In the Middle Country there lived a king's daughter who had such loveliness that the people said of her, "She cannot be the child of a mortal pair." Damayantī the maiden was named. And, ruling over the mountain tribes near by, there was a king named Nala who had such beauty and such strength that he was likened both to the God of Love and the God of War. They heard of each other, these two, and so greatly were their minds moved by what they heard that Damayantī could think of no man but Nala, and Nala could think of no woman but Damayantī. But neither had seen, and neither had received nor had sent any message to, the other.
One day, on a lake in his domain, Nala saw a swan with golden wings, and using all his craft as a hunter and fowler he caught the strange swan. When it knew that it could not free itself the swan
spoke human words to Nala: "Release me, King, and I will go to Damayantī and tell her of your beauty and your kindliness." Nala released the golden-winged swan.
It came to a lake in her father's garden, and allowed Damayantī to capture it. Then the golden-winged swan spoke to her and said, "Princess, I have come from a king who surpasses all men in beauty and valour; he is the one man in the world who is a fitting husband for you." "If he is not Nala do not speak of him." "He is Nala." "Then fly back and tell King Nala that I long to look upon him."
Then Damayantī lost all her playfulness and became burthened and mournful; all her thoughts were fixed upon Nala, but she did not know that she would ever look upon him. And her father, when he noted the change in her, considered that the time had come for her to look upon men and to choose a husband for herself.
For in those days kings' daughters made their own choice amongst men of princely rank: an assembly was held in their fathers' palaces, and from the suitors who presented themselves the princesses made a choice; that choice they signified by bestowing a garland upon one of the suitors. Now the king, Damayantī's father, proclaimed that such an assembly would be held in his palace. So great and widespread was the fame of her beauty that hundreds of kings' son and kings presented themselves as suitors. The Immortals, too, resolved to present themselves: Indra, Agni, Varuna, and Yama each wanted to have so lovely a being as Damayantī for his wife.
Nala heard of the assembly, and in his shining chariot he started out for the king's palace. While he was yet far from it he was met by four chariots, and the being in each one of them was so radiant that Nala knew him for one of the Immortals. He got down from his chariot and bowed before them. And they whom he knew to be Immortals addressed him, saying, "Go to the Princess Damayantī and say to her that Indra, Agni, Varuna, and Yama will present themselves at the assembly, and each will try to have her bestow her garland upon him." Nala's heart fainted within him when he heard this speech. But he could only do reverence to the Immortals and declare that he would deliver their message.
Immediately he said this he was within the palace. He found himself in a woman's chamber, and a woman who was as beautiful as
the young moon was standing before him. "Who art thou, and how earnest thou into my chamber?" she asked. And then at once she said, "Tell me that thou art Nala, that thou hast come to look upon me, that thou hast come to get my promise that on thee I will bestow my garland. Oh, indeed, upon thee I will bestow it." But Nala said, "Only by the power of the Gods have I come into thy chamber that is so carefully guarded." "It matters not how thou hast come; thou wilt be a suitor for me, and I will take thee for my husband--thee, Nala, whom I have always longed for." Then Nala, with breaking heart, told her that he had come as the envoy of the Immortals, and that Indra, Agni, Varuna, and Yama were beings so great that no maiden could make choice of a mortal when they were present.
But Damayantī said, "Be thou amongst the suitors; thee will I choose. And no blame can attach to thee, for the law to which even the Gods bow to permits me to make a free choice." Nala then returned to where the Immortals waited, and he told them of Damayantī's resolve. "Then, Nala, we five will be suitors for this mortal maiden," they said to him.
The king's court was crowded with suitors; great sages and saints were there also. And Damayantī entered with her maidens around her, and all who were there cried out in delight at her beauty. One suitor after another came before her. She looked from them and saw five Nalas. She knew that each of the Immortals had taken on the form and appearance of Nala. Then she was dismayed and she turned to leave the court where the princes and kings were assembled. But she knew that if she did this she would never again be permitted to make a free choice amongst suitors. Courageously she stayed; courageously she went to where the five stood. And going before them she bowed her head and prayed, "O great Gods, ye who hear the prayer that is humbly offered up, permit me to know which is Nala, the mortal to whom I have pledged myself." And as Damayantī said this she saw and she distinguished the four who were Immortals and the one who was a mortal man. For one stood with a shadow thrown from him, with unsteady eyes and a sweated brow and a fading garland, and four stood with their feet above the ground, with steady eyes and unswented brows and unfading garlands. No shadows were thrown by
them. And all in that assembly knew that the Immortals were amongst them.
Then did Damayantī make reverence to the Immortal Gods, bowing herself before them. But she put her garland over the one whose garland was faded, who had unsteady eyes and a sweated brow. So did the princess make her choice. The kings and princes who were rejected wept bitterly because of her choice. But the Immortals gave rich gifts to her and to Nala, and the saints and sages who were there praised Damayantī for the noble choice she had made.