N is for Nala of Nala Damayanti from the Mahabharata
As a storyteller, I love how the main characters in the epics get told stories all the time; stories that help them make decisions in difficult times.
The Pandavas lose everything in a cunning game of dice to their cousins, the Kauravas. As per the conditions that were agreed upon, the Pandavas are sent into exile for thirteen years. And in the thirteenth year, they are to remain incognito. If any one of them is recognized, in this last year, they will have to repeat the whole thirteen years again.
The five Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi, have nearly completed the first twelve years of exile, and now they are worried about the thirteenth year. They are all well known and distinguished looking, how will they ever manage to remain incognito, they wonder.
It is at this time, that a sage tells them the story of Nala Damayanti. Nala is a handsome king and Damayanti is a beautiful and wise princess. They are married and have two children. They live happily together, till king Nala’s cousin challenges him to a game of dice.
King Nala looses all his wealth and kingdom to his cousin and is asked to leave the kingdom with his family. Nala does not want his wife Damayanti and their two children to suffer, so he asks her to go to her parents, the King and Queen of Vidarbha and to leave Nala to his fate. Damayanti sends the children to Vidarbha, but she follows him to the forest. There the royal couple have a hard time, as their palace life has not prepared either of them to cope with forest life.
In the night, when Damayanti falls asleep, Nala gets up quietly and goes away, thinking that this will force her to go back to her parents. I am glad that the Pandavas were not inspired by this part of the story. Damayanti does no such thing. When she gets up and finds Nala missing, she wanders through the forest looking for him. In the process she has to fend off dangerous beasts and men, and has many an adventure in the forest.
After many days of wandering, she finds herself in the kingdom of Chedi. In the city, people make fun of this crazy looking woman, till the queen of Chedi sees her and takes pity on this bedraggled yet noble looking woman and employs her as her personal attendant. Damayanti keeps her identity secret for a long time. But a priest from Vidharba, who was passing through Chedi, sees the queen’s maid and recognizes her. When the queen of chedi is told about the real identity of her maid, she persuades Damayanti to go to her parents in Vidarbha.
Once with her parents, Damayanti decides to use her father’s help to find Nala. A man is appointed to go to every kingdom and look for Nala. A long time passes and there is still no sign of Nala. Damayanti now has a brainwave , and she realizes, the only way to bring Nala out of hiding, is to send out an invitation everywhere, stating that the King of Vidarbha, will be holding another swayamvara (ceremony where a princess garlands the man she wants to marry amongst the many suitors present) for Damayanti. Damayanti is quite sure that, fear of the loss of his beloved wife to another man, will surely bring Nala to Vidarbha.
Nala wondered the forests for a long time till he meets Karkotaka a well meaning snake. Karkotaka realizes that Nala wants to remain unrecognized. Karkotaka uses his poison to change the handsome Nala into a deformed and short man. He then advises Nala, to go and work for king Ritupurna of Ayodhya, and somehow learn to play dice well from the king. Nala does just that. He calls himself Bahuka, and joins the court of king Ritupurna as a cook.
Whe the news of Damayanti’s second swayamvara reaches Ayodhya. King Ritupurna, wants to go there as a suitor. Nala too hears of the swayamvara of his wife and somehow manages to become part of the royal entourage to Vidarbha. The king takes a liking to the cook and teaches him to play dice, such that he always wins.
When Nala enters the king of Vidarbha’s palace, he sees two children and he jumps off the chariot and hugs them, for he has recognized them to be his own. He also cooks a dish, that only Nala knows how to make, and sends it to to his wife. Damayanti knows that the man with a deformed body does not look like her husband, but has the mannerisms and cooks just like her husband. So she boldly goes up to the deformed cook, holds his hand and calls him by his true name Nala.
King Ritupurna, is quite puzzled by this strange behaviour of the princess Damayanti towards his deformed cook Bahuka. But then Bahuka wears a magical cloak, that the snake had given him and turns back into his old handsome self.
A few days later, Nala goes back to his lost kingdom and challenges his wicked cousin to a game of dice. King Ritupurna had taught him well. This time Nala wins his kingdom back. And he and Damayanti live happily ever after.
Hearing this story of Nala Damayanti, the Pandavas too decided to disguise themselves as servants and go separately and work in the court of King Virata. Yudhishtira joins king Virata’s court as a learned Brahmin, Bhima as a royal cook, Arjuna as the dance teacher to the princess, Draupadi as a personal attendant to the queen, Nakul as stable hand and Sahadev as cow physician. Thus the Pandavas and Draupadi lived incognito for the thirteenth year.