Nala Possessed by a Demon--A Brother's Challenge--The Game of Dice--The Rajah's Stakes--Alarm of Citizens--Damayantí's Grief--Flight of Children--A Kingdom Gambled away--The Exiled King--His Faithful Wife--Departure to the Forest--Damayantí Deserted--Seized by a Serpent--Rescued by a Huntsman--A Terrible Curse--Forest Perils--Appeal to a Tiger--The Holy Mountain--Prophecy of Hermits--Address to the Asoka Tree--The Caravan--Disasters of a Night--Damayantí's Flight to Chedi.
FOR twelve bright years Nala and Damayantí lived happily together. The great rajah ruled his people justly; he offered up every sacrifice to the gods, and he gave sumptuous gifts to holy men. Fair Damayantí became the mother of a beauteous daughter, who was named Indrasena, and of a comely son, who was named Indrasen. So were the blessings of life showered upon the blissful pair.
But at length there came a day when, after performing an unclean act, Nala sipped holy water and went to prayer with unwashed feet. 1 The watchful Kali seized this fatal opportunity, and straightway entered the rajah and possessed his inmost soul. Then that evil demon summoned Push´kara, the brother of Nala, saying: "Come now and throw dice with the king. I will give thee mine aid, so that thou wilt be enabled to win the whole realm for thyself."
Pushkara at once challenged his brother, whereupon the wicked spirit Dwapara entered the dice.
Nala gave ready consent to take part in the game of hazard, for he was swayed by evil Kali. Then the two rivals began to play together in the presence of Damayantí.
The great rajah staked his wealth, and he was worsted; he staked his golden treasures and he staked his chariots, and still he was worsted; he staked his rich attire, and he continued to lose. The passion for dice had possessed Nala like to sudden madness, and it was in vain that his friends endeavoured to restrain him.
In time rumours of dire happenings went abroad through the city, whereupon the rajah's faithful subjects, accompanied by high counsellors of state, assembled at the palace gate with desire to prevail upon him to cease playing. They urged upon Damayantí to intervene, and the spirit-broken daughter of Bhima approached Nala in anguish and in dismay, and with tear-choking voice she spoke to him, saying: "All thy subjects are gathered without, for they cannot endure the thought that misfortune should fall upon thee."
Nala heard her, but answered not a word, because his soul was clouded by evil Kali. Then the wise men said: "It is not he;" and they departed to their homes in sorrow and in shame. . . .
So the play went on; daily it went on through many weary months, and Nala was always worsted.
When, in the end, Damayantí perceived that all the treasures were lost, she sent for the faithful charioteer, Várshneya, and spoke to him, saying: "Hasten now and yoke Nala's speedy and much-loved steeds, and place my children in the chariot. Then drive quickly to the city of my kindred and leave them in care of my father, the
[paragraph continues] Rajah Bhima. When thou hast done me that service, O Varshneya, thou mayst go wheresoever thou wilt."
So the charioteer conveyed the beauteous girl Indrasena and the comely boy Indrasen to the city of Vidarbha, and he delivered them safely unto Bhima, whom he informed fully regarding the fall of Nala. Thereafter he departed, sorrowing greatly, and went to the city of Ayodhyá, 1 where he took service with the renowned Rajah Rituparna.
Nala played on; he continued to throw the dice, until at length he had lost all his possessions. Then Pushkara smiled and spoke to his stricken brother, saying: "Now, throw but one more hazard. Where is your stake? Ah! you have naught left now save Damayantí. Let us throw the dice for her."
At these words Nala's heart was rent in twain. Mute with sorrow, he gazed upon his brother. . . . He arose and stripped off his rich vestments one by one in the presence of his lamenting friends. Then slowly and in silence he went forth, naked and alone. Damayantí, wearing but a single garment, followed him behind. Together they stood at the city gates.
Then Pushkara, who had become rajah, caused to be proclaimed throughout the city the dread decree: "Whosoever giveth food or drink unto Nala shall be immediately put to death".
In their terror the people could not give further help to the fallen king, and for three days and three nights he drank water only. Then he plucked wild fruit and roots from the earth, and these he ate. Nala thereafter wandered away from Nishadha, an outcast among men, and Damayantí followed him behind.
Tortured by hunger, the fallen king at length beheld on the ground a flock of birds with gold-flecked wings, and he said in his heart: "Now I will make me a welcome feast."
So he crept forward and flung over them his single garment; but they rose in the air, carrying it away with them. As they went they cried out mockingly in human language and said: "Know now, O foolish king, that we are the dice. We came hither on purpose to despoil thee utterly, for so long as thou hadst left a single garment our joy was incomplete."
Thereupon Nala spoke to Damayantí in his anguish, saying: "O blameless one, by whose anger have I been driven from my kingdom and rendered thus unable to procure any food? Listen now to my counsel. The roads diverge here before us, and one leads southward past the caves of holy hermits, which are stored with food, towards the kingdom of thy royal sire."
Anxiously did Nala point out the way and urge upon Bhima's fair daughter to take refuge in Vidarbha ere he would enter the great forest.
Weighed down by her heavy sorrow, Damayantí made answer with tear-choking voice: "Alas! thy words of counsel cause my heart to break and my limbs to fail me. How can I leave thee all alone in trackless forest when thou hast lost thy kingdom and thy riches, and whilst thou art athirst and tortured by hunger? Rather let me comfort thee, O my husband, when in thy grief, and, famine-stricken as thou now art, thou dost ponder wearily over thy lost happiness, for in truth have wise physicians said that a wife is the only balsam and the only healing herb for her husband's sorrow."
Said Nala: "Thou hast spoken truly. There is indeed no medicine for a stricken man like to his wife's
love. Think not that I desire to part from thee. . . . Would that I could abandon myself!"
Damayantí wept and said: "If thou wouldst not leave me, why, O king, dost thou make heavier my sorrow by pointing out the way to Vidarbha? Thou art too noble to abandon me, yet thou dost show me the road southward. If it is meet that I should return unto my father, come thou with me and he will bid thee welcome, and we could dwell together happily in his palace."
Nala made answer sadly: "Ah! never can I return in my shame to that city where I have appeared aforetime in pride and in splendour."
Then, comforting Damayantí, Nala wandered on with her through the deep forest, and they made one garment serve them both. Greatly they suffered from hunger and from thirst, and when at length they came to a lonely hut, they sat down on the hard ground, nor had they even a mat to rest upon. Damayantí was overcome with weariness, and soon she sank asleep; she lay all naked on that bare floor. But there was no rest for Nala; he thought with pain of his lost kingdom and the friends who had deserted him, and of the weary journey he must make in the midst of the great forest. "Ah! were it better to die now and end all," he mused, "or to desert her whom I love? She is devoted unto me more deeply than I deserve. Perchance if she were abandoned she would return to Vidarbha. She is unable to endure my sufferings and the constant sorrow which must be mine."
Long he pondered thus, until Kali swayed him to desert his faithful wife. So he severed her garment and used half of it. He turned away from the fair princess as she lay fast asleep.
Repenting in his heart, Nala returned speedily and gazed upon fair Damayantí with pity and with love. He
wept bitterly, saying: "Ah! thou dost sleep on the bare hard ground whom neither sun nor storm hath ever used roughly. O my loved one, thou hast ever awakened to smile. How wilt thou fare when thou dost discover that thy lord hath abandoned thee in the midst of the perilous forest? . . . May sun and wind and the spirits of the wood protect thee, and may thou be shielded ever by thine own great virtue!"
Then the distracted rajah, prompted by Kali again, hastened away; but his heart was torn by his love, which drew him back. . . . So time and again he came and went, like to a swing, backward and forward, until in the end the evil spirit conquered him, and he departed from Damayantí, who moaned fitfully in her sleep; and he plunged into the depths of the forest.
Ere long the fair princess awoke, and when she perceived that she was all alone she uttered a piteous scream and cried out: "Oh! where art thou, my king, my lord, my sole protector? . . . I am lost; oh! I am undone. I am helpless and alone in the perilous wood. . . . Ah! now thou art but deceiving me. Do not mock me, my lord. Art thou hidden there among the bushes? Oh, speak! . . . Why dost thou not make answer? . . . I do not sorrow for myself only. I cannot well endure that thou shouldst be alone, that thou shouldst thirst and be an hungered and very weary, and without me to give thee comfort. . . ."
So she wailed as she searched through the forest for Nala, now casting herself upon the ground, now sitting to pine in silence, and anon crying out in her grief. At length she said: "Oh, may he who causeth Nala to suffer endure even greater agony than he endureth, and may he live for ever in darkness and in misery!"
Hither and thither she wandered, seeking her lord,
and ever was she heard crying: "Alas! O alas! my husband."
Suddenly a great serpent rose up in its wrath and coiled itself round her fair body. . . .
"Oh! my guardian," she cried, "I am now undone. The serpent hath seized me. Why art thou not near? . . . Ah! who will comfort thee now in thy sorrow, O blameless Nala?"
As she lamented thus, a passing huntsman heard her cries; he broke through the jungle and beheld Damayantí in the coils of the serpent. . . . Nimbly he darted forward and with a single blow smote off the monster's head, and thus rescued the beauteous lady from her awesome peril. Then he washed her body and gave her food, and she was refreshed.
"Who art thou, O fair-eyed one?" he asked. "Why dost thou wander thus alone in the perilous wood?"
Damayantí of faultless form thereupon related to the huntsman the story of her sorrow. As she spoke, his frail heart was moved by her great beauty, and he uttered amorous words with whining voice. . . . Perceiving his evil intent, she was roused to fierce anger. Her chastity was her sole defence, and she cursed him so that he immediately fell down dead like to a tree that has been smitten by lightning and is suddenly blasted. 1
Freed thus from the savage huntsman of wild beasts, the lotus-eyed Damayantí wandered on through the deep forest, which resounded everywhere with the song of the cricket. All around her were trees of every form and name, and she beheld shady arbours, deep valleys, and wooded hill summits, and lakes and pools, loud resounding waterfalls, and great flowing rivers. The forest was drear and appalling: it was full of lions and tigers, of
countless birds and fierce robbers. She saw buffaloes and wild boars feeding, and the fierce and awesome forms that were there also--serpents and giants and terrible demons. . . . But, protected by her virtue, she wandered on all alone without fear. Her sole anxiety was for Nala, and she wept for him, crying: "Ah! where art thou? O blameless one, remember now thy vows and thy plighted faith. Remember the words which the gold-winged swan addressed unto thee. . . . Am I not thy loved one? . . . Oh! why dost thou not make answer in this dark and perilous forest? The savage beasts are gaping to devour me. Why art thou not near to save? . . . I am weak and pallid and dust-stained, and have need of thee, my protector. . . . Whom can I ask for Nala? The tiger is before me, the king of the forest, and I am not afraid. I address him, saying: 'Oh! I am lonely, and wretched, and sorrowful, seeking for my exiled husband. If thou hast seen him, console me; if thou hast not seen him, devour me, and set me free from this misery.' . . . But the tiger turns down to the river bank, and I wander onward towards the holy mountain, the monarch of hills.
"' Hear me!' I cry. I salute thee, O Mountain. . . . I am a king's daughter and the consort of a king, the illustrious lord of Nishadha, the pious, the faultless one, who is courageous as the elephant. . . . Hast thou seen my Nala, O mighty Mountain? . . . Ah! why dost thou not answer me? . . . Comfort thou me now as if I were thine own child. . . . Oh! shall I ever behold him again, and ever hear again his honey-sweet voice, like music, saying: 'Daughter of Vidarbha,' while it doth soothe all my pain with its blessed sound? . . ."
Having thus addressed the mountain, Damayantí turned northward and wandered on for three days and three nights. Then she reached a holy grove, and
entered it humbly and without fear. She beheld there the cells of hermits and their bright sacred fires. The holy men were struck with wonder by reason of her beauty, and they bade her welcome, saying: "Art thou a goddess of the wood, or of the mountain, or of the river? O speak and tell."
Damayantí made answer: "I am not a goddess of the wood, or a mountain spirit, or yet a river nymph, but a mortal woman."
Then she related to the holy men the story of her sorrow and her wandering, and these seers spoke to her and said: "A time cometh soon, a time of beauty, when thou wilt again behold Nala in splendour and sin-released ruling over his people."
When they had spoken thus, all the holy men vanished, and their sacred fires vanished also. Damayantí stood a while in silent wonder, and in her heart she said: "Have I seen a vision? . . ." Then she went towards another region.
Lamenting for Nala, the fair one came to a beauteous asoka tree 1: its green branches were gemmed with gleaming fruit, and were melodious with the songs of birds. "O happy tree," she cried, "take away all my grief. . . . Say, hast thou beheld my Nala, the slayer of his enemies, my beloved lord? Oh! hast thou seen my one love, with smooth, bright skin, wandering alone in the forest? Answer me, O blessed Asoka, so that I may depart from thee in joy. Ah! hear and speak thou happy tree. . . ."
So, wailing in her deep anguish, Damayantí moved round the asoka. Then she went towards a lonelier and more fearsome region. . . . She passed many a river and
many mountains, and she saw numerous birds and deer as she wandered on and on, searching for her lost lord.
At length she beheld a great caravan of merchants. Ponderous elephants and eager camels, prancing horses and rumbling cars carne through a river. The river banks were fringed by cane and tangled undergrowth; the curlew called aloud there, and the osprey; red geese were clamouring; turtles were numerous, as were the fish and the serpents likewise. All the noble animals of the caravan came splashing noisily across the ford.
The great concourse of travellers stared with wonder on the slender-waisted, maniac-like woman, clad in but half a garment, smeared with dust and pale and sorrowful, her long hair all matted and miry. Some there were who fled from her in fear. But others took pity and said: "Who art thou, O lady, and what seekest thou in the lonely forest? Art thou a goddess of the mountain, or of the forest, or of the plain? . . . We pray for thy protection; be mindful of our welfare so that we may prosper upon our journey."
Then Damayantí told the story of her misfortune and sorrow, and all the travellers gathered round about to hear--boys and young men and grey-haired sages. "Oh! have you beheld my lord, my Nala?" she cried unto them.
The captain of the band answered her "Nay"; and she asked him whither the caravan was bound, whereat he said: "We are going towards the realm of Chedi, over which Subáhu is king." When the merchants resumed their journey, Damayantí went with them.
Through the forest they travelled a long distance, and at eventide they reached the green shore of a beautiful wide lake which sparkled with bright lotus
blooms. 1 The camp was pitched in the middle of a deep grove. Gladly did the men bathe with their wearied animals in the delicious, ice-cool waters.
At midnight all slept. . . . In the deep silence a herd of wild forest elephants, with moisture oozing from their temples, 2 came down to drink from the gurgling stream which flowed nigh to the camp. When they scented the tame elephants lying crouched in slumber, they trumpeted aloud, and of a sudden charged ponderously and fell upon them like to mountain peaks tumbling into the valleys beneath. . . . Trees and tents were thrown down as they trampled through the camping ground, and the travellers awoke panic-stricken, crying: "Oh! Alas! Ah! Oh!" Some fled through the forest; others, blind with sleep, stood gasping with wonder, and the elephants slew them. The camp was scattered in the dire confusion; many animals were gored; men overthrew one another, endeavouring to escape; many shrieked in terror, and a few climbed trees. Voices were heard calling: "It is a fire!" and merchants screamed, "Why fly away so speedily? Save the precious jewels, O ye cowards."
Amidst the tumult and the slaughter Damayantí awoke, trembling with fear, and she made swift escape, nor suffered a wound. In the deep forest she came nigh to the few men who had found refuge, and she heard them say one to another:
"What deed have we done to bring this misfortune upon us? Have we forgotten to adore Manibhadra 3, the high king of the Yakshas? Worshipped we not, ere we set forth, the dread spirits which bring disasters? Was
it doomed that all omens should be belied? How hath it come that such a disaster hath befallen us?"
Others who had been bereft of their kindred and their wealth, and were in misery, said: "Who was she--that ill-omened, maniac-eyed woman who came amongst us? In truth she seemed scarcely human. Surely it is by reason of her evil power that disaster hath befallen us. Ah! she is a witch, or she is a sorceress, or mayhap a demon. . . . Without doubt she is the cause of all our woes. . . . Would that we could find her--oh the evil destroyer! Oh the curse of our host! . . . Let us slay the murderess with clods and with stones, with canes and with staves, or else with our fists. . . ." 1
When the terrified and innocent Damayantí heard these fearsome threats, she fled away through the trees, lamenting her fate, and wailing: "Alas! alas! my terrible doom doth haunt me still. Misfortune dogs my foot-steps. . . . I have no memory of any sin of thought or deed--of any wrong done by me to living beings. Perchance, oh, alas! I did sin in my former life, and am now suffering due punishment. . . . For I suffer, indeed. I have lost my husband; my kingdom is lost; I have lost my kindred; my noble Nala has been taken from me, and I am far removed from my children, and I wander alone in the wood of serpents."
When morning broke, the sorrowful queen met with some holy Brahmans who had escaped the night's disaster, and she went with them towards the city of Chedi.
The people gazed with wonder on Damayantí when she walked though the streets with her dust-smeared body and matted hair. The children danced about her as she wandered about like to a maniac, so miserable and weary and emaciated.
It chanced that the sorrowing woman came nigh to the royal palace. The mother of the king looked forth from a window, and beheld her and said: "Hasten, and bid this poor wanderer to enter. Although stricken and half-clothed she hath, methinks, the beauty of Indra's long-eyed queen. Let her have refuge from those staring men.
Damayantí was then led before the queen mother, who spoke gently, saying: "Although bowed down with grief, thou art beautiful of form. Thou fearest not anyone. Who art thou so well protected by thine own chastity?"
Bhima's daughter wept, lamenting her fate, and related all that had befallen her, but did not reveal who she was. Then the queen mother said: "Dwell thou here with me, and our servants shall go in quest of thy husband."
Damayantí said: "O mother of heroes, if I abide here with thee I must eat not of food remnants, nor do menial service, nor can I hold converse with any man save the holy Brahmans who promise to search for my husband."
The royal lady made answer: "As thou desireth, so let it be." Then she spake to Sunanda, her daughter, saying: "This lady will he to thee a handmaiden and a friend. She is of thine own age and thy worthy peer. Be happy together."
At these words the Princess Sunanda was made glad, and she led the strange woman unto her own abode, where sat all her virgin handmaidens.
There Damayantí dwelt for a time, waiting for her lost husband.
340:1 The ceremony of purification included the sipping of water and tie washing of feet.
342:1 Ayodhyá signifies "invincible" city. It is identified with the modern Oude.
346:1 The power of a curse is illustrated in Southey's Curse of Kehama.
348:1 A (not) soka (sorrow). This beautiful tree has exquisitely coloured and abundant blossom, varying from rich orange red to primrose yellow. It is sacred to Siva.
350:1 They are coloured red, white, and blue.
350:2 Rutting elephants. The seasonal juice is odorous, and issues from minute holes on each side of the elephant's temples.
350:3 Manibhadra, the demi-god, was worshipped by travellers, and resembles Kuvera, god of wealth.
351:1 A curious glimpse of Hindu ideas regarding demi-gods or demons.