Damayanti reached the palace of Chedi in the company of Brahmins of the caravan. By then, even the single piece of cloth she wore was shabby and torn. Her whole body was covered with dust. Her matted and disheveled hair came down covering part of her face. No wonder that she was taken to be a mad woman by vagabonds on the road. By the time she reached the palace gate there was a group of urchins following her shouting “mad woman!”
The queen noticed the group from a distance. She was captivated by the serene beauty of Damayanti in spite of her appearance. She remarked to her maid. “Look at that woman coming in our direction. She moves like a mad woman, but, see how noble she looks in spite of her rags. Her radiance is such that it, as though, illuminates this palace. Go and get her to me immediately.”
Damayanti was duly brought to the august presence of the queen. The queen asked her in kind words who she was and why she moving about in that manner. The queen of Nishadha, then, told her story without revealing her royal birth and upbringing. She simply said that she was an attendant in the royal chambers (Sairandhri).
The queen said. “Fair one, do stay with me. You are of the age of my daughter, Sunanda. You will be a good companion to her.”
Damayanti was willing, but, on some conditions. “I shall not eat food left over from others meal and shall not do menial jobs. I shall not speak to any male members. Brahmins will be an exception. I may need their help to continue searching for my missing Nala.” The queen was gracious enough to let her stick to those rules.
After leaving his wife Nala wandered here and there in the forest. He had no particular aim. Neither did he know where to turn for help.
Then, he observed that the forest right in front was being encircled by fire. He also heard some voice addressing him by name for help. What he found was a serpent coiled in the middle of the fast approaching fire that was calling out, “Nala, help me out!”
When he was near the serpent it spoke. “I am the king of serpents by name Karkotaka. I have lost my ability to move by a curse from sage Narada. I pleaded with him for pardon. Then, he made a concession that I would be free when you would come and save me. I beg you to carry me out of this death trap”.
Nala did not think twice and picked up Karkotaka and brought it out of the danger area. Karkotaka, then spoke. “I am indeed grateful to you. Please do me one more favour. Turn back and take a dozen steps.” Nala was puzzled, but, did as he was told. He was shocked when he was stung viciously on the ankle by the serpent. He turned blue in no time by the deadly poison of Karkotaka and thought that he was going to die the next instant. Then, he heard the serpent speak further.
“Please do not be afraid. My poison shall not affect you. I know that your body is haunted by Kali. He will find living inside your body unbearable henceforth because of my poison, and leave you. That is why I did this to you.”
Nala also found that the poison not only turned his colour black, but, also changed his appearance completely different. His handsome figure turned instantaneously into one with ugly features.
Karkotaka continued. “This change in you is not permanent. This will help you to live in disguise. Take this clothe as my gift. If you wear it, you will get back your old graceful features. Go to the king Rituparna of Ayodhya. You are the most proficient in the science of horses (Aswa Hridaya). You also have exceptional skills in cooking. Offer these skills in service to the king. In due course, you shall learn the science of dice (Aksha Hridaya) from him and win your lost kingdom back. You will also be re-joined by your dear queen. Because of my poison no other poison will have an effect on you in future.” So saying, the serpent, Karkotaka, disappeared.
Nala with Rituparna
Nala went to King Rituparna as asked. He called himself Bahuka and offered his services in cooking for the king and looking after his horses. The king was very pleased to learn that the visitor had special skills with horses. He found his charioteer wanting in that aspect. He was also happy to get a new cook. So, he employed Bahuka (Nala) in his kitchen and made him in the charge of his horses, too.
Bahuka started a new life in the palace of Ayodhya. Kali had left him completely by then. With his exit, thoughts of his dear wife rushed back to his mind tormenting him all the time.
Other servants found Bahuka lost in thoughts when left alone. They often heard him whispering in a sad tone. “Where will that dear one be living now, whom I left all alone, in hunger and thirst?” To their question, Bahuka once told them of his life’s story without revealing his identity.
We shall learn about the fate of Nala and Damayanti in the next episode.