The Myth of Nala and Damayanti

The myth of Nala and Damayanti is a story in the Vana Parva book of the Mahabharata. The epic is about the life of a couple who fall in love with each other. The main characters in the story are Nala, who is the king of Nishadha, Damayanti, the princess of Vidarbha, the demon Kali, and King Rituparna. Nala is a handsome, intelligent man with knowledge and expertise in horses and culinary skills. His one major weakness, that is at the root of his troubles in the story, is his addiction to gambling. Damayanti is the princess who fell in love with King Nala. she was a very attractive woman whom even gods wished to marry. She fell in love with Nala after hearing of his virtues from a golden swan before she had ever met him. On the night of her swayamvara (self-choice ceremony) the gods disguised themselves as Nala to try and fool her, but she saw right through them. Kali is a demon who tried to get chosen by Damayanti to be her husband. After Nala was chosen to be her husband Kali moved to his kingdom and waited for his time to get revenge (Pave 2). One day Nala forgot to cleanse himself before his prayers, causing him to become impure, and Kali took this perfect opportunity to bewitch the soul of Nala. King Rituparna, the king of Ayodhya, was the king who Nala went to after he was transformed into Bahuka, he was also a mathematician and a skilled dice player.

At the beginning of the epic, there is a Brahmin who enters Nala’s court to describe to him the beautiful princess of Vidarbha, Damayanti, with whom he fell in love with instantly. The next day, Nala catches a swan who begins to beg for freedom, the swan promises that if Nala allows him to be free, then he will talk to Damayanti on his behalf. Nala agrees and releases the swan so that Damayanti could know about all his great virtues. When the swan arrives in Vidarbha and begins to talk to Damayanti, she falls in love with Nala the same way Nala had fallen in love in with her. Although they had not met in person, they both loved the other person’s characteristics and virtues. The king of Vidarbha, Damayanti’s father, wanted his daughter to get married so that his kingdom would be secured; they planned a Swayamvara and sent messages to different kingdoms across the land. There were kings, princes, and even gods who came in the hopes of being picked to be Damayanti’s husband. The gods who came to this Swayamvara were Indra, Agni, Varuna, Yama, and the demon Kali. Damayanti chose Nala as her husband out of all the godly candidates.

After they were married, they moved to Nala’s kingdom of Nishadha, where they would rule for twelve years. Until the demon, Kali, who still bore a grudge against Nala for marrying Damayanti would take control of Nala and force him to play dice. Nala, who was being controlled by Kali, challenged his cousin Pushkara. Nala lost everything in the game which forced him and his wife into exile. Before they left for the forest, Damayanti sent their children to her father’s kingdom, along with some of Nala’s charioteers. Kali maintained control of Nala’s soul after him and his wife went into exile. After a few days, Kali convinced Nala to abandon his wife while she was asleep. Although Damayanti put a lot of effort towards finding her husband, she eventually stopped searching and took refuge in the kingdom of Chedi while she waited for Nala to come back. Nala, who was still under the control of Kali saved a serpent (Naga) named Karkotaka from a fire. The Naga bit Nala and injected him with deadly poison which tortured and forced Kali out of Nala’s body, the poison did not hurt Nala, although it twisted his image and transformed him into a dwarf. The serpent advised Nala to travel to king Rituparna for refuge, and to use the name Bahuka. Nala, who was now going by the name of Bahuka, listened to the serpent and traveled to the kingdom of Ayodhya, where he became a charioteer for the king.

Damayanti was found by one of her father’s charioteers and was brought back to her kingdom where her father forced her to do another Swayamvara. Letters were sent out to different kingdoms, and when king Rituparna got word that he was invited, there wasn’t enough time to travel to Vidarbha. Nala knew that with his chariot skills that he could make the trip in one day, so he convinces king Rituparna to allow him to be his charioteer. The king agreed and they start traveling to the Swayamvara. During the trip, the king asks Bahuka (Nala) what his secret was for being such a great charioteer. Nala made the deal that he would teach the king how to drive that fast and with that much control, on the condition that the king teaches him how to play dice. King Rituparna accepts the deal and by the time they get to Vidarbha, they have both mastered the skills. When they got to the kingdom, they realized that there was no Swayamvara, king Rituparna was angry but made his peace with the situation quite quickly. Damayanti was hoping that her husband would come back to her after hearing that there would be a second choosing. Although, when she didn’t see him by the end of the day she had given up hope, until she saw Bahuka, who she thought was her husband and started talking to him. When she realized that Bahuka was truly Nala, they were reunited and the curse was lifted which changed Nala back into his handsome self. After they were reunited, they travelled back to Nishadha, and with Nala’s new skill in dice he challenged his cousin Pushkara to a rematch and won all his wealth and kingdom back.

There are many relationships in this story that affect the different problems and events that occur. While Nala was on his way to the first Swayamvara, he encountered the four gods who asked him to be their messenger. This relationship between Nala and the gods was important because after Damayanti chose Nala, the gods were angry because he was supposed to get her to marry one of them. This relationship did change into a more grateful one after Damayanti said that even though she did not marry any of the gods, she will still pray to them and offer them thanks. The relationship between Kali and Nala is important for the story, even though it forced him and his wife into exile, since it was one of the main catalysts in the story. It caused multiple events to take place and proved the love between Nala and Damayanti. Although the relationship between Nala and the serpent Karkotaka was brief, it was mutually beneficial. Nala saved the serpent from the fire and, in return, the serpent saved Nala from the control of Kali and gave him advice that would help him get his former life back. The relationship between Nala and king Rituparna is a very important relationship in the story because it allowed both individuals to learn a new life skill; it gave Nala the chance to see his wife, and win his kingdom and wealth back from his cousin. The final and most important relationship is the one between Nala and Damayanti; their relationship is the main foundation of this story and is prevalent from start to finish. They fell in love with each other by hearing about each other’s virtues, and their love wasn’t solely based on looks. Damayanti could see through the disguises of the gods and find the real Nala, and even after exile, she was with him and never lost faith in him. She searched for him after Kali forced him to leave her in the forest, and it was their love and relationship that helped transform Nala to his handsome self after the serpent bit him.







References and further recommended readings

Adler, G. J (1866) The Mahabharata. Boston: The North American Review.

McGrath, Kevin (200) Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India. Oxford: American Anthropologist.

Parkhill, Thomas (1984) From Trifle to Story: A Study of ‘Nala and Damayanti’. USA: Oxford University Press.

Pave, Adam (2006) Rolling the Cosmic Dice: Fate Found in the Story of Nala and Damayanti. United Kingdom: Academic Search Elite.

Wadley, Susan (1999) A Bhakti Rendition of Nala-Damayanti: Todarmal’s ‘Nectar of Nal’s Life’. USA: Syracuse University.

Websites Related to Topic

Related Research Topics

The god Agni

The god Indra

The Ramayana

Vyasa (writer of the Mahabharata)


This article was written by: Tyler Johnson (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.