Mahabharata, the great epic of India, holds many stories related to various emotions of a human being. Nala Damayanti is said to be one such story. It is said that Pandavas lost everything in the game of dice and were sent to exile. Arjun decided to go to Indralok to learn the art of using Divya Shastra (Divine Weapon). When he did not return for 5 years Yudhishthir was cursing himself for all the difficulties faced by Pandavas. They were visited by Rishi Brihadashva. He narrated the story of Nala Damayanti to comfort Yudhishthir.
King Nala ruled over Kingdom of Nishada. He was brave, generous and noble king. He was loved by his subjects. King Nala was skilled in use of arms and horses. He was also known for his culinary expertise which made him a great cook. He wrote the first ever book on cookery, ‘Pakardarpanam’. Even after being loved by his subjects King Nala was always sad. His father King Veerasena had gone to forest to spend last years of his life. After his father left, King Nala took refuge only in his cousin Pushkara but he was always jealous of his fame, therefore one day he went to King Nala and said
“I am tired of people here and have decided to leave”. Thereafter he too left and went to live in forest.
Nala was left all alone wandering from place to place. One day while he was sitting in his court room, a Brahmin came and visited him. Nala gave him a warm welcome in his palace. On conversing with the King, the Brahmin learnt that he was unmarried. He told him about Princess Damayanti, daughter of King Bhima of Kundunpur kingdom in Vidarbha region (Central India). Damayanti was said to be so beautiful that even Gods wanted to marry her. Brahmin painted such a beautiful picture of her that Nala fell in love, without even seeing her.
Days passed by, Nala longed to be with beautiful Damayanti but could not find a way to meet her. This made him sadder. One day he was taking a stroll by a lake when he saw a flock of swans in the lake swimming. One of the swans drew Nala’s attention. It had golden plumes. Nala was mesmerized to see such unusual heavenly beauty. He crept slowly and caught the bird. It fluttered its wings and tried to fly away but Nala was successful in holding the bird. He kept looking at the bird with unusual beauty. All of a sudden he heard a feeble voice, “O King, Please don’t be cruel to me. Let me go. Everyone in your kingdom has the freedom of living his own life. Then why can’t I”. Nala was gasped at the sight of talking Swan. He was dumbstruck for few seconds, and then he composed himself and said
“Do not be scared. I will take you to my palace and give you pearls, stay with me forever”.
“I cannot stay with you forever, but I can promise that I will fly to Damayanti and will make her marry you. But you too promise me, after that you will let me go”. Nala was not willing to let go of this beautiful bird but he was a kind man, therefore he promised the bird that he will set it free.
The swan flew to Kundunpur palace garden where Princess Damayanti was surrounded by alluring flowers. Her soft beauty intensified even more as the sunlight touched her beautiful face. She was humming a song lost in her thoughts. The swan flew in front of her. She opened her eyes to see the swan with golden plumes. She reached out to catch it, and softly held it in her arms. Two eternal beauties coming face to face it seemed like entire universe went silent at congregation of such heavenly beauties.
The Swan broke its silence. It looked at Damayanti and said
“O Princess, your beauty is unmatched to anyone in this universe. But you are lucky to have a match whose noble deeds and generosities are true match to your beauty.”
Princess immediately asked, “Who is this noble man?”
The swan replied “King Nala of Kingdom Nishada” and thus the swan praised Nala so highly that she made up her mind to marry him. On hearing this the swan flew to Nala and said
“O King, Princess Damayanti has made up her mind to marry you. I have kept my promise. Now, it’s time for you to keep your promise. Please let me go.”
Nala was not very keen on letting it go but he knew a promise is a promise. So he said, “My friend you have given me a priceless gift, and in return if I can give you your freedom, so be it.” Saying this Nala set the bird free.
Soon Nala was invited for Princess Damayanti Swamvara. Even Gods had come to win over the bride.
All were seated at the Swamvara when Damayanti entered the room. She had made up her mind to marry King Nala, but she had not seen him before. She looked at the men sitting; Only Nala had a shadow confirming that he was the only human being. Damayanti walked straight to Nala and garlanded him. They got married. His subjects were overwhelmed with joy.
Kaal Purush, who is the Lord of Kaal Yug and arch rival of Kalki, the tenth avatar of Lord Vishnu. When heard about Damayanti’s choice from the returning Gods, he was very angry with her and promised himself to ruin her marriage with Nala. On the Other hand Nala and Damayanti were blessed with a son and a daughter. All this while Kaal Purush kept on looking for fault in Nala but in vain. After twelve years Kaal Purush came to know that Nala has weakness in the game of dice. Then one day Pushkara, Nala’s cousin came back from forest. He was no longer interested in forest life. Nala welcomed him whole heartedly. By then Nala was already under influence of Kaal Purush. On the other hand Pushkara would always invite Nala in the game of dice and Nala too would readily come and gamble but he would always loose. One day Pushkara said
“Brother, we have played so many games let us play one last play of dice. But let this be real fight”.
“What do you mean by real fight?”
“Real fight means one who wins will get the throne and loser will go to live in forest for three years.”
Nala was surprised to hear this. He asked,
“Why do you have such conditions? Does that mean you are after my throne?”
“Not at all dear brother. Even if I win and get the throne do you really think people of this kingdom will accept me as their king. The throne and crown as always be yours.”
Nala had a weakness in the game of dice. He was also under influence of evil demon Kaal Purush. Hence he accepted Pushkara proposal. Nala staked his throne and crown and played the game of dice. But unfortunately he lost everything to Pushkara.
When the game was over, Pushkara could not hold his happiness. He screamed out of joy.
“Nala, you are no more a king now. Give me your crown and leave the palace immediately.” Nala thought that Pushkara was teasing him.
“Brother, calm down, this is just a game. You said that even if I lose I will remain as King as people will not accept you as their King.”
“That I said to convince you. But fact is I could not take it that people have always liked you. I too have the capabilities of a King. I want to show it to the people that I am no less than you. You get the throne; people love you and also a beautiful princess whom even Gods want to marry. Is it only you who will have all the luck. No, that cannot happen, since I am the King now it’s my order that you leave the palace immediately.”
Nala was devastated to hear this, but he was left with no option. His limbs went numb out of shock. He felt he was paralyzed. Pushkara immediately ordered the guards to throw Nala out of palace. Guards picked him up and took him to his cabin. Damayanti was shocked to see him in this state. She took hold of Nala and asked in a shaky voice.
“O King, what happened to you? Is it your health that is bothering you? Shall I call for the Vaidya Raaj (Doctor)? Answer me King; I cannot stand your silence.”
“Do not address me as your King anymore dear and you too are no more a queen.”
“I don’t understand. What do you mean?”
“Pushkara tricked me in a game of dice and took away my kingdom.”
Damayanti’s tears screamed loud enough to tell how devastated she felt, words failed her. She sent her children to her parents and left for forest life with Nala. Although Nala tried to persuade her that she should go to her parents but she refused. She was determined to be with her husband during tough times.
They wandered in the forest without food and water. One night when Damayanti was sleeping, Nala, who was still under influence of Kaal Purush, got up and left Damayanti all alone in the forest. He walked for a long time suddenly he heard someone scream. He ran towards that direction. It was the serpent God who was on fire. Nala jumped into fire and saved him.
Serpent God turned towards Nala with grateful eyes. He had not seen this stranger before. He asked Nala
“O Noble man. I have never seen you here before. Who are you? You seem to be from a good family, how come you are here in such dense forest?
Serpent God’s question reminded Nala of all the pain that he went through, with teary eye he said.
“I am King Nala, King of Nishada kingdom. My cousin tricked me in a game of dice and took away my kingdom. He knew that I am weak in the game but still he took advantage of my trust. I feel that I made a mistake by trusting him. I lost my kingdom and separated from my wife and children. I do not wish to live anymore but I am a King I have to live for my subjects. I have to win back my kingdom”
“I can understand your pain King, but do not mourn. An evil man no matter how much he tries to hide his evilness, one day his true face will show in front of everyone. I know you are hurt, but it should serve you as a lesson that your cousin is not someone who can be trusted. I will say that you are fortunate that you came to know of his real intentions. Since you have saved my life I will help you to reach your goals. I will turn you into dwarf named Bahuk. Go to King Rituparna of Ayodhya. He is master in the game of dice. Serve him well so that he’d be impressed by you and teach you the tricks of game of dice.
The serpent God turned Nala into an ugly dwarf. Also he gave him a magic cloth which will turn him into his old self when he wanted.
On the other hand when Damayanti woke up she found Nala was not there. She searched for him everywhere but could not find him. She continued with her journey when she was attacked by a snake, a hunter saved her. Seeing her beauty the hunter tried to approach her in a wrong way. Damayanti cursed him that if he took another step, he would be in flames. The hunter did not pay heed to it. The moment he took step further, he was burnt to ashes. She went further, barefooted searching for Nala, tired and so distressed that some by passers thought she was mad and threw stones at her. She quietly tolerated all the humiliation only to get some news of her Nala. Damayanti reached Kingdom Viprapur. Queen of Viprapur kept her as maid not knowing who she really was. One day a minister of Kundunpur (Damayanti’s father kingdom) came to Viprapur and recognized Damayanti. Without any delay they took her to her father’s place. She was happy to be united with her children but she missed Nala, wondered where he would be. She was determined to find Nala. On her request, her father, King Bhima, sent his ministers in Nala’s search. Damayanti had asked her minister to spread the news that she is arranging for her second Swamvara. Minister set out in search of Nala. Soon they came to Ayodhya. Minister invited King Rituparna of Ayodhya for Swamvara. Bahuk who was actually Nala was surprised to hear this. He turned towards King to find him in deep thought. He asked
“King, why does the invitation of Swamvara make you unhappy and worried?”
King said “Bahuk, Swamvara is tomorrow. It is impossible to cover the long distance between Kundunpur and Ayodhya.”
“Do not worry my King. I promise you to take you as fast as wind. We will cover the long distance in one day.”
True to his words when king Rituparna started his journey, the chariot seemed to be flying. Bahuk, who was Nala, was a great charioteer. King Rituparna could not hold his excitement at the speed. He said
“Bahuk, teach me the art of driving horses so fast and I will show you my tricks in the game of dice.”
Nala was waiting for this moment. He agreed to it. While the journey progressed Kaal Purush had left Nala body fearing Damayanti’s curse and asked for forgiveness from Nala. He forgave him.
King Rituparna reached Kundunpur. He received a warm welcome. Bahuk went ahead to take a round. From terrace he saw his children playing in the garden. He ran to hug them. Damayanti who was watching this from behind immediately came running to Bahuk. She recognized him “I know you are my Nala. No one can drive a chariot like that and only a father can give such affectionate hug to my children. Nala, who was still Bahuk, could not hold tears. He asked
“I heard you are getting married again. Is that true?”
“No, my king. It was trick to find you. Please my King comes to your old self. I wish to see you.”
Bahuk immediately put on his magic clothes and turned Nala – The real him. Damayanti was overwhelmed to see him again.
When King Rituparna heard this, he was feeling guilty for treating Nala as his charioteer. Nala assured him and left with Damayanti and children to his kingdom. On seeing him and Damayanti people went crazy with joy.
This time Nala invited Pushkara for a game of dice. He staked everything including his wife. One who wins will get whatever Nala owns and one who loses will remain as a slave for rest of his life. Pushkara agreed to it with greed of a beautiful wife. But Nala won the game. Pushkara was about to become slave, but Nala forgave him and gave him the kingdom. After four years of hardship, when Nala never deviated from the path of righteousness, he had overcome the influence of Kaal Purush and regained his kingdom by defeating Pushkara in a rematch.
Kaal Purush was impressed by Nala and offered him a boon. Nala sought the boon that whoever heard the story should not be affected by evil effects of Kaal Purush. King Nala and Queen Damayanti were thus united and they lived happily ever after.