Feminine Mythique History & Culture

Damayanti’s courage and conviction

The prints of Raja Ravi Varma's paintings, Saraswati and Hamsa Damayanti that were embellished by painter Olaf Van Cleef of Paris with Swarovshi crystals and gems to highlight the nuances  

It is curious that the same epic should have two tropes with the same theme — gambling. If the game of dice leads to the downfall of the Pandavas in the main story, it creates havoc in the life of Nala, the king of Nishada, in a sub-plot. But then the similarity ends there. It is war and catastrophe for the heroes whereas the other royal rises after a rough patch.

Damayanti, Nala’s wife, is part of the Hindu lore, singled out for her chastity. Losing the kingdom in a game of dice, Nala is expelled, along with the beautiful Damayanti, also a princess, from his land. The two wander, get separated and reunite after many years. Damayanti would not look at another male although her husband’s fate or whereabouts are unknown — the reason for her being eulogised as the Ultimate Chaste woman, a parallel to Penelope of Roman mythology.

But then there is something more than old fashioned fidelity or loyalty, which makes Damayanti endearing. Hearing of her beauty, Nala is determined to marry her.

Story goes that he sends a swan as his emissary, which sings Nala’s praise to a curious Damayanti — perfect scene for an artist to show his imagination and none capitalised on it better than Raja Ravi Varma. To return to our heroine, she spots him in a swayamvar, where all the celestial suitors line-up looking exactly like Nala. An enterprising Damayanti recognises her beau and gets married. When Nala deserts her — so that she will return to her parents and not be his partner through the hard times — she searches for him and goes wherever destiny takes her, without losing hope. She even serves as a maid — sairandri, a role Draupadi plays during the Pandavas’ exile — for the queen of Chedi. But return she will not to Vidarbha, her father’s kingdom.

Another swayamvar

Restored eventually to her parents, again Damayanti comes up with a plan to smoke out her husband. She is ready for another marriage and an unsuspecting king arranges a swayamvar.

Predictably, Nala comes, but as the charioteer of a king. He has been turned into a repulsive creature but his wife recognises him through the unique taste of the dish he has cooked. They meet and story has a typical fairytale end.

The determination, which she shows in order to marry Nala, does not desert Damayanti. The narrative is not riddled with the sermon of chastity, which might have turned it into a sob story. Instead it is Damayanti’s enterprise and individuality which outshine Nala’s accomplishments. With these two qualities she reclaims her husband; but for them Nala might not have got back his lost kingdom and status.


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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 11:28:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/damayantis-courage-and-conviction/article20706175.ece

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