Nala's Wanderings--The Magic Fire--King of Serpents Rescued--Nala Transformed--His Service as a Charioteer--Life in Ayodhya--The Evening Song of Sorrow--Search for Damayantí--How she was Discovered--Her Departure from Chedi--Search for Nala--A Woman's Faith--Journey to the Swayamvara--The Tree Wonder--Demon Leaves Nala's Body--The Coming of the Chariot--Damayantí's Vow.
SOON after Nala had fled into the forest depths, deserting the faithful Damayantí, he beheld a great fire which blazed furiously. As he drew nigh he heard a voice crying over and over again from the midst of the sacred flames: "Hasten, Nala! Oh, hasten, Nala, and come hither!"
Now, Agni had given Nala power over fire, so crying: "Have no fear," he leapt through the flames. . . . In the space within that blazing circle be beheld the king of serpents lying coiled up in a ring with folded hands and unable to move. 1 Lo! I am Karkotaka," the serpent said, "and am suffering this punishment because that I deceived the holy sage Nárada, who thereupon cursed me, saying: 'Thou wilt remain here in the midst of the flames until Nala cometh nigh to free thee from my curse'. . . . So do I lie without power to move. O mighty rajah, if thou wilt rescue me even now, I will reward thee abundantly with my noble friendship, and help thee to attain great
happiness. Oh lift me all speedily from out of this fiery place, thou noble rajah!"
When he had spoken thus, Karkotaka, king of the serpents, shrank to the size of a man's finger, whereupon Nala uplifted and carried him safely through the flames to a cool and refreshing space without.
The serpent then said: "Now walk on and count thy steps, so that good fortune may be assured to thee."
Nala walked nine steps, but ere he could take the tenth the serpent bit him, whereat the rajah was suddenly transformed into a misshapen dwarf with short arms.
Then Karkotaka said: "Know now that I have thus changed thy form so that no man may know thee. My poison, too, will cause unceasing anguish to the evil one who possesseth thy soul; he will suffer greatly until he shall set thee free from thy sorrow. So wilt thou be delivered from thine enemy, O blameless one. . . . My poison will harm thee not, and henceforth, by reason of my power, thou wilt have no need to fear the wild boar, or any foeman, or a Brahman, or the sages. Ever in battle thou wilt be victorious. . . . Now, go thy way, and be called 'Váhuka, the charioteer'. Hasten thou unto the city of Ayodhya 1 and enter the service of the royal Rajah Rituparna, the skilful in dice. Thou wilt teach him how to subdue horses, and he will impart to thee the secret of dice. Then wilt thou again have joy. Sorrow not, therefore, for thy wife and thy children will be restored unto thee, and thou wilt regain thy kingdom."
Then the serpent gave unto Nala a magic robe, saying: "When it is thy desire to be as thou wert, O king, think of me and put on this garment, and thou wilt immediately resume thy wonted form."
Having spoken thus, the king of serpents vanished from sight. Thereupon Nala went towards the city of Ayodhyá, and he stood in the presence of the royal Rajah Rituparna, unto whom he spoke thus: "My name is Váhuká. I am a tamer of steeds, nor is my equal to be found in the world; and I have surpassing skill in cooking viands."
The rajah welcomed him and took him into his service, saying: "Thou shalt cause my horses to be fleet of foot. Be thou master of mine own steed, and thy reward will be great."
He was well pleased and gave unto Váhuká for comrades Várshneya, who had been in Nala's service, and Jívala also. So the transformed rajah abode a long time at Ayodhya, and every evening, sitting alone, he sang a single verse:
Where is she all worn but faithful, weary, thirsty, hung’ring too?
Thinks she of her foolish husband? . . . Doth another man her woo?
Ever thus he sang, and his comrades heard him and wondered greatly. So it came that one evening Jívala spoke to Nala and said: "For whom do you sorrow thus, O Váhuká? I pray you to tell me. Who is the husband of this lady?"
Nala answered him with sad voice and said: "Once there was a peerless lady, and she had a husband of weakly will. And lo.! as they wandered in a forest together, he fled from her without cause, and yet he sorrowed greatly. Ever by day and by night is he consumed by his overwhelming grief, and brooding ever, he sings this melancholy song. He is a weary wanderer in the wide world, and his sorrow is without end; it is never still. . . . His wife wanders all forlorn in
the forest. Ah! she deserved not such a fate. Thirsting and anhungered she wanders alone because her lord forsook her and fled; wild beasts are about her, seeking to devour; the wood is full of perils. . . . It may be that she is not now alive. . . ."
Thus did Nala sorrow in his secret heart over Damayantí during his long sojourn at Ayodhya, while he served the renowned Rajah Rituparna.
Meanwhile King Bhima was causing search to be made for his lost daughter and her royal husband. Abundant rewards were offered to Bráhmans, who went through every kingdom and every city in quest of the missing pair. It chanced that a Brahman, named Sudeva, entered Chedi when a royal holiday was being celebrated, and he beheld Damayantí standing beside the Princess Sunanda and the queen mother at the royal palace.
Sudeva perceived that her loveliness had been dimmed by sorrow, and to himself he said as he gazed upon her: "Ah! the lady with lotus eyes is like to the moon, darkly beautiful; her splendour hath shrunken like the crescent moon veiled in cloud--she who aforetime was beheld in the full moonlight of her glory. Pining for her lost husband, she is like to a darksome night when the moon is swallowed; her sorrow hath stricken her like to a river which has become dry, like to a shrunken pool in which lotus blooms shrivel and fade; she is, indeed, like to withered lotus. . . . Doth Nala live now without the bride who thus mourns for him? . . . When, oh when shall Damayantí be restored once again unto her lord as the moon bride is restored unto the peerless moon? 1 . . . Methinks I will speak. . . ."
The Brahman then approached Damayantí and said: "I am Sudeva. Thy royal sire and thy mother and thy children are well. . . . A hundred Brahmans have been sent forth throughout the world to search for thee, O noble lady."
Damayantí heard him and wept.
The Princess Sunanda spoke to her queen mother, saying: "Lo! our handmaid weeps because that the Brahman hath spoken unto her. . . . Who she is we shall speedily know now."
Then the queen mother conducted the holy man to her chambers and spoke to him, saying: "Who is she--this mysterious and noble stranger, O holy man?"
Sudeva spoke in answer: "Her name is Damayantí, and her sire is King Bhima, lord of Vidarbha. Her husband is Nala. . . . From birth she has had a dark beauty spot like to a lotus between her fair eyebrows. Although it is covered with dust, I perceived it, and so I knew her. By Brahma was this spot made as the sign of his beauty-creating power."
The queen mother bade Sudeva to remove the dust from the beauty spot of Bhima's daughter. When this was done, it came forth like to the unclouded moon in heaven, and the royal lady and her daughter wept together and embraced the fair Damayantí 1.
Then the queen mother said: "Lo! thou art mine own sister's daughter, O beauteous one. Our sire is the Rajah Sudáman who reigns at Dasárna 2. . . . Once I beheld thee as a child. . . . Ah! ask of me whatsoever thou desirest and it shall be thine."
"Alas! I am a banished mother," Damayantí said with fast-flowing tears. "Permit me, therefore, to return unto my children who have been orphaned of mother and sire."
The queen mother said: "Be it so."
Then Damayantí was given an army to guard her on her journey towards her native city, and she was welcomed there by all her kindred and friends with great rejoicing. King Bhima rewarded Sudeva with a thousand kine, and a town's revenue for a village. 1
When Damayantí was embraced by her mother she said: "Now our chief duty is to bring home Nala."
The queen wept, and spoke to her husband, the royal Bhima, saying: "Our daughter still mourns heavily for lost lord and cannot be comforted."
Then Bhima urged the Brahmans to search for Nala, offering munificent reward when that he should be found. Damayantí addressed these holy men ere they departed and said unto them: "Wheresoever thou goest, speak this my message over and over again:
"Whither art thou gone, O gambler, who didst sever my garment in twain? Thou didst leave thy loved one as she lay slumbering in the savage wood. Lo! she is awaiting thy return: by day and by night she sitteth alone, consumed by her grief. Oh hear her prayer and have compassion, thou noble hero, because that size ever weepeth for thee in the depths of her despair!"
So the holy men went through every kingdom and every city repeating the message of Damayantí over and over again; but when they began to return one by one, each told with sadness that his quest had been in vain.
Then came unto Vidarbha that Brahman, the wise Parnada, who had sojourned a time in the city of Ayodhya. He addressed the daughter of Bhima, saying: "Unto Rituparna I spake regarding thy husband, repeating thy message, but he answered not a word. So I went out from before him. Thereafter there came to me his charioteer, a man with short arms and misshapen body. His name is Váhuká, and he is skilled in driving the swift chariot and in preparing viands. He sorrowed greatly, and with melancholy voice spoke unto me these words:
'In the excess of her sorrow a noble woman will compose herself and remain constant, and so win heaven by her virtues. She is protected by the breastplate of her chastity, and will suffer no harm. Nor will she yield to anger although she be deserted by her lord, whose robe the birds have taken away, leaving him in sore distress. She will not be moved to wrath against her husband, the sorrow-stricken and famine-wasted, who hath been bereft of his kingdom and despoiled of happiness.'
When I heard the stranger's speech I came speedily hither to repeat it unto thee."
Damayantí at once went and spoke to her mother privately, for she was assured that Vahuka, the charioteer, was her royal lord. Then she gave of her wealth to the Brahman, saying: "Thou wilt get more if Nala returns home." The wise Parnada was weary with travel, and he departed to his own village.
Neither Damayantí nor her mother made known unto King Bhima their discovery nor yet their immediate purpose. Secretly the wife of Nala spake to Sudeva and said: "Hasten thou unto the city of Ayodhya, and appear before the Rajah Rituparna as if thou hadst come by chance, and say unto him: 'Once again is the daughter of Bhima to hold
her swayamvara. All the kings and all the sons of kings are hastening as aforetime to Vidarbha. To-morrow at dawn she will choose for herself a new lord, for no one knoweth whether Nala liveth or not.'"
So Sudeva went unto Ayodhya and spake as Damayantí desired of him, and then said: "If thou wouldst win the princess, O Rituparna, thou must go swiftly, for when the sun rises she will choose her a second husband."
Rituparna at once sent for Vahuka, and said: "O skilled charioteer, I must needs hasten to Vidarbha in a single day, because that the fair Damayantí holdeth her swayamvara at dawn to-morrow."
At these words the heart of Nala was torn with grief, and he said unto himself: "Is this but a stratagem to deceive me? Or is she whom I wronged estranged in mind? Hath she grown fickle of heart, she who hath been soul-stricken by grief in the depths of despair?"
Then he spake unto Rituparna and said: "As thou desirest so will I do, O Rituparna. I will drive thee in a single day to Vidarbha."
Having promised thus, he went forth and selected four steeds of high courage with the ten good marks, 1 which were as swift as the wind. He yoked them in haste, spake to them soothingly, and then set forth with Rituparna and Varshneya also at full speed. The rajah sat in silent wonder as the chariot went swiftly, and to himself he said: "Vahuka hath the god-like skill of the charioteer of heaven. . . . Can he be Nala, who hath taken himself another body? If he is not Nala, he is one who hath equal skill. Great men are wandering at times to and fro in disguise--gods who are hidden in human form."
So the rajah marvelled and thought, while he rejoiced in the matchless skill of the misshapen charioteer.
Swiftly they went. Over hills and rivers and over forests and lakes the chariot glided like to a bird through the air. . . . Of a sudden the rajah's robe was swept away, and he cried to the charioteer, saying: "Stop at instant, so that Varshneya may hasten back and recover my garment."
Nala paused not, and said: "Thy robe is now five miles behind us, and we cannot wait to recover it."
So they went on with all speed. Ere long Rituparna beheld a lofty fruit tree, named Vibhítak, and he said to Vahuka: "Now, skilful charioteer, thou shalt perceive my ability in numbers. No single mind is accomplished in every kind of knowledge. On two branches of yonder fruit tree are fifty million leaves and two thousand and ninety-five berries."
Vahuka said: "The leaves and the fruit are invisible to me. But I will tear off a branch and count the berries while Varshneya doth hold the bridle."
"But," urged the rajah, "we cannot pause on our journey."
Vahuka said: "Thou mayst stay with me, or thou canst let Varshneya drive thee at full speed."
Then the rajah spoke soothingly, saying: "O matchless charioteer! I cannot go on without thee to Vidarbha. I trust in thee. If thou wilt promise that we will reach the city ere night falls, I will do even as you desire."
The transformed Nala made answer: "I will indeed make haste when I have counted the berries."
So the horses were drawn up, and Nala tore a branch from the tree. Having counted the berries, he found they were in number even as the rajah had said, and he
exclaimed: "Wonderful, indeed, is thy power, O Rituparna! Fain would I know thy secret."
Now the rajah was eager to proceed on his way, and he said: "I know the secret of the dice, and am therefore skilled in numbers."
"Then," said Nala, "if thou wilt impart to me thy secret, I will give thee knowledge in steeds."
Rituparna made answer thereat: "So be it;" and he forthwith informed the charioteer in the science of dice.
Now when Nala grew skilful in dice, Kali immediately passed out of his body, and Nishadha's fallen king vomited forth the serpent poison and was made weak with the struggle. Released from the venom, Kali resumed his wonted form, but he was beheld by Nala alone, who sought to curse him.
In his terror, the evil demon folded his hands and said: "Do not injure me, O king, and I will give thee matchless fame. . . . Know thou that Damayantí cursed me heavily in her wrath when thou didst desert her in the forest, and I have ever since endured great agony. Night and day, too, have I been scorched by the poison of the king of serpents. . . . Now I seek thy pity. I come to thee that thou mayst be my refuge. Lo! I promise, if thou wilt not curse me, that he who henceforth faileth not to praise thee, will have no dread of me in his heart."
Nala's wrath subsided, and he permitted Kali to enter the cloven fruit tree. Then he leapt into the chariot and drove on, and Kali returned unto his own place.
The chariot flew on like a bird, and the soul of Nala was elated with gladness. But he still retained the form of Vahuka.
At eventide the watchmen on the walls of Vidarbha
proclaimed the coming of Rituparna, and King Bhima gave permission that he should enter by the city gate.
All that region echoed the thunder of the rumbling chariot. Nala's horses, which Várshneya had driven from Nishadha, and were within the city, careered and neighed aloud as if Nala were beside them once again.
Damayantí also heard the approaching chariot, and her beating heart was like a cloud which thunders as the rain cometh on. Her soul was thrilled by the familiar sound, and it seemed to her that Nala was drawing nigh. 1 . . . On the palace roofs peacocks craned their necks and danced, 2 and elephants in their stalls, with uplifted trunks, trumpeted aloud as if rain were about to fall.
Damayantí said: "The sound of the chariot fills my soul with ecstasy. Surely my lord cometh. Oh, if I see not soon the moon-fair face of Nala I will surely die, for, thinking of his virtues, my heart is rent with sorrow. Unless he cometh now I will no longer live, but will perish by fire."
353:1 This serpent was a demi-god with human face and hands. It ruled its kind in the underworld, and recalls the Egyptian king serpent in the story of the shipwrecked sailor.--See Egyptian Myth and Legend. It is also called Vasuka and Shesha.
356:1 The moon is masculine, and the marriage occurs at a certain phase. In Egypt the moon is male, but was identified with imported female deities. In Norse mythology Mani is moon god; there was, however, an earlier moon goddess, Nana. In Ireland and Scotland the moon was not individualized--that is, not in the Gaelic language. p. 357 The words for moon in A. Saxon and German are masculine; in Gaelic they are feminine.
357:1 The Gaelic Diarmid had similarly a beauty spot on his forehead. Women who saw it immediately fell in love with him.
357:2 Dasarna, "Ten Forts", in the south-eastern part of Central Hindustan.
358:1 A Bráhman village settlement.
360:1 Ten twists or "eddies" of hair called A-vartas--one on forehead, two on breast, one on each flank hollow, &c.
363:1 This recalls: "He came even unto them. . . . The driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi; for he driveth furiously."--2 Kings, ix, 20.
363:2 The Indian peacock is sensitive to rain, and goes round "dancing" when it is coming on.