Damayanti’s swan led her far away into a quiet corner. Then it spoke to her. “Damayanti, listen to me. I have come to tell you about Nala’s love for you.”

The strong and handsome Nala ruled over the kingdom of Nishada. Known as the ever-just and always-truthful king, he looked after his people like a father. The people loved him in return. He was an expert bowman, his arrows always finding their mark. He had a deep knowledge of horses that nobody could match.

King Bhima reigned in the kingdom of Vidarbha. He had a daughter named Damayanti. As Damayanti grew up into a lovely woman, stories of her beauty and intelligence spread everywhere. Nala too came to hear about her. At the same time, Nala’s fame reached the ears of Damayanti. Each began to feel an attachment for the other, although they had never seen or met each other. Their attachment soon turned into love.

One day, Nala was wandering alone in the royal gardens, lost in thoughts of Damayanti. A flock of golden-winged swans landed on the grass. Nala ran forward and caught one of them. The swan struggled to get away. Nala held it close. “Nala, let me go,” the swan said. “You speak in a human voice!” Nala said, in surprise. “Yes, I know human language. Please − let me go.” “Release a wonderful bird like you? How can I?” Nala replied. “If you release me, I will do you a favour. I will fly to the kingdom of Vidarbha and tell its princess Damayanti about you. I will so describe you that she will want to be nobody else’s but yours.”

Nala let go of the swan. “I’ve set you free. Now go. Tell Damayanti about my love for her.”

The swan and his companions rose into the air and flew to Vidarbha. They alighted in Damayanti’s garden. Damayanti and her friends saw them. “What beautiful birds! Let’s catch them.” They ran towards the swans. Damayanti’s swan led her far away into a quiet corner. Then it spoke to her. “Damayanti, listen to me. I have come to tell you about Nala’s love for you.” The swan praised Nala in glowing words. “If you agree to become his, your life and beauty would have been worthwhile. You are a gem among women. Nala is the noblest among men. The joining of the best with the best makes for happiness. What is your answer?” Blushing, Damayanti replied, “Dear swan, go and tell Nala that I am his and always have been his.” The swan flew back and gave Damayanti’s message to Nala.

Meanwhile, Bhima was making plans to hold a grand ceremony for Damayanti called the swayamvara, where she could choose her own husband. He invited many kings and heroes. All accepted the invitation. They were keen to see Damayanti and win her heart.

News of the swayamvara reached even the gods in heaven. The devas: Indra, king of the gods, Agni, the god of fire, Varuna, god of the waters, and Yama, god of the underworld, had also heard of Damayanti’s charms. They too decided to attend the swayamvara.

Kings, wearing rich clothes and jewels, came on golden chariots drawn by superb horses, and surrounded by attendants, to impress Damayanti. The four gods too descended to earth. They saw Nala, who was also on his way to the swayamvara. The gods were surprised at this mortal man’s dignified bearing and noble look. He was smiling, filled with longing for Damayanti. This made him look even more attractive. The gods approached him. “You are Nala, are you not? We have heard of you, of your great-heartedness and your love of truth. Will you help us? Will you take a message for us?”

Nala bowed to them. “I will do whatever you ask. Who are you?” “We are the gods Indra, Agni, Varuna and Yama. We have come to seek Damayanti’s hand. Go and tell her we are coming and to choose one of us as her husband.”

Nala’s heart missed a beat. “Great gods, I am myself going to her swayamvara. Do not make me your messenger. How can I who am myself in love with her, speak on behalf of another? So, I beg you − please spare me.”

“No, Nala. Earlier, you promised you would do anything we asked. Will you now go back on your word?” Indra asked.

In a daze, Nala said, “Damayanti’s palace is strongly guarded. How can I enter it?” “We will arrange it so that you can easily enter without being seen,” the gods replied. Nala was filled with despair, but he took control of himself. “I will have to go. I cannot break my promise.”

As the gods had assured him, Nala was able to go without being stopped, straight into the palace and into Damayanti’s rooms. He saw her sitting there. Her friends were dressing her in bridal clothes, perfumed flowers and cosmetics. She looked stunning, her glow rivalling the light of the full moon itself. In agony, Nala dropped his eyes. This jewel of a woman could not be his.

Damayanti and her friends saw him and leapt to their feet. Damayanti felt immediately drawn to this man standing before her. “What magnificent being is this? What a gentleness there is in him,” she thought. “Who are you, who have come here and touched a chord within me? How did you manage to enter?”

“I am Nala. I have come as a messenger of the gods. The four chief gods of heaven want you to choose one of them as your husband. I have come here unseen through their power. I have delivered their message as I promised. Now do as you think best, Damayanti.”

A thrill ran through Damayanti. “So, it is you, Nala. My heart knew it from the first moment I saw you. It is to you that this heart belongs. The description of you that the swan gave me is etched with fire in this heart. I worship the gods, but if I cannot have you, I do not want even life.”

“I am only a mortal, Damayanti, not equal even to the dust of their feet. They will be upset if you do not choose one of them. I am giving you this advice as a friend.”

Damayanti thought for a moment. Then she said, “Nala, you have done your duty to the gods by delivering their message. But the matter of choice lies in my hands. If it is I who place the garland on your neck, then you are not to blame. No wrong can fall on you because of my act. Go and tell the gods that, in their presence, I will choose you.”

Nala’s heart soared with joy. He returned to the place where the four celestials were waiting, and gave them Damayanti’s message. The four devas exchanged glances and a silent communication passed between them.

The hour of the swayamvara arrived. The royal invitees were gathered in the hall. All eyes were on the entrance door. Damayanti entered, holding a garland. Her wooers sat as if frozen, totally mesmerised by her charm. As she passed them, the name of each king was announced to her. Without stopping, she went to where Nala was seated. Then a frown appeared on her brow. There were five men seated before her who looked exactly like Nala. How could this be? In a flash, Damayanti guessed who the men were. They were the four gods who had taken the form of Nala. They had set this puzzle for her. She looked from one to the other, in doubt and confusion. Which of the five was the real Nala? She had heard that the gods look gloriously different in many ways from humans. But these five men all looked alike. What was she to do?

Then Damayanti began to pray. “O gods, I have chosen Nala for my husband with faith and sincerity. For the sake of this faith, please reveal him to me. I have been true to Nala in words and actions. For the sake of this truth, show my Nala to me. It is you, gods, who planted this love within me. Help me, so that I may see Nala among you.”

The four gods realised the power of Damayanti’s love, a power which was far stronger than their own. They were touched by her firm will and her pure heart.

Damayanti saw the change happening. The hall was crowded and hot. She and everyone else had begun to sweat. But four of the Nala look-alikes had not a drop of perspiration on their foreheads. Their eyes did not blink at all. And their feet, as if not meant for this earth, were not resting on the ground, but hovering over it. The flowers in their garlands were as fresh as if they had just been plucked. Hot sunlight was streaming in, causing shadows to fall sideways. But the four men cast no shadows.

The gods had distinguished themselves to Damayanti. Nala sat beside them, light sweat covering his face, his garland wilting in the heat, his eyes blinking naturally. His feet were on the ground, and Damayanti looked at the precious shadow he cast with joy and thankfulness. She put the garland around Nala’s neck.

A shout of disappointment went around the hall, which soon turned to appreciation. The gods took on their true forms and blessed the young couple. Nala said, “Damayanti, you have chosen me in preference to the gods themselves. I will be the most devoted partner to you. Till I die, I will remain yours and yours alone.”

The gods were pleased. Indra gave Nala a boon: “I will come personally to attend any ceremony that you perform, and Nala, you will gain heaven.” Agni and Varuna said, “We will come to help you whenever you need us. Fire and water will never harm you. With a single look, you will be able to command them to appear.” Yama said, “I grant you the finest taste in food. And the garlands you wear and the flowers you touch will never fade.” For unflinchingly agreeing to carry the gods’ message despite his own love, Nala received one more boon: every doorway would give him passage — however low it was, he would not need to bend; it would rise to let him pass.

Then the gods and the kings returned to their homes. King Bhima requested the priests to unite Nala and Damayanti. The marriage was performed in grand style. Nala took Damayanti to his kingdom. Soon, Damayanti gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, whom they named Indrasena and Indrasenaa. Their happiness was complete. Nothing and nobody, it seemed, could ever destroy this happiness.

Retold from the Mahabharata

The story continues in the next part: The Separation of Nala and Damayanti

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