February 01, 2021

#08-043: Nala and Damayanti

a woman in Indian clothes seems to be in conversation with a swan on a pillar
Dayamanti speaks with the swan about Nala

Note: In addition to its overarching story about the fate of the Pandava brothers, the Mahabharata--which, with the Ramayana, is one of India's two great epics--includes numerous stories embedded in the narrative. One of the best-known is the love story of Nala and Damayanti (which, in fact, shadows the Pandavas' own story).

Get Ready: Would you consent to marry someone without first meeting him or her?

One day Nala, king of Nishadha, finds a beautiful swan, who tells him of Damayanti, a princess who is the most beautiful woman in the world. Nala releases the swan, who has promised to fly to Damayanti and tell her of his love for her (sight unseen!). Hearing from the swan of Nala's excellence, Damayanti in return falls in love with him, again without seeing him.

Damayanti subsequently holds a swayamvara, a formal ceremony in which a woman chooses her husband from among many competitors. Many of the suitors are gods, and they all take on the appearance of Nala. But Damayanti begins praying, and one by one the gods take on their real appearances. At last only Nala remains as is.

Damayanti's choice angers the demon Kali, since the woman has honored a mortal over the gods. (Other versions claim he's angry because he had hoped to be chosen.) In any case, Kali vows revenge.

Kali causes Nala to gamble away his wealth and kingdom (as did Yudhishthira in the main epic). Nala then slips away from Damayanti and wanders the jungle, where, as luck would have it, he saves the life of a naga, a kind of snake god. The naga transforms Nala into an ugly dwarf, and gives him a magic garment that can restore his original form. In this disguise, Nala--renowned for his skill with horses as well as cookery--serves as charioteer and cook to King Rituparna.

Damayanti, meanwhile, has many adventures while searching for Nala. Hearing of a candidate, she sends for Rituparna, and sure enough, the king's charioteer drives him to her so fast that Damayanti is sure he must be Nala! She calls Nala into her presence and recognizes him, and he assumes his original form.

Nala makes a deal: he teaches the Rituparna horsemanship, and in exchange Rituparna teaches him to play dice. In a rematch Nala wins back his kingdom, where Nala and Damayanti live together--happily ever after.


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Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. charioteer
  2. embedded
  3. gamble
  4. garment
  5. horsemanship
  6. overarching
  7. rematch
  8. sight unseen
  9. suitors
  10. swan

  1. skill with handling horses
  2. people attempting to win a woman's affection
  3. play a game of chance
  4. without having seen something
  5. a second attempt to win a game
  6. fixed into a surrounding situation
  7. a piece of clothing
  8. one who drives a two-wheeled, horse-drawn vehicle
  9. a large bird famous for its grace and beauty
  10. including everything

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for February 1, 2021

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