Damayanti chose Nala for her husband in preference to the gods. This angered one of the demigods, Kali. He caused Nala to lose his kingdom and all his possessions. Nala and Damayanti went into the forest, but got separated. They took up work under different kings, hiding their true identity. Continuing the saga of Nala and Damayanti:
In return for saving him from a fire, the snake Karkotaka had bitten Nala − but for his own good! The poison gave him no pain, but made his body jet black and stunted. Nobody recognised him, which was what he needed now. Nala took on a new name: Vahuka. He took up the job of a charioteerfor King Rituparna of Ayodhya, who was happy with him because Vahuka seemed to work wonders on his horses and had the finest cooking skills. Nala was glad to see an old, familiar face in the palace stables. His former charioteer, Varshneya, had taken up employment with Rituparna.
Varshneya was puzzled about the new charioteer. Every night, after his prayers, he would say these words: “Where are you now, faithful one? Are you thinking of that wretched man who left you?” and tears would come to his eyes. “If Vahuka did not look so different, I would have thought I was hearing the voice of my old master, Nala, speaking to our dear queen. Where is she, I wonder,” Varshneya thought. Queen Damayanti had entrusted her twins to Varshneya, and this loyal charioteer had driven them to her parents’ palace.
Far away in the kingdom of the Chedi king, Damayanti was living her life as Sairindhri (personal friend and maid) to the queen-mother and her daughter. They were very kind to her. They had sent men in search of their Sairindhri’s lost husband, but none of them had found anyone who fitted the description that Damayanti had given.
One day, a priest came to meet the queen-mother. “I am Sudeva. I come from Vidarbha, the kingdom of King Bhima. We are searching for his daughter, Damayanti. I saw your Sairindhri yesterday. I looked at her carefully. I feel she is Damayanti. But to make sure, I request you to check whether she has this special birth mark…” The queen-mother promised to find out.
She went to Damayanti, who was sitting in a corner. In mourning for the lost Nala, she wore the plainest of clothes and her face and body were always smeared with holy ashes. This helped also to disguise her identity. “My Sairindhri,” the queen-mother said to her. “I want to wash your beautiful face today. Just for fun. I am tired of seeing it covered in ashes.” Damayanti’s face was washed of all the ashes. Between her brows, the queen-mother saw the birth mark of a small mole shaped like an auspicious lotus. She embraced Damayanti. “So you are the princess of Vidarbha. A priest sent by your father has come in search of you. Child, go back to your parents. They are so worried about you.” She arranged for a grand palanquin, and Damayanti returned home, and was reunited with her parents and twins.
Damayanti could not rest till she found Nala. She realised that he may have disguised himself to be unrecognisable. She instructed messengers to search far and wide. They were to sing a ballad with the words:
“Dear gambler, you cut the cloth and left me, making me fall
Into the deepest sadness. Please, won’t you answer my call?”
“See if anyone responds to these words and bring me back the news,” she told them.
The messengers travelled great distances. They sang the ballad on city streets, in kings’s courts and at village banyans. Finally, one day, a messenger brought some news. “I reached the city of Ayodhya and sang the ballad at King Rituparna’s court. Nobody responded. But as I was leaving, a dark, stunted man who is the king’s charioteer, came up to me and said,
“When a man is down and out, and has lost even his last cloth to birds,
A wife should forgive such an unfortunate man — I reply with these words.”
“This has to be Nala,” Damayanti said, in joy. “But I will take my tests further.” She made a secret plan, telling only her mother.
The priest Sudeva arrived one morning at Rituparna’s court and announced: “I have come to tell you that Queen Damayanti, thinking her first husband lost, will choose another husband at a second swayamvara at Vidarbha. I was delayed on my journey, so could not bring the news sooner. The swayamvara is taking place early tomorrow morning.”
Rituparna had always wanted to marry Damayanti. He hurriedly called for his charioteer. “Vahuka, Queen Damayanti’s second swayamvara is being held tomorrow. I must reach there by dawn. Only you can drive me to Vidarbha in one day. Ready the horses.” Nala was stunned. “Has Damayanti lost her love for me that she is marrying again? But for what I have done to her, I probably deserve this.”
He carefully chose the horses. Rituparna was surprised. “Why have you selected such thin, weak-looking horses?” “Don’t worry, my king. They won’t let you down,” Nala replied.
Nala stroked the horses gently and whispered words of encouragement in their ears. He and Rituparna got into the chariot. Varshneya took his place as second charioteer. Nala lightly ran the reins across the horses’ backs. They leapt forward and began to run. Rituparna watched in amazement. The chariot seemed to be flying through the air. The countryside zipped past them in a blur, such was the speed Nala had coaxed from the horses. “The same musical hum, that same melodious roar of wheels as when my old master used to drive the chariot. Could Vahuka be Nala?” Varshneya wondered.
The chariot was zooming at speed when Rituparna cried, “Stop. My shoulder cloth has been blown away.” “I can’t turn back, my king,” Vahuka said, “we have already travelled very far from that spot.” A few minutes later, they passed a Vibhitaka or Bellica tree laden with fruit. The king said, “Stop a minute. Do you see that tree, Vahuka? Let me show you my powers of calculation.” Almost immediately, the king told Vahuka how many leaves and fruit there were on two of the front branches. “You can verify if you wish.” Nala was overcome with curiosity. He got down from the chariot and started counting the leaves and fruit. But it took him some time. The king waited for him to finish. “You are right on the mark, Your Majesty,” Vahuka exclaimed. “Teach me your skill and I will give you my knowledge of horses.”
Rituparna liked the deal. He taught Nala the science of numbers, and alsohow to throw dice. The moment Nala received this knowledge, Kali, who had for so long lived inside and controlled Nala, rushed out, coughing and retching out the poison of Karkotaka. Burn marks of the venom covered his body. Nala looked at him with rage. “Don’t be angry with me, Nala,” Kali said. “I have left you and will not trouble you again. May all who hear your story never experience misfortune − this is my boon to you.” Nala forgave Kali and let him go. Kali had been visible only to Nala, not to Rituparna or Varshneya. “It’s getting late. Let’s get moving,” the king urged Nala.
They took off again. With the speed of wind, they reached the outskirts of Vidarbha. Its citizens looked up at the skies. “We’ve heard that beautiful sound before. When our king’s son-in-law came to visit us, his chariot wheels would sing with these same, sweet vibrations.” King Bhima too looked up at the sky. In his stables, the horses whinnied with pleasure, reminded of their favourite friend. Elephants and peacocks began to call out joyously as they do when they hear the rumble of rain clouds approaching.
Damayanti came running to the terrace as the chariot came to a stop at the palace. Rituparna looked around. No preparations for a swayamvara seemed to be going on. Embarrassed, he pretended he had come on a courtesy visit. Bhima, who did not know about Damayanti’s plan, was also surprised, but received him respectfully. “Stay a few days,” he said.
Damayanti watched the man who had brought in the chariot in a single day. He did not look like Nala at all. She decided to set the last few tests to discover the charioteer’s true identity. “Keshini,” she said to her maid. “King Rituparna wants to give us a taste of his charioteer’s superb cooking. Go and help Vahuka in the kitchen. If he asks you to bring water or fire, take a long time to bring them. Hide and watch all that happens and all that he does. Then come and tell me everything.”
Keshini left and returned some time later. She looked excited. “My queen, it was unbelievable. When I went to help Vahuka, he tried to send me away, but I insisted. To make me feel useful, he asked for water to wash the meat and vegetables, and for a lighted stick to start the fire. I said I would bring them in a second, but hid and watched. I made him wait and wait. Then, losing patience, he just looked at the empty vessels. At once, they became filled with water. He took some vegetable fibres and exposed them to the sun’s rays. One look and they lit up. How could such things have happened?” “Because of the boons the gods gave him,” Damayanti thought. Her heart was beating fast.
“Then do you know what he did?” Keshini continued, eyes wide in wonder. “He wanted to go to the underground cellar to bring some stored dals. The cellar entrance is very low, but as he came near, it just rose and he walked right through without needing to bend. Then, as he waited for the dals to cook, he absent-mindedly stroked some dry-looking flowers lying nearby. They simply came alive and became fresh and lustrous again.”
“Again because of the other boons he received. Nala, Nala, it is you, then,” Damayanti said to herself.
Keshini then went and brought a platter of food. “Here are some of Vahuka’s preparations,” she said. “The same rich aromas, the same delicate flavour of the food you used to make for me with so much love, Nala,” Damayanti said, softly. She then conducted her last test.
In the kitchen, Vahuka was surprised to see Keshini return. There were two children with her. They were the twins, Indrasena and Indrasenaa. How would Vahuka react? The charioteer looked searchingly at them. Then he ran forward and took them in his arms. “Four years have passed since I last saw you…” he cried out, then quickly stopped himself. “I… I meant to say… they remind me of my own children whom I have not seen for four years.” But Vahuka’s eyes, his tears, had completely given him away. Keshini reported the results of the last test.
Damayanti requested a meeting with Nala. They met like birds long separated. Nala thought of the helpful Karkotaka, and putting on the two cloths he had given him, became the old Nala again. The entire kingdom of Vidarbha burst out in celebration that Nala had been found. Rituparna embraced Nala happily, and Nala taught him the knowledge of horses.
With Dwapara gone and Nala now an expert at dice, he won back his kingdom from Pushkara in a single game. Pushkara asked for forgiveness, which Nala readily gave, just as he had forgiven Kali.
They had crossed every obstacle bravely; now the fruits of happiness lay waiting for Nala and Damayanti to enjoy.
Retold from The Mahabharata