There lived a king named Naḻa in the province of Niṣadha. He was strong, virtuous, handsome, and was considered foremost among the kings. The province of Vidarbha was ruled by a king named Bhīma who had a daughter named Damayantī and three sons – Dama, Dānta, and Damana. Damayantī’s beauty and noble character was known far and wide. It appeared that men and devatas had never seen a lady like her. Anyone who came to see her spoke highly of Naḻa and anyone who visited Naḻa praised Damayantī before him. Though they had never met, love was kindled between them, just through the words of the people.
Damayantī listens to Hamsa - Ravi Varma
One day, Naḻa, lost in his thoughts about Damayantī, was roaming about in his private gardens when he spotted a swarm of hamsas (swans). He caught one of them and it spoke to him in a human voice: “O King! Please don’t kill me. I’m going to help you. I shall go to Damayantī and talk to her about you. I’ll tell her that there's no one to match you around the world.” Naḻa let the swan go. The swans flew to Vidarbha and landed in Damayantī’s garden. Damayantī and her friends were amazed by the charm of the swans and tried to catch them but the swans were scattered in the confusion. Each girl caught hold of a swan and so did Damayantī. The swan started speaking to her: “Damayantī! There is a king called Naḻa in the province of Niṣadha. He is as handsome as the Aśvinī devatas. No one can match his charm. If you can be his wife, your life and beauty will find a good place to reside in. We have seen the Devatas, Uragas, Rākṣasas, and all other kinds of beings but we've never come across a man like Naḻa. You are a rare gem among women. If two precious things come together, they can do wonders!” Damayantī heard this and asked the swan to convey the same to Naḻa as well. Accordingly, the swan flew back to Niṣadha and narrated everything to Naḻa.
Upon hearing the swan’s words, Damayantī started thinking of Naḻa. She gave up food and water and looked emancipated. The king Bhīma, who heard about his daughter’s condition from one of her friends, thought that Damayantī had stepped into her youth and arranged for her svayaṃvara. Kings and princes from far and wide, in strange attires, started thronging the palace to participate in the svayaṃvara. At the same time, a sage by name Parvatanārada was visiting Indraloka. Indra welcomed the sage with great respect and asked, “Revered sage! Why are brave kṣatriyas, who have lost their lives fighting wars, not coming here anymore? Where are they gone?” The sage said “Devendra! Listen to the reason behind it. The king of Vidarbha has a daughter, unmatched in beauty and virtue. The king has scheduled her svayaṃvara soon. All kings will be going there!” When this conversation was taking place, Agni and the other deities came there. They were excited, hearing about Damayantī and rushed to the earth to participate in the svayaṃvara.
As they were heading towards the palace, the deities came across Naḻa on the way. They were amazed by his brilliance, which could only be matched by the Sun. They went to him and said, “Dear King of Niṣadha! You are an honest person; kindly help us!” Naḻa agreed. They introduced themselves to him and said, “You should go to Damayantī and tell her on our behalf that Indra, Varuṇa, and Agni are coming to see her and would like to marry her.”
Naḻa said, “I too am heading in that direction with the intention of participating in the svayaṃvara. Thus, I suggest you ask someone else to do this task for you.”
The deities were angry and said, “You first gave us your word to help us and now you are backing out! You should go there at any cost!”
Naḻa said, “The palace will have tight security; how can I enter there?” Indra said, “I am sure you will be able to get inside!”
Left with no other option, Naḻa went to the palace of the king of Vidarbha and saw the charming Damayantī. Her friends were awestruck and dumbfounded by his appearance. "Look at his features and his conduct! He must a yakṣa or a gandharva or one of the devatas!”
Damayantī spoke to him, “Who are you, dear handsome? How did you come here without anyone else noticing it? There is tight security around here and we're obeying the strict orders of the king!”
Naḻa said, “Dear Damayantī! I am Naḻa. I have come here as a messenger of the deities. Indra, Agni, Varuṇa, and Yama would like to marry you; you should take one of them as your husband. It is because of their magical powers that I came into the palace without being seen by anyone. I have conveyed whatever I have been asked to. After hearing this, do as you please!”
Damayantī thought of the devatas and mentally paid her respects to them. “O King! Have affection for me; I’ll offer everything that is mine to you! From the time I heard about you from the swans, I have lost myself to you. We arranged for this svayaṃvara only to have you here. If you are giving up on me, I shall commit suicide by falling into fire or a well or by hanging myself!”
Naḻa said, “Why would you like to marry me, who is no match for the deities? Give your heart to them! If a man goes against the wish of the devatas, he will soon see death. O beautiful one! Please marry one of the deities and spare me!”
Damayantī said, “I have thought of a plan for this! If we do so, we will not be under any trouble. You will not be subject to any criticism either. Let all the devatas attend my svayaṃvara; I shall choose you amidst them all! By doing so, you will be spared of all guilt! It would be the choice I make in public, after all!” Naḻa came back to the deities and told them everything that had happened, without the slightest exaggeration.
It was the day of the svayaṃvara. Several kings assembled there with the desire to marry Damayantī. They were dressed in dazzling costumes and ornaments and looked like stars in the sky. Each wore a floral garland too. As Damayantī came near a certain king, his introduction was given to her by her maid. As she walked past the kings, she came across five men who resembled Naḻa. It immediately occurred to her that this must be the devatas in disguise, but did not know how to pick the real Naḻa out of the group. She started recalling the qualities of devatas as she had been told by her elders. She was not able to see any of those divine features in the men who looked like Naḻa. She bowed down to them in her mind and with a trembling voice said, “I have heard the description given by the swans and have mentally married the king of Niṣadha. Devatas should let me procure him. If the devatas feel that I have always been honest to my feelings and have never thought of any other man, I request them to allow me to marry Naḻa. If the devatas are convinced of my honesty, they will come forward and help me untie with the real Naḻa. I pray that the devatas also take their real forms.”
The devatas were pleased with her honest and intense prayer. They were also touched by her unflinching commitment to the king Naḻa. They revealed their special features to her – a body that does not sweat, feet that do not touch the ground, garlands that always remain fresh around their necks, and eyes that do not blink. Damayantī discovered who real Naḻa was, by looking for features contrary to these. She garlanded Naḻa and chose him as her husband. The Devatas were pleased too and granted him eight boons. Indra promised that he would come to participate in all his yajñas in his physical form. Agni gave his word to Naḻa that he would reach the bright heavens. Yama blessed him with a dhārmic conduct and abundance of food. Varuṇa gave Naḻa the capability to invoke water wherever he wanted and also said that any garland he wore would always remain fresh. In this way, Naḻa procured Damayantī as his wife and led a comfortable life in his kingdom.
As the deities were on their way back from the svayaṃvara, they came across Kali and Dvāpara, embodiments of Time and asked them where they were heading to. They said that they were on their way to Damayantī’s svayaṃvara as well. Indra told them that the svayaṃvara was over and Damayantī had chosen to marry Naḻa. Kali was angry upon hearing this. “How could she marry a human when Devatas were around? She should be punished!”
The devatas said, “She married Naḻa only with our consent. Naḻa is well-versed in dharma and is a noble soul. He possesses all great qualities such as steadfastness, purity, mental control, and confidence. Any girl would like to have him as her husband. Anyone who wants to harm such a great person will himself land up in naraka.” Still, Kali was unable to overcome his anger. He told Dvāpara, “I shall stay with Naḻa and make sure he is devoid of his kingdom. You prepare for a gamble with the game of dice and help me!” With these words, they went towards Naḻa’s palace.
To be continued…
This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata published in a serialized form. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his review and astute feedback.