s love?” Then he paused and his heart melted towards his brother. “Pushkara,” he said softly, “it was not you but Kali who worked my ruin. I shall not punish you for another’s fault. You are a free man and I shall give you as before a younger brother’s portion.” And Pushkara’s heart was touched at his brother’s generosity.
The two brothers spent a happy month together at the royal palace. Then King Nala, dismissing Pushkara, bade him go to the lands which were his as a younger brother. And now that Nala was once again on the throne he sent for Damayanti and her father King Bhima. And when they heard the news they were overjoyed and journeyed with a large army to the country of the Nishadas. There King Nala and his subjects gave the queen a right royal welcome. And King Nala, grown wiser through his adversity, ruled over his kingdom with such wisdom that no other kingdom in India was governed like it. And when at the close of a long life King Nala died, he was regarded by all as the chief of the kings in all the lands of the Aryas.