Nala-Damayanti (Painting by Raja Ravi Varma)
Nala, a character in Hindu mythology, is the king of Nishadha Kingdom and the son of Veerasena. Nala is known for his skill with horses and culinary expertise. He marries princess Damayanti, of Vidarbha Kingdom, and their story is told in the Mahabharata. His main weakness is gambling. He is possessed by the demon Kali (not the goddess Kaali). He was also a great cook, and wrote the first ever book on cookery, Pakadarpanam (Sanskrit: पाकदर्पण).
Nala, King of Nishadhas, also known as a chakravartin, was chosen by Damayanti as her husband in the swayamvara, a function in which the bride selects her husband from among the invitees, in preference to even the gods who came to marry her.
All the gods left the place praising the qualities of Nala and blessing the couple. But the Demon Kali to test Nala vowed to divert Nala from the path of Dharma, or path of righteousness and virtue, and to separate Nala and Damayanti. Such was the purity of Nala that it took twelve years for Kali to find a small fault in him and bewitch his soul. After being influenced by evil, Nala played a game of dice with his brother Pushkara and gambled away his wealth and the kingdom to him. Nala and Damayanti had to live in forests for three years where they were separated. Nala, under the influence of Kali, deserted Damayanti and went away. In the forest, he saved Karkotaka Naga (Snake Person) from a fire. The Karkotaka Naga with its poison transformed Nala into an ugly dwarf named Bahuka and advised him to serve King Rituparna of Ayodhya. He also gave Nala a magic garment which would restore him to his original form. Nala went to King Rituparna and served him as a cook. Damayanti sent a riddle to Rituparna to confirm Nala's presence. On hearing that Damayanti was going to marry another husband, Bahuka took Rituparna and drove the chariot fast. He reached to Vidarbha from Ayodhya in a few hours. Damayanti recognized Nala and he came to his original form. Nala taught his skill to Rituparna, and the latter taught Nala to magically control dice. After undergoing many hardships, in spite of which Nala never deviated from the path of righteousness, he overcame the influence of Kali and regained his kingdom by defeating Pushkara in a rematch. Nala and Damayanti were reunited and lived happily thereafter.
Kali offered Nala a boon when he left him. Nala sought the boon that whoever read his story would not be unduly affected by the malefic effects of Kali.
- Dallapiccola, Anna Libera (2002). Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-51088-9.
- Doniger, Wendy (1999). "Chapter 3: Nala and Damayanti, Odysseus and Penelope". Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India. University of Chicago Press. pp. 133–204. ISBN 978-0-226-15640-8.