The story of Nala and Damayanthi
Once, a rishi called Brihadaswa visits them. Brihadaswa is an expert in the game of dice. He says, “Do not worry, Yudhishthira. The same happened to Nala”. And immediately, the curiosity of the Pandavas and Draupadi is aroused. They ask him to narrate the story of Nala. And so Rishi Brihadastha begins his narration of the story of Nala and Damayanthi.
Damayanthi is an very beautiful princess. She is the daughter of Bhima, the king of Vidarbha (not to be confused with Bhimasena, the Pandava). She is exceptionally beautiful. Swans that live in the lake near her place of dwelling bring her information about the most handsome man on earth, Nala, a Naishada, the king of Nishada. They also take the information of the beauty of Damayanthi to Nala. And hence, without their seeing each other, love develops in their hearts for each other. In fact, this is exactly what happens with Arjuna and Subhadra as well. The same also happens with Krishna and Rukmini. So, Nala and Damayanthi have fallen in love with each other. When the swayamvara of Damayanthi is announced, all the kings of all the lands come there. The news of the swayamvara reaches even the celestials. Indra, Varuna, Agni and Yama — all of them aspire for the hand of Damayanthi. On their way, they encounter Nala, and they make Nala their messenger to Damayanthi — to ask her to choose one among the celestials as her husband. Nala is given celestial powers and hence he enters unseen by the guards, and only Damayanthi can see him. Nala explains that he has come as a messenger for the celestials. He says to her, “Please choose one among the celestials.” Damayanthi clearly says, “No, In my heart, I have already chosen you as my husband. At my swayamvara, it is you I will garland. This is my decision. You have done your job as a messenger. ”
Nala leaves the place and informs the celestials of this. So, all the celestials assume the form of Nala, and when Damayanthi has to garland Nala, she is flummoxed. She cannot choose. She cannot distinguish Nala from among the persons present. And hence, she mentally prays to the devas, “If have been sincere and true in my love for Nala, please reveal yourselves. “The devas are constrained by her prayer and they reveal their celestial forms- there is no dust on their bodies, their garments are of celestial make, the flowers on their bodies do not fade, and their feet do not touch the ground. With such indications, Damayanthi identifies Nala, who is a human mortal. He has dust and sweat on his body, his flowers fade and his feet are on the ground. So she garlands Nala, and that’s how Nala marries Damayanthi. They live very happily. A son and a daughter are born to them.
Now, before the swayamvara, the demon Kali had desired Damayanthi. The demons Kali and Dwapara are the embodied forms of Kali yuga and Dwapara yuga. On hearing that Damayanthi is already taken by Nala, Kali is furious. In his anger, he waits for an opportunity to take revenge on Nala. The opportunity comes after twelve years of their marriage-when Nala offers ablutions, he fails to clean the heels of his feet properly. And Kali enters into Nala through his heels. From that time on, Nala begins to face so many obstacles, that a once very happy family starts to disintegrate. Dwapara enters the dice of Pushkara, who challenges Nala to a game of dice. Since Kali has entered Nala, and Dwapara has entered the dice of Pushkara, and because of various factors, Nala loses his entire kingdom. And hence, he and Damayanthi have to leave to the forest, and Pushkara assumes the throne.
In the forest, his clothes are snatched away by some flying birds and he has to share the dress of Damayanthi. Nala, who is a great king, a favourite among the devas and who is extremely Dharmic, is put to such misery. He feels that it is not right that because of him, his wife Damayanthi should suffer. And hence while Damayanthi is asleep, he leaves her. Damayanthi is heart-broken. She cries, “O Nala, why have you left me?” But there is no response. Nala has gone far away. Damayanthi wanders like a mad woman. She asks the birds, the animals, the mountains, the rivers-“Have you seen Nala? Have you seen Nala?”. She cries in misery but she receives no response. Finally, she meets a group of traders in a caravan who are going to the Raja of Chedi for some business. She joins the crowd. But, to her misfortune, when the crowd is resting, a group of elephants which are maddened on looking at the domestic elephants of the traders, trample over the children, women and the traders, and there is a huge massacre. And everybody curses this woman, this mad woman who joined them and brought them ill luck.
When Damayanthi reaches Chedi, the queen of Chedi adopts her because she sees that even though the outer form is dusty and unkempt, there is something within, that is extremely dignified with this lady. The king of Vidarbha, knowing what happened to Nala and Damayanthi, sends out various messengers all around the world, and one messenger, on reaching Chedi, discovers this woman and identifies her as Damayanthi. When the queen of Chedi comes to know of this, she is very happy, because she happens to be the sister of Damayanthi’s mother. In all royal decoration, Damayanthi is sent back to Vidarbha.
Meanwhile, Nala is extremely dejected and forlorn. He happens to hear someone calling, “Nala, Nala!”, and turns to see blazing flames of fire all around. That happens to be Karkotaka, the snake. Karkotaka is stuck in the fire because of the curse of Narada. Narada Muni further reveals, that Nala would liberate him. Nala liberates Karkotaka, and in return, Karkotaka stings Nala and the venom enters his body. Nala is taken aback. He says, “For all that I did for you, this is how you repay me?” Nala is about to curse Karkotaka, when the snake says, “No!Please listen. Whoever has entered your body and has caused you such harm, my venom will make him so miserable, that he will suffer the entire time that he stays in your body. ” Because of the snake’s venom, Nala’s form loses its lustre and he appears wrinkled and shrunk, without the dignified bearing that he originally had. Karkotaka says, “In this form, you will not be identified as Nala. Please take this divine cloth that I give you. Upon wearing this, you will be able to regain your former splendorous form. ” Nala wanders and reaches the kingdom of Ayodhya, where king Rituparna rules. So there, Nala is appointed as the charioteer, because he is extremely good at horse riding.
After Damayanthi reaches Vidarbha, she has messengers sent all over the world with specific shlokas. The brahmana who reaches the court of Rituparna finds a man, a charioteer, responding to the shlokas that he narrates. He carries this information back to Damayanthi. Hence Damayanthi forms a plan. Without informing Bhima, her father, she takes her mother into confidence, and sends the brahmana (the brahmana who discovered her at the queen of Chedi’s) with a specific message of her swayamvara — her second swayamvara — to King Rituparna. Now, there a hundred yojanas between his kingdom and her fathers’. Damayanthi has made her plan in such a way that only Nala, who has the ability to drive the chariot that fast, would be able to reach Vidarbha on time for the swayamvara. So the brahmana reaches Rituparna’s court and announces, “The second swayamvara of Damayanthi will take place at the kingdom of Vidarbha. Please come there. It is going to take place tomorrow. ” Rituparna seeks the help of his charioteer, Nala, who agrees to take him. Nala is actually heart-broken on knowing that Damayanthi has sought a second swayamvara. But he makes up his mind, and they go to Vidarbha the following morning. Nala drives the chariot so fast, through land and water and air, that Rituparna is amazed and wants to learn charioting from Nala. On the way, Rituparna says that there are certain number of leaves on the tree. Nala does not believe him. He stops to count the exact number of leaves and branches on the trees and finds, that Rituparna is on the mark! Hence, in exchange for the science of horses, Nala wants to learn the science of dice from him.
The science of dice was to do with mathematics in those times. It was based on predictive capabilities and probabilistic mechanics. So Rituparna teaches Nala the game of dice. Both of them reach the court of Bhima. Bhima is surprised. For no reason, why would a king of Ayodhya come to his court? But he is welcomed appropriately. Rituparna is shocked to see that no arrangements have been done for the swayamvara, and hence he knows that something is amiss. So he pretends like he has not come there for any swayamvara. They are all accommodated. On seeing Rituparna having been safely accommodated, and the charioteer being led to the stables to tether the horses, Damayanthi sends her maid to find out about the charioteer. She asks her to find out what happens when he tries to cook. Nala simply shows a piece of grass to the sun and it catches fire. He has the support of all the celestials, and hence all the elements work as per his will, and his wish. The water starts boiling on its own. Everything happens almost miraculously. She represents all this to Damayanthi. Damayanthi then sends her children, and the reaction of the charioteer is one of a father reacting to his children. Damayanthi is now convinced that this is Nala. But when she sees him, his form is completely different from the form she knows as Nala’s. When she reveals her intentions to the charioteer, he once again assumes his original form using the cloak that was given by Karkotaka-and there, lo and behold, is Nala! Damayanthi immediately hugs Nala and they are happily reunited.
Nala goes back to Pushkara, challenging him again to a game of dice. And there, Kali finally leaves Nala. On seeing him, Damayanthi and Nala are about to curse Kali, but he begs their pardon and he is let off. Nala, now equipped with the knowledge of the science of dice, wins the game, gets back their kingdom and they live happily ever after. Rishi Brihadastha, after narrating this story, teaches Yudhishthira the science behind the game of dice, so that Yudhishthira would never lose a game of dice henceforth.