Nala was very pleased that Damayanti chose him even over the gods. He promised that he would take good care of her as long as he lived. The Vidarbha king, Bhima conducted the marriage of his daughter with the Naishadha with great festivities. Every one thought that the two found perfect match in one another. The two lead blissful married life for about twelve years. Meanwhile, Damayanti gave birth to a son and a daughter.
Kali, personification of evils, had not forgotten what he took as an insult at the Swayamvara. He could not forgive Nala for denying him the chance to marry Damayanti. He would have tolerated, if the princess chose Indra or one of the other suitors from heaven. He left the meeting of gods swearing revenge on Nala. The gods warned both Kali and Dwapara not to cause any harm to Nala. He was blameless in all respects. They would be inviting trouble, if they provoked Nala to put a curse on themselves.
But, Kali was so obsessed with thoughts of revenge that he ignored all warnings. What he needed now was just an opportunity to haunt the body and mind of the king. The Naishadha lived a life of such purity in thought and deeds that he never made a slip for Kali to go anywhere near him.
Then, one day, the chance came. Nala was in a hurry and forgot to follow some of the strict rules of cleanliness before performing the daily ritual of chanting the Gayatri Mantra. That was the opportunity Kali was looking for and he haunted the king, in body and mind.
Next, Kali approached Nala’s brother, Pushkara. He promised the young prince that he would help him to grab the entire kingdom from his brother, Nala. Pushkara simply had to invite his elder brother for a game of dice. Kali had a way to haunt the dice such that it would always turn up against the fortune of the king.
The tragic game
Pushkara was tempted. He went and challenged his brother for a game. The effect of Kali in him made Nala to forget the dangers ahead. He accepted the challenge and the two started playing.
Nala started staking his gold, palaces and chariots. He lost them one by to Pushkara. Kali made sure that the losses made Nala more spirited to play on. Damayanti sensed trouble and pleaded with her husband to give up. Nala would not listen to her. His ministers and even ordinary citizens were worried that their dear king was losing all sense of right and wrong. They came all together to dissuade the king. Nala did not even bother to meet them.
Safe custody for the children
The game went on for days and nights without end. Only the two, Nala and Pushkara, remained in the room with their dice. Everyone else had left Nala to his own fate. Every move ended in Nala losing more. He was more and more in despair, but, so obsessed with the game that he would never give up. Damayanti would go and watch for a while. Then, she would return with a sigh of despair. She lost interest in food. Sleep left her altogether.
She tried once again, in vain, to persuade her husband to give up with the help of ministers. Then, she decided that it was time that she left the children in safe custody. She called the charioteer and asked him to take the children to her father.
Nala lost everything in due course. Pushkara tried to provoke Nala further. “You are now only left with your wife. If you dare, stake her and play.” The king simply got up and left the palace wearing a single piece of cloth. Damayanti also followed him wearing just the dress she had on her. Everything else was staked and lost to Pushkara. The two left the palace at night.
Pushkara had issued a warning to all citizens that if anyone offered help of any sort to Nala the offender would be put to death. So, nobody dared to offer even shelter to their beloved king and queen.
The couple spent three days in the outskirts of the palace with no food except for water, and sleeping on the ground. Then, they moved to a forest nearby, thinking that they would at least find some fruit for survival.
Nala tried to persuade Damayanti to go to her father. She would not think of leaving her husband in that condition.
Even that single piece of cloth
After a few days, hunger became unbearable to the couple. Food was not easy to collect. One day Nala found a few birds on the ground in the forest pecking food. He thought that they would survive for a few days with their meat. He tried to cast a net over the birds with his only piece of cloth. The birds, suddenly, rose all together carrying his cloth with them. Nala was left completely naked. He had to tear the only piece Damayanti was wearing into two and use one half to cover his own nakedness.
The two travelled long distances in the forest in search of food and shelter. They found nothing for days together. One night Damayanti was in deep sleep with exhaustion. Nala remained awake thinking about his fate and that of his wife. He reasoned that she was suffering on his account. If left alone, she might return to her parents and thus escape from further suffering. Kali continued to blur his thinking and prompted him to leave his sleeping wife behind. He prayed to gods to protect his innocent wife and disappeared.
Damayanti in distress
Damayanti woke up next morning and missed her husband. Had he left early in the morning looking for food without telling her? She started calling him, first softly and then aloud. She could hear only her own voice as echoed by the distant hills. She, then, started moving here and there looking frantically searching for him.
Let us leave the two in their separate ways for now and learn more in the next episode.