Story of Nala & Damayanti : Part 1

Nala was the ruler of Nishada. He was a very capable king and his country prospered under his rule. However, despite being one of the most handsome men of his time, he was still unmarried. One day a brahmin came to his court. On learning of his bachelor status he suggested the name of Damayanti, the daughter of the King of Vidarbh. He painted such an impressive picture of the princess that Nala fell in love with her without seeing her.

At that it was uncustomary for a man to present his suit. He had to wait for the woman, or her father, to make the first move. Nala pined for Damayanti and began to neglect his state duties. He spent long hours in the garden of his palace dreaming about her. A group of swans lived in the lakes in the garden. They daily observed the despondent king wasting his time. One day the leader of the swans approached the king and asked him what the matter was. The king informed the swan that he was in love with Damayanti but was unable to press his suit. He did not even know if Damayanti was in love with someone else. Custom prevented him from going to Vidarbh himself and this was too delicate a mission to entrust to someone else.

"If you think fit I can deliver your message," said the swan. Nala lighted up. At last there was an end to his immediate problems. And there could be no more romantic way to woo a maiden. That night the swan left for Vidarbh. Every morning and evening Nala would go to his garden to see if the swan had returned and would be disappointed. After a week he found the swan waiting for him. The news was good. Damayanti too had heard of him and had fallen in love with him. Now that she knew he reciprocated her love she would arrange for her swayamvara. A swayamvara was a ceremony in which the maiden chose her husband from a gathering of suitors present. She asked Nala to immediately come to Vidarbh as soon as her swayamvara was announced.

Getting a swayamvara arranged was not as easy as Damayanti thought. It would be highly improper of her to approach her parents directly. She began to drop hints by eating less and losing weight, by pretending to forget things, by looking lost and gloomy and other such things. At last her mother noticed that Damayanti was not her former self and told the king about it. The king immediately ordered the royal physicians to find out what sickness was troubling her daughter. It was only after the physicians drew a blank that the king realised that his daughter was now a grown-up maiden and it was time for her to get married.

The swayamvara was announced. Nala left immediately. Since he was an excellent equestrian he made good progress. The news of the swayamvara had reached the heavens as well. Four of the demi-Gods, Indra, Agni, Varun, and Yama, had also descended to the earth for the swayamvara. They accosted Nala as he was nearing Vidarbh. Indra told Nala that he would have to do them a favour. Nala protested that he needed to know what was being asked of him before he could commit. Indra got angry. "Humans consider it an honour when we ask them to do something. But you are creating a fuss. Don't you know our power? We can make you disappear and not reach the swayamvara at all," he thundered. Nala meekly acquiesced. Indra then told him to approach Damayanti and plead with her to choose from the four demi-Gods. Nala was aghast. "How can I act against my own interest," he pleaded. The threat of dire consequences was repeated. Nala tried a different route. "We are allowed in the palace only on the day of the swayamvara and that too only where the swayamvara is to be held," he said, "How will I access Damayanti?" Indra reminded Nala that he was the king of the demi-Gods and would arrange the meeting.

A day before the swayamvara Indra transported Nala to Damayanti's chamber using his divine powers. The two recognised each other instantaneously. After a long embrace Nala stated the purpose of his visit. Damayanti told him not to worry. He had kept the promise made to the demi-Gods and nothing could dissuade Damayanti from garlanding Nala in the swayamvara ceremony. Nala faithfully repeated the conversation to Indra. "You have kept your word only in letter and not in spirit," Indra stated, "Now I will do what has to be done."

A galaxy of princes was gathered at the swayamvara. Nala sat in one corner so as to avoid the demi-Gods, but they sought him out and sat next to him. At the appointed time Damayanti entered the hall. To her amazement she saw five people exactly like Nala sitting in a corner. She realised that the demi-Gods were trying to trick her but was confident that her love would prevail. After watching the five for a few minutes she realised that four stared at her with unblinking eyes while the fifth was blinking regularly. She garlanded the fifth person. The four demi-Gods assumed their true form and blessed the bride and groom and went back to heaven.

On the way the met Dwapar and Kali, two other demi-Gods. These presided over two of the four Yugas that make up one cycle of time between Creation and Destruction. Indra told them that the swayamvara was over and in any event it was a mere formality because Damayanti has already made up her mind. Dwapar and Kali felt that they had been cheated and swore that they would make life hell for Nala and Damayanti.