The Nala-Damayanti Narrative: Reflections in Myth, Poetry and Performance

in Article
Published on: 28 November 2018

Sudha Gopalakrishnan

Sudha Gopalakrishnan is one of the founders of Sahapedia, as well as Vice President of Sahapedia's governing body. She has over thirty years of experience in areas relating to policy, management, documentation and research pertaining to multiple aspects of Indian arts and heritage.She received her PhD in Comparative Drama and Masters degree in English Language and Literature. She has prepared three successful nomination dossiers for the recognition of three heritage expressions—Kutiyattam, Vedic Chanting and Ramlila—as UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. She was Mission Director, National Mission for Manuscripts, from 2003-2007. She has published 8 books (including original writing, translation and edited volumes) and contributed papers in national and international publications.


The story of Nala and Damayanti is an integral part of the Indian narrative repertoire. It is  a story of love, of desire and temptation, of separation and diguise, of faith and spiritual evolution, of struggle and transcendence of misfortune.


Nalopakyana, the basic story of Nala and Damayanti as it is found in the Mahabharata, has undergone variations in treatment and representation according to the genre, context and medium of communication. In the Indian literary tradition, the story is popular and there is a considerable body of literature devoted to it in Sanskrit and other Indian regional languages. Stemming as a secondary story in Vyasa’a Mahabharata, there are more than thirty poems, twenty-five plays, fourteen prose works in Sanskrit dealing with the story. There are innumerable adaptations of the tale into the regional languages of India. To mention a few, Silapptikaram, the old Tamil text mentions the Nala story. The fourteenth century Tamil classic Nalavenpa by Pukalentippulavar,  dvayarthakavya-s (poems exemplifying dual meaning or two texts in the same story) in Telugu like Harishchandranalopakhyanam, Naishadhaparijatiyam, adaptations in Sindhi, Marathi, Bengali, Oriya Gujarati and Punjabi, as well as translations in Persian, German, Italian, Swedish and French. The love story of Nala and Damayanti has inspired the imagination of people from different cultures, as exemplified by a variety of sources. Perhaps even the celebrated story of Sakuntala does not enjoy the same popularity.


Taking into account the multiplicities of experience of the Nala story, this paper briefly examines the implications of its interpretation through three main sources—the epic Mahabharata, Harsha’s grand poem (mahakavya) called Naishadhiyacarita, and the Kathakali performance tradition as exemplified in the Kathakali text (attakkatha) of Nalacaritam. It probes the contexts of the three works and their variations in theme and treatment. I would put the Kathakali performance manual of Nalacaritam into sharp focus, and will supplement with pictures.


What could be the reason for the immense popularity of the Nala story in these cultures?


At the fundamental level, it is an engaging story about the enduring power of true love pitted against heavy odds. As the story progresses, the dark powers of evil, of temptation in the form of Kali emerge to disrupt the happy life of the couple. Then follows a long stretch of suffering, through severe testing of faith, of will with a foreboding of distress and defeat, but finally steadfastness in love and spirituality overcomes all obstacles, leading to happy reunion and retrieval of all that was lost.


The story of Nala appears as a sub-plot in the grand epic of the Mahabharata. In the fifty-second chapter in ‘Vana Parva’, Yudhishthira asks Brhadasva, the sage, whether there is anyone who has suffered more than himself.  “Have you ever seen or heard of a king more ill-fated than myself? I am sure than there was none who has gone through this much grief”, says Yudhishthira.               


As a reply, Brhadasva narrates the story of Nala, saying that Nala has suffered more than Yudhishthira himself. The structural device of the "story within a story," or "embedded" narrative, is so widely found in the literature of all cultures and periods. The sub-story emanates from the awareness of the main story as a source and model for the latter. In Indian narratology, it is a well-established tradition to frame a story within another, for purposes of teaching, showing example and to enlighten others on the deeper meaning of life. In such embedded stories, there are many 'positions' or 'perspectives' or 'points of view' from which a story can be interpreted. By 'point of view' we generally mean two somewhat different things: 1) the relation of the narrator to the action of the story — whether the narrator is, for instance, a character in the story, or a voice outside of the story; 2) the relation of the narrator to the issues and the characters that the story involves. As far the story of Nala and Damayanti is concerned, there are multiple perspectives and functions for the different characters, according to which the nature of reality changes.  We will examine them one by one, at least when it pertains to the main characters.


In keeping with the classical Indian tradition, Nala’s story adopts the teleological view that the destiny of each person is controlled by the good and bad actions not only of this life, but in the lives gone by. Worldly events do not occur by accident; there is the eternal principle of fate (karma) to which a human being is subjected to. One is nevertheless capable of rising above fate by dedicating oneself to one’s duties and also to spiritual pursuits. Grief and misfortune are the result of the negligence of duty. In the case of Nala, waste of vital energy in material pleasures and love’s dalliances with Damayanti at the cost of royal and religious duties are seen as leading to suffering. Reprieve comes in the form of the divine serpent Karkotaka who leads Nala to self-awareness, resulting in the subsequent reversal of fortune and the happy ending of the story.


In the Mahabharata story, Nala is portrayed as the paragon of virtues. He is adept in the pursuit of dharma (dharmarthakovidah), pure of heart, truthful, just and above all, with an unflinching devotion to God. Soverign lord of the kingdom of Nishadha, he is depicted as handsome, brave and honourable.  Equal to him in calibre is Damayanti, the daughter of Bhima, the king of Vidarbha. In the first part of the story, The two are already attracted to each other through hearsay, when Nala befriends a golden swan and sends him off to Damayanti as his messenger of love. Though the swan accomplishes his mission, the celestials including Indra intercept the love story by being in love with Damayanti themselves, and they send Nala himself to her to convey their feelings, but Damayanti’s steadfastness makes them reveal their identity in the marriage hall and the couple is happily united.  The course of this love has many impediments, with Kali swearing to take revenge on Nala and infested his being through the slight pretext of not completing his ritual ablutions before worshipping god, and then begins Nala’s long travail of his brother challenging him for a game of dice, his losing the kingdom, separation from Damayanti, wandering in the forest and meeting with Karkotaka, serving as a cook and charioteer in King Rituparna’s palace and the final vanquishing of Kali through the effects of Damayanti’s curse and the getting back of everything he had lost, including wife, kingdom and power.


The important questions raised by the story are as fundamental and as crucial as that of the Mahabharata, perhaps even more. What is the cause behind the trials experienced by Nala? The great king who ruled the kingdom of Nishadha was stripped of his country, people, and was exiled to the forest. Losing the only garment he has on him, forced by his circumstances to leave his wife alone in the dark forest in the dead of the night, tearing off half her garment to cover himself, he walks away, demented by sorrow, leaving her in the care of the gods. Was it his fault? Or the influence of Kali? Due to his hankering after the game of dice? Is it the result of his temporary distraction from bhakti or spiritual devotion due to his excessive indulgence in kama (desires of the body)? All these questions are examined, and the answers are as wide-ranging as life itself. Whatever striving there may be, there is an unseen fate that operates human lives, and it is time, kala, a necessary condition of all life and thought that conditions it. The other The power of divine grace and human belief in that power have also been the foundation of Indian life and thought. Perhaps, the story of Nala is no different: in its basic essence it revolves around the operation of fate in human life, and the transcendence of misery through striving and spiritual faith.                                                                       From the point of view of Damayanti, however, a different picture of life emerges, for her journey of life, though linked with Nala, follows a distinct path, perhaps more arduous than that of her husband. Her choices were conditioned by the vicissitudes of Nala’s life, but throughout the story, Damayanti displays a rare insight and power to go beyond, not only to hold herself together in times of stress, but to retrieve situations by her intelligence, sagacity and fore-sightedness. Right from the beginning, when Nala comes to her as messenger of the Deva-s, Damayanti is unyielding to the greater powers of the celestials and tells him firmly that she would wed none than Nala. When they pose as four Nala-s at the swayamvara venue, she appeals to their own sense of justice and fair play, to help her identify the real Nala and succeeds. While she sees Nala losing the game of dice resulting in the loss of the kingdom, she loses no time in sending her children to his father’s kingdom and getting herself ready to confront what lay ahead. This prudence in judgement comes to her aid several times during the rest of her life during the difficult days in the forest, as well as the manner in which she strategizes and succeeds in finding out the whereabouts of the disguised Nala and bringing him back to her.   


In direct contrast to the characters of Nala and Damayanti is the portrayal of Kali, a powerful, supernatural being as an evil character who is committed to destroy the happiness of the couple. While looking at the motivations behind his actions, one can see jealousy, malevolence, hatred and cruelty.  Blinded by rage at the news of the wedding of Nala and Damayanti, and resolving to wreak revenge, Kali sets out to inhabit Nala’s being, wrest the kingdom from him, take off with his only garment, separate the couple...In fact, the crisis of the story is the interference of Kali, seen also as delusion due to the influence of evil forces. To redeem the situation, it needs the power of Damayanti’s moral strength which gets expressed as a curse that “whoever haunts my husband in this manner may come to harm!” Perhaps the question of motivated evil is not given that much attention in the study of Indian texts, and one can cite the examples of Sakuni in the Mahabharata, or Manthara in the Ramayana as parallels.  


Let us see how the basic story of Nala as depicted in the Mahabharata is treated in other versions and interpretations. Harsha’s Naishadhiyacarita, the great Sanskrit kavya written around the 12th century is one the most celebrated versions of the story. The Sanskrit word carita (from the verbal root car, "to move") connotes "going, moving, coursing” and by extension means, "acts, deeds, adventures." in Sanskrit literature the word has been used in the titles of biographies of religious figures and idealized kings (the Buddhacarita of Asvaghosa; the Harsacarita of Bana). Naishadhiyacarita with its twenty two chapters is a remarkable work of great sophistication and detail, but it is a fragment, and ends with marriage of Nala and Damayanti. The primary rasa is srngara, depicting the unfolding of the love between the couple at the first stage of their life, from knowing about each other, to the scene of their lovemaking after the wedding. The poem is more noted for the heavily ornate language, elaborate poetic conceits, dvayarthaprayoga (dual meanings) and other poetic conventions prescribed for its status as a mahakavya.


I have referred to these texts as an entry point to what I want to elaborate on--the lyrico-dramatic poem of Nalacaritam, a text for Kathakali, written by the poet Unnayi Warrier (late seventeenth-early eighteenth century). Though written as a source text for the Kathakali stage, Nalacaritam is regarded as one of the finest literary works in Malayalam. It is a unique combination of the narrative sequence of the Mahabharata story, the high poetic excellence that features Naishdhiyacarita and the dramatic power that is required for a Kathakali play.  The author of Nalacaritam has moved beyond the prescriptions of a typical attakkatha or a story for the Kathakali stage, and transforms it into a poignant story of love, loss and retrieval, with intensely dramatic situations. Nala is introduced as an ideal king--good-natured, heroic and handsome--and above all, steadfast in the pursuit of dharma, with an abiding faith in Siva. The love that sprouts between Nala and Damayanti is presented with a complexity that finds manifold expressions such as longing and desire, union and fulfilment, separation and anxiety, doubt, frustration, reaffirmation and reconciliation. It is an all-consuming love that transcends the obstacles created by even the gods, and is often expressed by what is unsaid. To cite an instance, even in the height of unconsummated desire after the wedding, Nala’s passion is expressed in highly evocative lines such as:


Moon-radiant, I have secured you.

So have I been blessed (from my previous births) now.

Now your shyness is my only enemy, I reckon.

Won’t it also wear off and subside?


(Induvadane, ninne labhicchu

Atinal eniykku pura punyam phalichu

Iniyo nin trapayonne eniykku vairini manye

Thaniye poyatumozhiyato?)


Fig. 1: A still from a Kathakali rendition of the Nala-Damayanthi saga


The subtle intensity of this scene, as well as that of the final meeting between Nala and Damayanti after they settle their differences and are reunited are unparalleled in Kathakali. The crisis in the story is the influence of Kali, an evil power that influences Nala (as perhaps anyone else who gives in to temptations of the body and disregarding the call of their duty). Perhaps the waste of vital energy and neglect towards other obligations, through excessive absorption in love may have been the cause of Nala’s suffering, for the story upholds the view that the destiny of each person is controlled by the good and bad actions not only of this life, but of the lives gone by. However, one could rise above fate by dedicating oneself to the assigned duties and to spiritual pursuits.


In the Kathakali performance, this central theme finds elaborate depiction at various stages, both from the perspectives of Nala and Damayanti. To cite an instance, Nala, while wandering in the forest after he abandons Damayanti, comes across a dramatic situation that unravels the miserable plight of a deer caught between several life-threatening factors, but which ultimately get reversed, leading to a happy ending:



Nala observes a deer at the last stage of labor. 


She is near a forest and there is a stream that runs nearby. The pangs of labour are strong and she is writhing in pain.


At that moment, a tiger, hungry and in search of a prey, spots the deer and is about to pounce on her.


But wait, here comes a hunter looking for his food, and sees the deer. He gets ready to shoot and kill her, having prepared his bow and directed the arrow towards his target.


Meanwhile, there erupts a fire and the forest is aflame.


The poor deer, already in misery due to the pangs of labour, is now caught between three kinds of mortal danger—the lion, hunter and the raging fire. She is in a situation of utter hopelessness.


However, who knows the turns of destiny! While Nala keeps wondering about the plight of the poor deer, there comes crawling, a huge serpent, which bites the hunter on his leg. Writhing in pain, he succumbs to the poisonous bite, but in the meanwhile, the arrow is shot. Missing the mark, the arrow hits the tiger, which dies on the spot. Promptly, there is an overpowering rain in the forest, and the shower puts out the fire.


Released from all the impending dangers, the deer delivers two twin fawns, and is seen as happily suckling them near the brook.


What a happy turn of events! Nala is wonderstruck at the change that providence brings into lives…


Though this action is not part of the story itself, actors down the generations have interpreted episodes like this to illustrate the power of destiny in mortal life.


In the scene of the final meeting between Nala and Damayanti, there is eagerness and joy in Nala’s mind to see his beloved, but Damayanti still has a hint of apprehension whether this dwarfed man (who transforms his body after Karkotaka the serpent bites him) is actually King Nala himself. It is only when Nala discards his masquerade that she expresses her joy openly, only to be met with harsh words from Nala, because his own mind is overshadowed by a lingering suspicion regarding the news of her second marriage:


That you were in love with me does not prove your innocence and virtue.

After all, is there anyone who isn’t adept at finding out another’s fault?

Who knows the perfidies concealed in the hearts of women?

I have understood your intentions... 


However, Damayanti, after all, is no Sita of the Ramayana. After a series of pleas and explanations, she has had enough. She gathers courage, stands up for herself and faces Nala squarely:


My lord, to seek you out, frightened as I was then,

How does it matter, if I adopted such a course?

My mother is my witness.

If you still consider me guilty, I have no regrets.

On the contrary, I am happy, indeed.

Desirous of seeing this human incarnation of Kama, out of eagerness,
I have committed this act. Except for this there is no deception here.


Finally, the aerial voice intervenes and clears the doubts about Damayanti’s chastity, leading the play to a happy ending.


The relatively minor characters in the Mahabharata story, such as the goose, Karkotaka, the woodsman who rescues Damayanti from the snake in the forest, the merchant leader who directs her to her Chedi kingdom, King Rituparna, Kesini the maid who acts as an emissary of Damayanti in the final episode, and Sudeva the brahmin who takes Damayanti’s message to Rituparna’s court are all well-etched, each of them having a definite role in bringing the story to its final resolution.


The story of Nala and Damayanti has inspired several miniature paintings and illustrations across India, including a sixteenth century Mahabharata manuscript which has Nala drawings, several paintings including the famous Ravi Varma series of three paintings, twenty-nine Rajput miniatures in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, forty seven painting in the Dr. Karan Singh collection and exhibited at the Amar Mahal Museum of Jammu. Of these different series of paintings on Nalacharita illustrate the characteristics of their own styles, but the most remarkable feature of all these paintings are elegance, beauty and a certain infectious pleasure that get transmitted.