Kathāmṛta - 66 - Alaṅkāravatī-lambaka - The Story of Nala

This article is part 66 of 74 in the series Kathāmṛta

Carrying with him the message of the deities, Nala entered the inner apartments of Damayantī and repeated the command of the deities. She heard those words and said, “Let the deities be how they are! Even so, Nala is my husband. I have no need for these deities!” Following this Nala introduced himself and then returned to Indra and the others; he narrated to them everything that had transpired. They said, “O noble one! You are an honest man and so we are at your beck and call. Just think of us and we shall be present at your service.” Nala then went on to Vidarbha. The deities, intent on deceit, went to the svayaṃvara assuming Nala's form and sat next to Nala. Once the svayaṃvara began, Damayantī's elder brother started introducing the kings to her, one by one. She ignored them all and went directly to where Nala was seated. When he arrived there, she perceived six Nalas and she was perplexed. She thought to herself: “This is an illusion created by the lokapalas. The sixth one is Nala. I need go no further!” Staring at Sūrya, having only Nala in her mind, she said, ‘Oh the lords of the directions! If I’ve none but Nala in my heart, if I have never, even in my dreams, thought of any other man, if this is indeed true, show your true forms! Except the one who is in her heart, for a woman all other men are just strangers; for them too she is a stranger’s wife, someone worthy of respect! So why covet someone like that?’ Hearing that all the five deities revealed their original forms. Damayantī happily chose Nala by garlanding him. There was a shower of flowers from the heavens. Bhīma happily gave her hand in marriage to Nala. Indra and other deities were on their way back when they encountered Kali and Dvāpara, the personification of the two ages. Guessing that they were going for Damayantī, they informed them, ‘Don’t go to Vidarbha now; we are coming from there; the svayaṃvara is over; Damayantī has chosen Nala’ Both Kali and Dvāpara were enraged, ‘Leaving deities like you how did she choose a mere mortal like Nala? We will separate them!’, they both vowed. Nala stayed in his in-laws’ place for a week and returned to the kingdom of Niṣadha. Their love surpassed even the love of the primordial couple Gaurī and Śaṅkara. While for Śaṅkara, Gaurī occupied only half his body; in case of Nala wholly he was Damayantī; after sometime they had two children, a son named Indrasena and a daughter named Indrasenā.

Meanwhile Kali was waiting to find some flaw. But Nala never violated any dictum prescribed in the śāstras; so he had to wait for a long time; once in an intoxicated state, Nala didn’t wash his hands and feet, nor did he perform sandhyāvandana, and slept. Kali, who was waiting day and night for such an opportunity, immediately entered his body. From that very instant, Nala started following his own whims straying away from the path of dharma - he gambled, sported with the servant women, uttered lies, slept throughout the mornings, was wakeful in the nights, got angry without reason, extracted money unjustly, humiliated good people and showered praises on the bad ones. Dvāpara meanwhile entered the body of his brother Puṣkara who also had gone astray like Nala. Once Nala saw a white ram in his brother’s house and wanted to possess it; Puṣkara didn’t oblige; he said, ‘If you want it so badly, win it from me by gambling!’ Nala agreed. The brothers started the game of dice; Puṣkara’s stake was the ram itself; Nala placed his elephants; Puṣkara won and his winning run was unprecedented; in two days Nala lost everything in his royal treasury; Being possessed by Kali, he turned deaf to good counsel. Damayantī thought that he had lost everything and so she sent the children to her father’s place. By then Nala had lost the whole kingdom too. Puṣkara goaded him even further, ‘I’ve won everything that was yours; now pledge your wife against this ram!’ Nala was enraged. But seeing the time to be unfavourable he didn’t speak anything; he didn’t place Damayantī as the stake; Puṣkara said, ‘If you aren’t willing to place her, get out of my kingdom along with her!’ Nala did likewise; the attendants saw to it that he reached the borders of the kingdom. If Kali can bring down such a great king Nala then what would be the fate of others! Gambling is the life’s occupation for Kali and Dvāpara. Downfall of even the greatest rājarṣis can be plotted through this vice. It causes all friendships and dharma to perish. Thus Nala, losing all his wealth to his younger brother, was expelled from the kingdom, with Damayantī in tow. Empty handed and wandering through the lands and forests, suffering due to tiredness, hunger and thirst, they finally came to the edge of a pristine lake. When two swans arrived there, Nala felt this was their chance to get some food. To catch them, he cast his upper garment on them. But the crafty swans flew up to the sky taking with them the piece of clothing. A voice from the skies spoke solemnly: ‘O Nala! The dice you cast in gambling came in the form of swans and took even your clothing away!’ Nala and Damayantī were disillusioned.

Sitting in a single piece of clothing, with a heavy heart, he said to Damayantī: ‘Dear one! This is the route to Vidarbha. This one goes to Aṅgadeśa. And that one, to Kośala!’. Thus, Nala cleverly tried to point to her, the path of her father’s home. The noble queen Damayantī listened to this and was aghast and thought ‘Does āryaputra (my husband) wish to forsake me!’. Partaking of the fruits they found there, they spread grass and slept for the night. Due to the strenuous walk, Damayantī soon fell fast asleep. Nala, however, goaded on by Kali, wished to forsake her and stayed awake. He tore off half of the cloth she had spread on her and wrapped himself with it and walked away from there. A clueless Damayantī woke up next morning and to her horror, couldn’t find her husband there. She wailed aloud since Nala had forsook her. She cried: ‘O Āryaputra! O you with divine qualities! You show mercy even to your sworn enemies. Why would someone like you be so cruel towards me who loves you the most! How will you be able to walk alone in the forest? Who will relieve you of your tiredness? Who will serve you? If I have remained a dutiful and chaste wife, may the gods bless at least you with all goodness - even if it comes at the cost of my daughter, son and myself!’. Grieving thus, she eventually took the path to Vidarbha that Nala had pointed at earlier. On the way a hunter rescued her from the coils of a great snake. But then, he soon coveted her and made unwanted advances towards her. Through the power of her fidelity, Damayantī’s gaze reduced him to ashes. Then luckily she came across a caravan of traders passing through the woods and joined them. She went along with them to the land of king Subāhu. The princess of the kingdom who was seated in the balcony of the palace, noticed the beautiful Damayantī shining through the crowd and invited her in. She ushered Damayantī into the care of her mother, the queen. When asked about her story, Damayantī only replied politely that her husband had forsaken her.

In the meanwhile, king Bhīma came to know of the fate that had befallen Nala and Damayantī and sent his trackers everywhere to search for them. Among them, a minister called Suṣeṇa wandered around and finally came to Subāhu’s kingdom in the guise of a brāhmaṇa. Since she was on a lookout for whoever comes from out of town, Damayantī saw and recognized Suṣeṇa as the minister of her father. Suṣeṇa too recognized her. He managed to secure an audience with the king and queen. The queen, upon inquiry, came to know that Damayantī was none other than the daughter of her own younger sister. Then a chariot and retinue with troops were arranged to ferry Damayantī and Suṣeṇa back to Vidarbha.

Once she reached the kingdom of her father, king Bhīma, Damayantī was reunited with her children. She lost no time in starting to search for her beloved husband Nala. Her father appointed spies and asked them to search the length and breadth of the whole land. He said ‘Nala is well versed in the science of cooking and the secrets of horses. I hope this will help you spot his presence. If you suspect he’s nearby where you are looking, do have this verse announced:

बालां वने प्रसुप्तां नृशंस संत्यज्य कुमुदिनीकान्तां |
प्राप्यैवाम्बरखण्डं चन्द्रादृश्यः क्व यातोऽसि ||

[O cruel Moon! Having attained a portion of the sky for yourself (Taking with you a piece of her cloth), completely forsaking your beloved - the lily (lily-like frail and innocent beloved), who lay asleep in the forest, where have you gone invisible?]

The current article is a translation of Prof. A R Krishnasastri’s Kannada classic Kathāmṛta along with additional segments added from the original Kathā-sarit-sāgara (of Soma-deva). Bṛhat-kathā-mañjarī (of Kṣemendra) and Bṛhat-kathā-śloka-saṃgraha (of Budha-svāmin) have also been referred to. The translation has been rendered by Raghavendra GS, Arjun Bharadwaj, Srishan Thirumalai, and Hari Ravikumar.

The original Kannada version of Kathāmṛta is available for free online reading. So are the other works of Prof. Krishna Shastri

Author(s)

About:

Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.

Prekshaa Publications

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