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Nala and Damayanti

Nala and Damayanti

Nationality/Culture

Hindu

Pronunciation

NAHL-ah and dah-muh-YAN-tee

Alternate Names

None

Appears In

The Mahabharata, the Naiadhiyacarita

Lineage

Daughter of King Bhima (Damayanti)

Character Overview

In Hindu mythology, Nala and Damayanti were lovers who overcame various obstacles to marry and live happily. Their story appears in the Hindu epic called the Mahabharata, and in the Naiadhiyacarita, a poem written by the poet Shriharsha.

According to legend, Nala was the young, handsome, and skillful king of Nishadha (pronounced NEE-shuh-duh) in central India. Damayanti, said to be the most beautiful girl in the world, was the daughter of King Bhima of Vidarbha (pronounced VEE-dahr-buh), a neighboring country. One day Nala captured a swan. In return for freedom, the swan flew to Vidarbha and praised the virtues of Nala to Damayanti. After hearing about him, Damayanti hoped that he would fall in love with her.

Soon after, Damayanti's father decided to find a suitable husband for his daughter and invited many princes to his palace. Several of the gods also sought Damayanti's hand in marriage. On the way to the palace, the gods met Nala and told him to serve as messenger and announce their intentions to Damayanti. When he arrived at the palace, Damayanti marveled at Nala's good looks. Nala relayed the message from the gods, but Damayanti told him that she wanted only him and vowed to wed him or die.

On the day that Damayanti was supposed to choose her future husband, the royal court was full of men. Among them were the gods, who each appeared as the handsome Nala. Unable to distinguish among them, Damayanti announced that she had pledged herself to Nala and began to pray. As she prayed, the gods assumed their own forms. Damayanti chose Nala, and the two were married.

Angered that Damayanti had married a mortal, the demon Kali (pronounced KAH-lee) vowed to take revenge and tricked Nala into gambling away the royal treasury. Having lost everything, Nala advised his wife to leave him, but she refused. Kali lured Nala away from Damayanti, and Nala wandered through the world. During his travels, a Naga (pronounced NAH-gah), or serpent god, bit Nala and changed him into a dwarf named Bahuka, the chariot driver of King Rituparna of Ayodhya (pronounced ah-YOH-dee-uh).

Uncertain whether Nala was alive, Damayanti announced that she would marry again within a day. She did this as a test to draw Nala out of hiding. Rituparna sped with Bahuka to claim her. When they arrived, Damayanti did not recognize the dwarf as Nala. Yet she suspected that the man was Nala because only he could reach her so quickly. After she questioned him, Bahuka changed back into Nala. The two lovers were reunited and lived together in Nishadha. Nala, having learned great gambling skills from Rituparna, used this talent to reclaim everything else that he had lost.

Nala and Damayanti in Context

The tale of Nala and Damayanti reflects traditional Hindu marriage and courtship practices. The type of ceremony conducted in the myth is a traditional swayamvara, where several male suitors are gathered together, and the potential bride—along with her family—is able to choose a husband from the available suitors. The marriage usually happens immediately following her selection. This is an alternative to arranged marriages, in which the bride has little say over who will become her husband; in a swayamvara, the bride can even ask the suitors to prove themselves through a challenge. The swayamvara reflects the small amount of control females have during the marriage process. Although it allows for more freedom than an arranged marriage, the bride is still bound by the family's decision regarding the time for her to marry, and her choice is limited to the suitors who happen to attend.

Key Themes and Symbols

The main theme of this tale is the enduring power of love. Damayanti never gives up her love for her husband, even after he loses everything and disappears. She is even able to recognize him when his appearance has changed into that of a dwarf Jealousy is also an important theme in this myth. The gods all wish to marry Damayanti, and even take the form of Nala in an attempt to trick her. The demon Kali is so jealous after the marriage that he destroys Nala's life.

Nala and Damayanti in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The tale of Nala and Damayanti is found in the Mahabharata, one of the two major epics in Hindu literature. The tale is one of the few Hindu myths that can be classified as a romantic tale, and is therefore quite popular. It has been adapted to film several times for Indian cinema, including Kemparaj Urs's musical drama Nala Damayanti (1957). In English literature, many adaptations have appeared as part of translated texts of the Mahabharata, and as stand-alone retellings of the myth. In the early nineteenth century, for example, the English historian Henry Hart Milman wrote a version of the poem.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

In India, the swayamvara—in which a potential bride chooses a husband from a group of suitors—is still held today, though some details of the event have changed. How do these differ from other modern dating practices, such as online matchmaking services and blind dates? How are they similar? Do you think one technique is more likely to result in an ideal match? If so, which technique, and why?

SEE ALSO Hinduism and Mythology; Indra; Mahabharata, The; Nagas

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