Nala and Damayanti’s love messages to each other were carried by a swan. During her swayamvara, the gods themselves came to try and win her hand. But Damayanti chose Nala for her husband. The gods blessed them for being true to each other. Twin children were born to them. They were blissfully happy. Nothing and nobody, it seemed, could ever destroy their happiness.
Though the gods went away wishing the couple a happy life, a demigod named Kali was upset that Damayanti had chosen a human in preference to a god.
Kali was the most malicious and vengeful of the demigods. “For insulting the gods by her choice, Damayanti should be punished,” Kali said, angrily. He turned to his companion, Dwapara. “I will teach Nala a lesson. I will bring about his ruin. He is fond of the game of dice. Through this game, I will make him lose his wealth, his kingdom and Damayanti. Dwapara, be a part of my plan. I will enter and take control of Nala’s mind. You enter and influence the dice.”
“You can count on me,” Dwapara replied.
The two demigods went to the neighbouring king, Pushkara, a cousin of Nala, who had always been envious of him. They said to him, “Invite Nala to play dice. We’ll help you win and all Nala’s possessions will be yours.” Pushkara was only too glad to agree.
Pushkara challenged Nala to play. Nala refused Pushkara’s invitations time and again. Damayanti was glad. Then, Kali took possession of Nala’s mind. Damayanti was surprised to hear that the next time Pushkara sent his invitation, Nala had accepted. Pushkara eagerly fixed the day of the game. The two began to play.
Dwapara had stealthily entered the dice. At every single throw, the dice fell against Nala. He staked his gold, his wealth, his kingdom. He lost them all. Damayanti, his courtiers and his people begged him to stop. But Nala did not listen. His mind was inflamed by Kali, and he played on and on like a mad-man.
Damayanti realised something was terribly wrong. She sent the twins to her father’s kingdom with their trusted charioteer, Varshneya.
When Nala had lost the last of his possessions, Pushkara said with a great laugh, “Only Damayanti is left. Will you stake her now?” Nala was shaken out of his madness. Pushkara, his own cousin, was speaking these words. They broke his heart. Without a word, he removed all his jewels and rich robes and laid them down. And dressed in a single cloth, he walked away from his kingdom and his old life without a backward glance. Damayanti too changed into the simplest of clothes, and quietly followed Nala.
Pushkara announced, “Anyone who helps this beggared king will be put to death.” The people wept as they watched the two figures leave. They could do nothing for their beloved king and queen.
Nala and Damayanti spent three days at the margin of a nearby forest. They lived only on water from a stream. Then, tormented by hunger, Nala went in search of food. He saw some birds in a clearing. “I may be able to catch at least one,” he thought. He removed his cloth and threw it over the birds. In a whirr of wings, the birds rose up, carrying away the cloth with them. “Ha, ha! Do you know who we are? We are the dice who fell against you every time. Taking the form of birds, we came to take away the very last thing you own.”
Nala stood there in naked humiliation. “My queen, I have fallen into the lowest condition to which a man can sink,” he said. Damayanti quickly tore away and wrapped half of her own cloth around him. “Do you see these roads branching away from here? They lead to your father’s kingdom, Damayanti; they go straight to your father’s kingdom.”
“Are you trying to send me away, making me leave you all alone in the dark forest? Instead, let us both go to Vidarbha together. My kingdom is also yours.”
“No, Damayanti. I cannot let your family see me in this state.”
“Then I am staying with you. We will face whatever lies ahead together.”
They spent the night in a traveller’s shelter. To ensure Nala stayed with her, Damayanti tied the end of her cloth to his and then went to sleep. Nala lay awake. His mind whirled, thinking of the future. Then he made up his mind. “I cannot bear to see Damayanti sharing in my suffering.” There was an old sword lying nearby. He took it and carefully cut the knot that joined their cloths. “Once I am gone, she will go back to her parents where she will be safe,” he thought. He hurried out of the hut. Then he went back to take one last look at Damayanti. Every time he walked away, again and again, love brought him back. He whispered a prayer. “May the gods protect you. Your goodness and purity are the best shields that will guard you against all dangers. Goodbye, my beloved.” Wretched and weeping, Nala finally fled into the trees.
A little later, Damayanti woke up. “Where is my husband?” she cried out and ran outside. “Nala, you cannot have deserted me, who so faithfully followed you into the forest. You are playing with me, aren’t you? I can see a shadow behind that bush. It is you, is it not? No, he is not here.” Frightened and crying, she searched the wild overgrown paths for Nala. They led her deeper and deeper into the forest.
Suddenly, a huge python reared its head and caught her in its coils. She called out for help. A hunter passing by, came up, quickly killed the snake and released Damayanti. “Who are you?” he asked her. Damayanti told him her story. He looked long at her. Then talking softly and winningly, he came towards her. “Do not come one step closer,” she warned him. “I am the devoted wife of a good man. That is my protection. If you touch me, you are tempting fate.” But the hunter was full of desire for Damayanti and came nearer. The next moment, he dropped to the ground, as if hit by a stroke of lightning.
Damayanti ran away from there. Hot tears ran down her face. “May those who brought my husband and me to this state, be thrown into an abyss of torment,” she said. At once, the condemning words that fell from her sped towards Kali who had caused all their misery.
Damayanti wandered in the forest, searching for Nala. Her mind affected by sorrow, she began to speak to the mountains and trees. “Where is Nala?” she asked them. “O Mountain Mother, with your peaks rising into the sky, can you see my Nala? I am like your daughter. Comfort me. Tell me, where can I find my Nala? When can I hear his voice again − that voice which is sweet as nectar? He would tell me, O trees: ‘There is no one dearer to me than you.’ Then, why did he leave me? Nala, won’t you come and answer my call?”
Soon, she saw ahead a meditation grove of rishis. They welcomed her, blessed her, assured her that she would soon regain Nala and her earlier life. Then the grove and the rishis vanished before her eyes. “Was that a dream? Am I seeing things?” Damayanti murmured, and with stumbling steps, began her search again.
Fortunately, she met a group of travelling priests. They had not seen Nala, but they asked her to join them. In their company, she reached the bright capital city of the Chedi king, Suvahu. The street boys surrounded her at once, pointing, staring and laughing. They followed her till she stopped to rest near a fine building. It was one of the palaces of the royal family. From the terrace, the queen mother of Chedi saw Damayanti. “Who is that woman? She is badly dressed and covered in dust. But I see a nobility in her. How calm she is, though surrounded by teasing boys. Bring her to me,” she told her maid.
Damayanti was brought to the terrace. She narrated her story, but hid her true identity. The queen mother and her daughter offered her the place of Sairindhri or personal friend and maid. Damayanti gratefully accepted.
Meanwhile, after Nala had left Damayanti, he saw a great blaze of fire. Someone was caught in it and was shouting for help. “I am coming. Don’t be afraid,” Nala called out. He had been given a boon by the fire-god, Agni, that he would not be harmed by fire. So, Nala passed easily through the flames. He saw a huge snake in their midst. “I am the Naga, Karkotaka. Because of a curse, I am rooted to one spot, and cannot move to save myself. Carry me out. I will be your friend.” The snake became as small as a thumb. Nala picked him up and took him out of the fire. At Nala’s tenth step, the snake sank its little fangs into Nala’s hand. At once, Nala lost his earlier handsome looks. His skin turned jet black, the ends of his limbs became reddish, and his body stunted. “Don’t be upset, Nala,” the snake said, regaining his large form. “I have done this with a reason. No one will recognise you now. My poison will cause you no pain. But it will burn and torture the evil Kali inside you.” Thus, through Karkotaka, Damayanti’s curse against Kali took effect.
“Take up the post of charioteer with Rituparna, king of Ayodhya. He is an expert at dice. Learn the art from him. In return, give him your knowledge of horses. Here are two cloths. Just put them on and think of me, and you will become the old Nala again.” With these words, Karkotaka vanished.
Nala did as the snake had advised him.
Nala and Damayanti, wandering far apart, had begun a new life. But day and night, they pined for each other.
Retold from the Mahabharata
The story continues in the next part: The Reunion of Nala and Damayanti