The story of Damayanti
The tale of Nala and Damayanti deserves to be approached with some reverence. As myth, this story inevitably speaks of the interior psychological condition of the culture that produced it. Tales of kings and queenss, gods and demons, are the time-honored way of examining psychological characteristics and patterns of human behavior. It is not possible to reproduce the magnificance of the story's archaic language...
(Femininity Lost and Regained ~ Robert A. Johnson)
Once there was a king who was the very flower of virtue but had one glaring fault: he could not withstand the urge to gamble. He was so blinded by this one passion that he was easily beguiled into a gambling game, and with equal ease he could be cheated. He finally lost his kingdom and was exiled into the forest in poverty. His son, Nala, took the throne, and with his wisdom and strength restored the kingdom to its power.
Now, a neighboring king had a daughter approaching marriageable age, who knew no equal in beauty and nobility. Heralds and courtiers took it upon themselves to whisper of Damayanti's virtues. Soon the talk linked the pair, Damayanti and Nala, in excellence. It is not strange that the two came to love each other as if destined by fate, though they had never seen each other in human form. The matter seemed impossible since Nala could not have audience with her. But one day Nala, by chance, caught a golden swan, who bargained for his freedom by promising to court Damayanti for him.
Damayanti's father has announced a contest - a Swayamvara - for his daughter's suitors. The gods, even Indra himself, the ruling deity of all India, enter the competition. Indra finds Nala on the road travelling to enter the contest, and instructs him to court Damayanti on the god's behalf. Nala, in a terrible dilemma between his loyalty to the god and to his own heart, openly courts Damayanti for Indra but quietly declares his own love. Damayanti reveals her love for Nala and decides she will choose Nala publicly at the festival.
The critical moment arrives: the contenders are seated in a circle, and she is to choose. But all look like gods in her eyes! What is she to do? Someone whispers to her that the one human present, Nala, can be recognized because he is obliged to blink his eyes occasionally. Damayanti finds Nala in this way and announces her choice of suitor. The gods, more generous than humans, each give a blessing to the young couple.
All is not well, however. Kali, the god of wrath and destruction, hears that a mere mortal has chosen a human over a god as her consort. Kali declares his wrath, but he has to wait twelve years before he finds a vunerable point in Nala's character. One day Nala forgets to wash his feet before praying, and Kali gains control over him. This may seem a tiny matter to a Westerner, but any breach of form is thought to be dangerous in India. Preying upon Nala's ancestry, Kali inflames him with an insane need to gamble.
Though his friends counsel him to try to protect him, Nala gambles away the whole kingdom, even doen to Damayanti's clothing. She is left with one small sloth for a sari, he wearing nothing. Nala can do nothing now but depart for the forest with Damayanti and take up the life of an ascetic beggar.
Nala falls into depravity and steals half of Damayanti's modest clothing while she sleeps. He now will have something to wager at his gambling ventures. He loses even this last possession. In terrible shame, he leaves Damayanti, still asleep.
Awakening, Damayanti is inconsolable in her loneliness and loss. She falls into the coils of a giant serpent, but a youth rescues her. She wanders for three days and is told by a band of ascetics that she will soon find her husband, freed from his dice madness and restored to his royal dignity. The ascetics vanish; they have only been a vision.
Damayanti joins a band of merchants who are on their way to Suvahu, the City of Truth. They camp by a lotus lake. In the middle of the night, a herd of wild elephants destroys their camp in indignation at what man has done to their brothers. Damayanti then travels alone to the City of Truth, where the queen recognizes her and offers her protection.
Nala has fared little better. He sees a forest on fire and hears Naga, the world serpent, cry from the fire, begging for help. Nala rescues the serpent, but his reward is to be bitten. Naga explains that this bite is the only cure for Nala's dice madness but that Nala will pay for his cure by losing his youth and beauty and grace. Nala, transformed, goes to the City of Truth to exchange his skill at horsemanship for skill at dice.
Damayanti is rescued from the City of Truth by her parents and brought home. Her parents set about to find Nala by a ruse: they announce another Swayamvara for Damayanti. Nala, hearing of this, is in agony. He is working for a man who plans to compete at the Swayamvara. The master asks him to manage the horses and is so impressed by Nala's fine horsemanship that he offers to tade his own skill at dice for Nala's skill with horses. Nala will now be enabled to purge himself of his madness.
At the Swayamvara, Nala, managing the horses, makes sounds that are uniquely his own. Damayanti recognizes Nala by ear, though not yet by sight. With Damayanti's touch, Nala is restored to his kingly status