The story of Nal and Damayanti is described in Mahabharatha in chapters 52 to 79 in Vanaparva as told by Sage Brihadaswa to Yudhishthir and Bheema. The pandavas had beenbanished for thirteen years of exile, having lost all their wealth and honour in the gambling match. The humiliation of Draupadi nagged them day and night. This story is a lesson that we need to have patience even the greatest of people are tested by fate. The bad times should be used to gain skills necessary to beat the enemy.
In the 18th century, Unnayi Warrier structured the contents of this story as Nalcharitham Attakatha to suit the dance form Kathakali, making it more dramatic and full of action. Nalcharitham is a considered the most romantic work of art constructed on the classical basement of Kathakali. A long play, it is divided in four parts to be played in four days.
The story in Mahabharata begins when Nal the prince of Nishadh becomes the king. He was a very handsome man, often compared to Kamdeva himself. Adept at the art of riding and yoking horses in chariots, he was the winner of many battles. Around the same time there was a young woman Damyanti, princess of Vidharbha, extremely beautiful and learned. Nal often heard about her beauty. Hearing that she alone was fit to be his queen, Nal is overcome by desire to seek her.
In the Nalcharitham Attakatha however it begins with Narad approaching King Nal.
One day Sage Narada reached Nal’s kingdom Nishadha. King Nal received him with all honour. He told Nal that in Kundinpuri of Vidharbha, there was a beautiful princess named Damayanti, who was sought after even by the Gods and he should marry her. Nal wondered what right he, a human had to contest with the gods to marry her. But Narada assured him that as the ruler of the neihbouring country, he was most suited to marry her and he should strive to do it. The Sage wished him all success and took leave. Nal got lost in thoughts imagining the beauty of Damayanti. He visualized her in all her splendour and came to the conclusion that he would have no peace of mind until he married her. He was so tormented by the lascivious charm of Damayanti that he entrusted his duties as the king to his minister and went to the royal garden to find some peace of mind.
The effect however was exact reverse, the breeze carrying the perfumes of flowers, the trees embraced by flowering jasmine plants, the dancing peacocks and the sound of sweet-singing birds amplified his longing. He then saw three swans of different colours in a pond nearby; among them a golden one caught his attention. He thought of catching the bird unawares while it slept. On being captured, the swan yelled out that if the king would kill it, its chicks would be orphaned. The King assured that he had no intentions of hurting it, he only thought of keeping the golden bird as a pet. He allowed the bird to fly away free to his chicks. Once the bird is gone, Nal again fell back into his reverie about Damayanti.
Swan (Hamsa), grateful for the generosity of the Nal, returned to thank the King and offered to do something in return for his kindness. It promised the King that it would do his best to persuade Damayanti to marry him. Nal was extremely pleased for the favour that came from unexpected quarters. He hugged the bird as his dearest and sent it as his messenger to Damayanti.
Hamsa descended on Damyanti’s garden while she was walking with her friends. When the bird came closer, she asked the others to keep away and approached the bird. Once assured that they were beyond the reach of the others, Hamsa assured Damyanti that there was no need for her to catch it. It had indeed arrived just for her. Hamsa found that she too had heard about Nal’s good looks and glorious deeds. The bird earned the trust of Damayanthi by revealing that it lived in the Kingdom of Nal, tutoring ladies to practice proper gait like a swan.
The bird disclosed that Nal was her ardent lover too. He desired to marry her, this made Damyanti very happy. When the swan inquired whether she would choose the Gods over him, Damayanthi assured the bird that none other than Nal would attract her. Just as a river would ultimately fall only in the sea, no hill, even if it tried its best, could arrest its flow.Swan was very glad and got ready to leave, when Damayanthi pleaded to describe how Nal looked like. Hamsa drew his figure on a lotus leaf. Damayanti was awestruck by the handsome king and embraced the picture with affection. Realizing that Nal’s love was suitably returned; Hansa blessed her to get the king as her husband.
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