THE ruler of Nishadha, Prince Nala, was a handsome and accomplished man, but had a fatal flaw-he couldn’t resist the lure of gambling. He was single, but so was Damayanti, daughter of Bhima, king of Vidharbha. Both had heard stories about each other, and their attraction grew even before they had ever met.
One day Nala was out hunting and saved the life of a swan, who promised to fly to Damayanti and tell her how handsome Nala was. After this was done, Damayanti became absolutely smitten with Nala, and thought about him all the time. Her parents noticed her wan mood, and decided to find a suitable match for her. News of her upcoming svayamvara spread far and wide; Indra, Agni, Yama and Varuna, also decided to compete for her hand and headed to earth on their flying chariots.
On the day of the svayamvara, when Damayanti approached the suitors who were lined up, dressed in their best, she was horrified to see not one Nala, but five. The four gods had disguised themselves as Nala, so how could she tell who was the real one? Poor Damayanti stood frozen to the spot, praying for divine guidance. The gods noticed her predicament, and their stance softened at seeing her love for Nala shine through. They modified their disguise a little; now Damayanti could recognize the real Nala, and chose her true love from amongst the assembly.
After the wedding, Nala took Damayanti back to his kingdom. But Nala’s passion for gambling remained. He had a brother named Pushkara who was evil and corrupt. One day he challenged Nala to a game of dice. Nala lost again and again until he had gambled away all his possessions and kingdom. Only Damayanti remained and when Pushkara asked him to stake her, Nala realized what a fool he had been. He left the palace with her, and they wandered off into the forest, eating wild berries and drinking the cool, crystal waters of the running streams. Nala asked Damayanti to return to her father, but she refused to leave his side.
Racked with worry, one day he stole away quietly while she was asleep. Damayanti cried loudly on finding her husband gone, and became a wanderer, ranging over barren hills and thick forests in search of her true love. One day some Brahmins from Chedi found her and took her to their queen. She took Damayanti under her wing while she sent out messengers to locate her missing husband.