Mahābhārata – Episode 30 – Naḻopākhyāna – Parallel Lives of Naḻa and Damayantī

This article is part 30 of 103 in the series Mahābhārata

Thereafter Damayantī continued walking in the dense forest. After crossing several hills, mountains, and rivers she finally came across a walking trail. She began walking on the path when she found a river that had a fleet of merchant ships parked on its bank. Emaciated, with dishevelled hair, and covered in but half a sari, Damayantī appeared like a mad woman; looking at her, some shrunk away in fear, some ran away, and some others mocked her with derisive laughter. Only a few approached her with empathy and asked her who she was and what she was doing there. She narrated her sad tale and begged them to tell her if they had seen Naḻa anywhere. The leader of the group said, “Mother! We have not seen Naḻa. We are merchants. We are heading towards the kingdom of Cedi.”

Damayantī joined their group and travelled with them. After a few days, they camped on the shore of a lake. One night, as they were asleep, a herd of elephants came by to drink water from the lake and started trampling over the people who were asleep in the camps. This created utter confusion in the camp and people ran helter-skelter. Some of them, out of fear, ran and hid themselves in the bushes. They lost several cows, horses, and mules in the stampede. The next morning, the few who remained near the camp came out from their hiding places. Everyone wailed aloud. Looking at this unfortunate incident, Damayantī thought, “O what a sin I have committed! I was glad that I encountered a group of people in that sparsely inhabited forest and now why should they be trampled upon by elephants! It seems like I have still more miseries to encounter. It would have been better if the elephants had killed me too! This only illustrates what the elders have always said: Only when the time comes will one meet one’s death. Everything is divinely ordained. What role has man to place in this divine game? I have never spoken ill of anyone since my childhood; I’ve never hurt or mocked anyone; yet I have been subject to such intense misery – why? It’s probably because I turned down the proposals of the deities and instead garlanded Naḻa on the day of my svayaṃvara; this must be their way of avenging their insult.”

With such thoughts, Damayantī continued travelling with the group of merchants. One evening, they reached the kingdom of Cedi that was ruled by King Subāhu. A group of curious lads followed her with prying eyes because she appeared to be deranged. As she neared the palace, the king’s mother shooed away the urchins and overcome with sympathy for Damayanti, asked her to be brought to the royal chambers. When the queen-mother met her, she asked, “Who are you, dear child? It appears that you’re in great trouble yet you shine brilliantly like the lightning hiding behind the clouds. Though you’re not decked with jewellery, you have a divine radiance!”

Damayantī narrated her sorrowful tale without mentioning either Naḻa’s or her name. She introduced herself as a high-born woman, a sairandhri (typically, an associate of a queen). The queen-mother was moved by her story and said, “Stay with me. I’ll arrange for a search party for your husband and make sure that you get re-united with him. It’s also possible that he might come by himself to our kingdom.” She consoled Damayantī and made her stay in the company of her daughter Sunandā.

After forsaking Damayantī, Naḻa came across a deadly forest fire. He heard a shout from within the burning forest, “King Naḻa! O pious one! Hurry up, there’s nothing to fear!” Naḻa rushed to the spot and found a snake coiled on the ground. It said, “O king! I’m a serpent called Kārkoṭaka. I’ve been immobilised by a curse. If you save me from this fire, I’ll be your friend and repay you for your kindness. I’ll make myself light enough for you to lift me up. Come soon!” Accordingly, Naḻa picked up the serpent and placed it in a spot that was free from fire. But the serpent bit him and disclosed its real form. It said, “With this bite, your appearance will be changed forever. I’ve made sure that nobody will ever recognize you. In addition, you need not fear any other kind of poison hereafter. You will be victorious in a battle in the future. You will take the name of Bāhuka and you shall be appointed as a charioteer of King Ṛtuparṇa. You may exchange your knowledge of aśvahṛdaya (horsemanship, subtle knowledge about horses) with his knowledge of akṣavidyā (gambling, dice-play). That will give you great prosperity. You will be reunited with your wife and children. You will also regain your lost kingdom. When you desire to regain your original appearance, then think of me and wear these garments!” With these words, the snake handed a pair of garments and vanished from his sight.

As per the prophecy, Naḻa went to the court of Ṛtuparṇa and told him, “I am Bāhuka. I’m well-versed in aśvahṛdaya. I am skilled at cooking and well-versed in several arts, some of which people might never have heard of!” The king said, “Welcome, Bāhuka! I have always been thrilled about travelling at great speeds. I shall appoint you as the superintendent of horses. Make sure that you train all my horses to travel at great speeds. I appoint Vārṣṇeya and Jīvala as your assistants.” Naḻa stayed in that kingdom and every evening he would recite –

O that poor girl, ravaged by hunger and thirst
exhausted, is lying somewhere, brooding over her misfortune!
Where is she today, and toiling for whom!

Upon listening to this, Jīvala asked Naḻa, “Who are you thinking about, lamenting thus everyday, O Bāhuka?”

Naḻa said, “There was once an unfortunate man who had a wife who loved him dearly; he too was deeply in love with her; this being the case, due to some reason, they were physically separated from each other; after their separation, he has been tortured by sorrow and is roaming about day and night, drowned in anguish. In the night, remembering her, he sings this poem to himself. Roaming about everywhere, thinking about her sorrow, and pining away, he is surviving by whatever he gets wherever he goes. His beloved wife did not forsake him even in adversity and yet he abandoned her there – he wonders if she is alive or not! She is still young; all alone; she lacks worldly wisdom; wandering about in search of her husband, aimlessly, aloof to hunger and thirst, it would be a wonder if she were alive! That unfortunate and brainless man abandoned her in a terrible forest frequented by wild animals and walked away, my friend!”

In this manner, the king of Niṣadha brought to mind memories of Damayantī time and again, and lamented; thus he spent his days incognito in Ṛtuparṇa’s palace.

As soon as Bhīmarāja learnt about Naḻa losing his kingdom and subsequently going to the forest with Damayantī, he sent forth many brāhmaṇas to search for them having gifted them with a great deal of money. “If you find them and bring them here, I will gift you a thousand cows! I will grant you an agrahāra (typically, a brāhmaṇa colony in a village)! I will grant you a village as big as a town! If you are unable to bring them here, even if you can tell me the whereabouts of Naḻa and Damayantī, I will give you a thousand cows!” he proclaimed. They went in all directions and looked for the couple; one of those brāhmaṇas, Sudeva, arrived at the kingdom of Cedi and saw Damayantī who was along with the princess Sunandā in the palace; although she was as dull as a fire covered by smoke, seeing her beauty in spite of her poverty, he recognized her. He thought to himself, “Afflicted by worries about her husband, holding on to her life by some means, she appears like a dried up river; she is like a lotus that has been cruelly uprooted by an elephant! That object called husband is an ornament to the wife without being an ornament; if that ornament is missing, even the most beautiful damsel will not shine. How sad! When will this auspicious lady finally be free of distress!” He went up to her and said, “Mother, I am Sudeva; I am friend of your elder brother; as per the orders of Bhīmarāja, I embarked on a journey to find you. Your mother, father, and brothers are all doing well; your children are also fine. But all your relatives have lost their will to live after they learnt about your situation.” Damayantī too recognised Sudeva. She began wailing. Through Sunandā, the queen learnt about this. She called Sudeva aside and asked him what the matter was; then she learnt about the situation. She realized that Damayantī was her elder sister’s daughter and she embraced her at once and then put her at ease. It was not long before Damayantī reached her parents’ place. Upon seeing Damayantī, her parents, her brothers, her children, and all her relatives and friends were overjoyed. Since Damayantī returned, the devabrāhmaṇa (i.e. Sudeva) was honoured and given many gifts. True to his word, Bhīmarāja gave Sudeva a thousand cows.

As the night passed Damayantī told her mother, “If you wish for me to be alive, Mother, then search for your son-in-law!” Soon there were brāhmaṇas ready to go out on a search for Naḻa; before they departed, Damayantī told all of them, “Wherever you travel, wherever you find densely populated areas, say this again and again – ‘O gambler! Where have you gone after tearing half the sari of your beloved who lay asleep in the midst of the forest? Still donning that half a piece of sari, she is anxiously waiting for your return! Forever surrounded by a pall of gloom, she is constantly crying; come and respond to her questions, come and pacify her!’ His heart should melt at my plight and compassion should surface; for that to happen, tell him whatever else needs to be told – it is the dharma of the husband to take care and nourish his wife. As a person who knows dharma, why are you still shirking your responsibilities? You are famous, wise, born in a noble family, and compassionate – yet if you have become so hard-hearted, it’s only because of her ill-luck. Therefore, show compassion towards her. Ahiṃsā is the greatest dharma. Say all such things and if anyone gives you a response, then ask him who he is, where he lives, and such facts; carefully gather all that information and come back here and give me those details along with what he said in response. Do this quickly. Go and learn about him – what is he doing now, is he rich and wealthy, is he completely bereft of wealth and fortune, is he detached from the material world; go at once!” The brāhmaṇas went about the land, repeating her words wherever they went and set out on a search for the elusive Naḻa.

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.



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.



Arjun is a poet, translator, engineer, and musician. He is a polyglot, well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, English, Greek, and German. He currently serves as Assistant Professor at Amrita Darshanam - International Centre for Spiritual Studies at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Bangalore. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature.


Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.

Prekshaa Publications


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