Kathāmṛta - 67 - Alaṅkāravatī-lambaka - The Story of Nala

This article is part 67 of 74 in the series Kathāmṛta

As Nala was wandering through the forest wearing the cloth torn in half, he saw a forest fire. He heard a voice calling out for help from within it – “O Noble soul! The forest fire is consuming me – I might die in the fire! Please rescue me from here!” When he looked in the direction of the cry, he saw a snake curled around, fallen there. He picked it up and carried it on his shoulder. As he was walking, the snake said – “count ten footsteps from here and drop me at a spot”. Nala started counting – “ekaṃ dve trīṇi catvāri ….. daśa” As soon as he uttered the word daśa, the snake bit him on his forehead [The word daśa in Sanskrit is also the imperative form of ‘to bite’]. Because of its bite, his arms became short and he turned dark. He turned ugly. He put down the snake and asked – “Who are you? Is this the gratitude you have shown me?” The snake replied – “O King! I am the king of serpents named Kārkoṭaka. I stung you for your own good; once your form changes, you will be hard to be recognised, that will help you achieve your task. Take this pair of garments called agniśauca. Once you put this on, your real form will be revealed”

Nala received the clothes and went ahead. Going by the name Hrasvabāhu, he arrived at Kosaladeśa, the kingdom of Ṛtuparṇa and joined the royal kitchen as a cook. He became famous for the tasty dishes he prepared and also his skill at driving chariots.

Once, a spy from Vidarbha-deśa had come there. He came to know that there was a person with short arms, who was skilled at cooking and riding a chariot. He suspected that he must be Nala. In king Ṛtuparṇa’s court, he recited the śloka that Bhīmarāja had taught him. Everyone who heard it thought that it was a verse with no meaning and was the blabbering of a brainless person. Nala who was in the disguise of a cook recited the following āryā in reply:

क्षीणोऽम्बरैकदेशं चन्द्रः प्राप्यान्यमण्डलं प्रविशन् ।
कुमुदिन्या यददृशो जातस्तत्का नृशंसता तस्य ॥

[When one part of the sky/cloth was reduced, the Moon reached another part/region, being invisible to the lily, how is that cruelty?]

Listening to his answer, the spy thought – It is quite likely that he is Nala. He has undergone a change of form because of the difficulties he has encountered.

Damayantī heard this from the spy and said – “He is ārya-putra, Nala. HE is in the disguise of a cook; I have no doubt about it. Let me suggest a plan to get him here. Send a messenger to Ṛtuparṇa’s court. Let him announce – The king Nala has gone missing. We know nothing of his whereabouts. Therefore, the second svayaṃvara of Damayantī will take place tomorrow morning. Please come to Vidarbha immediately’ Ṛtuparṇa will certainly travel to Vibardha the next moment along with Nala, who he knows is an expert at riding chariots.”

Accordingly, a messenger was sent to Ṛtuparṇa, who called the man with short arms. He said – “You claim that you are good at riding chariots. Can you take me to Vidarbha right away so that I can reach the place today?” Nala, who was in disguise, agreed. He got a chariot prepared with the best of horses. He thought to himself – this arrangement for a svayaṃvara has been made by Damayantī to get me back. I am sure she has never dreamt of a second svayaṃvara even in her dreams.

As soon as the king sat on the chariot, it sped fast like Garuḍa. Because of the speed, the uttarīya of Ṛtuparṇa happened to fall away and he asked Nala to stop the chariot to pick it up. Nala said – “We are far ahead from the place where your uttarīya fell off!” Ṛtuparṇa said – “Ārya! Please teach me your knowledge of the chariot; I will teach you akṣa-vijñāna, the dice shall obey your command; you will acquire skill in numbers; I will demonstrate this right away. See this tree before us? I shall tell you the number of its leaves and fruits. Count them and see if I am right!” When Nala counted them, he found the number of leaves and fruits exactly as many as the king had said. Then Nala gave Ṛtuparṇa his skill in chariot driving and received Ṛtuparṇa's skill in dice and numbers. To check if he had learnt it right, Nala tested it on another tree. When he found his estimate to be perfect, he was overjoyed. At that moment, a dark-coloured man came out from his body. When he asked the creature, “Who are you?," he replied, “I am Kali. When Damayantī chose you, I was overcome with jealousy and entered your body. Because of that you lost all your fortune in the game of dice. That is why when Kārkoṭaka bit you, you did not burn but I did! Indeed, will a person who has injured another unjustly, ever be the recipient of goodness? Therefore I shall depart!” Saying this, Kali vanished and at once Nala became endowed with dharma-buddhi and recovered his lost splendour. He became as he had been earlier. He returned and mounted his chariot again and before the end of the day, he took Ṛtuparṇa to Vidarbha. Everyone who saw him ridiculed him and asked him time and again the cause of his arrival! Even upon listening to the sound of his chariot Damayantī was certain that it must belong to Nala. Overjoyed, she sent a maid to find out the truth by examining the situation. She made enquiries, returned to the princess, and said, “O Mother! The king of Kosala has come here upon hearing the news of your svayaṃvara. His cook Hrasvabāhu apparently brought him on a chariot within the span of a single day. He is said to be skilled in the art of chariot riding. I went to the kitchen and observed him. He is dark, ugly; even so, his charm and prowess are extraordinary. When he puts his hand in a pot, water gushes forth and firewood erupts into flames of its own accord. In the wink of an eye, delectable dishes are prepared. It is a great wonder!” Damayantī thought, “Him whom Agni and Varuṇa obey and he who knows the secret of chariot-riding can be none but the āryaputra, my noble lord. His form might have changed on account of separation from me. I shall further strengthen my decision.” She then sent her two children to him along with her maid. For a long time, he placed them on his thighs and silently wept a flood of tears. He told the maid, “I too have two children just like these and they reside in the house of their maternal grandfather; thinking about them, I was moved to tears.” Upon listening to this, Damayantī was totally convinced. The next morning, she sent another maid to him and had her say, “O noble one! I hear that there is no cook like you who can prepare lentil soup like you. Will you please prepare some today? It is a request of our princess.” He agreed to the request and after seeking permission from King Ṛtuparṇa, he went to meet Damayantī. As soon as she saw him, she asked, “Are you King Nala disguised as a cook? Tell me the truth! I am drowning in the anxiety-ocean and you must save me!” Thus she pleaded with him. When he heard those words, Nala was engulfed by love, joy, sorrow, and shame all at once. Shedding copious tears, with a downcast face, he spoke these words even as his upper garment came undone: “Yes, it is true. I am that wretched Nala, adamant as the lightning! In my madness, owing to my attachments, I made you suffer thus!” She then asked, “How did you become deformed thus?”

Then Nala narrated the whole story right from the point where he was bitten by Kārkoṭaka till Kali left him and he wore the pair of garments agniśauca to purify himself. He got his original form. Damayantī’s face blossomed like a lotus see that; tears of joy flowed; unimaginable joy was felt by her; hearing this news from his attendants the king Bhīma wished both his daughter and son-in-law and arranged for grand festivities. Ṛtuparṇa too gave due to respect to Nala befitting a king and felicitated him. In a few days Nala with the army of his father-in-law went and defeated Puṣkara in a game of dice. By then he was out of the possession of Dvāpara and hence mended his ways; Nala gave his share back to him and came back to his own kingdom and ruled it along Damayantī happily.

Sumanas narrated this story and then addressed Bandhumatī thus, ‘the noble ones endure great difficulties before attaining happiness and prosperity. Even the Sun sets before rising again! If you are steadfast and courageous you’ll find your husband in the near future!’

In a few days, Mahīpāla came back with his parents. Bandhumatī was as happy as the ocean would be seeing the full moon. Mahīpāla lived happily ever after.

Naravāhanadatta listening to the beautiful and intriguing story from Marubhūti felt happiness too.

Here ends Alaṅkāravatī-laṃbaka

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



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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