Maharaja Nala’s story is very similar to the story of Pandavas from Mahabharata. He was very fond of playing dice game and lost his kingdom while doing this.
Nala was the ruler of Nishada. He was a very capable king and his country prospered under his rule. Nala was a gifted charioteer. He was also very fond of playing dice, but not adept at it. However, despite being one of the most handsome men of his time, he was still unmarried. One day a brahmin came to his court. On learning of his bachelor status he suggested the name of Damayanti, the daughter of the King of Vidarbha. He painted such an impressive picture of the princess that Nala fell in love with her without seeing her. Damyanti was said to be very beautiful and it is said that even Gods wanted to marry her.
The Swan, Nala and Damyanti
One day, Nala catches a swan. Swan begs for freedom and promises Nala that he will sing praises of Nala to Demyanti if he is freed. Nala accedes and sends the swan to Damyanti, who sang praises for Nala before Damyanti. Thus, prior to the swayamvara, Damyanti was already in love with Nala.
Damyanti father’s announces for a swayamvara. This was attended by Gods and humans alike. Nala wins Damyanti’s hand in a swayamvara. A human trumped the gods, but how. There is an interesting story behind this. Among all gods, She chose Nala because of his shadow. The gods have no shadow.
Duly, she chose Nala as her husband and everyone else was disappointed. The demon Kali, the personification of Kali yuga, also wanted to marry Damayanti. On his arrival, he is unaware that he is too late for the swayamvara. He runs into the gods and they tell him how she has chosen Nala in their place. Kali then angrily vows to cause the fall of Nala’s kingdom.
The revenge of Kali and separation of couple
Kali waits for twelve years to find a weakness in Nala, and got his chance. He guides him to play the game of dice with his brother, Pushkara and loses everything. He and his wife were deserted in exile, Still in the power of Kali, he deserted his wife, Damyanti. Damyanti finds refuge in the court of King Chedi.
Nala finds a serpent in the forest from a fire. This was a influential Naga, named Karakotaka. In return, he was rewarded a bite from the Naga. He later explains that this would change his appearance, which will help him ultimately. The Naga also provides a magical garment to Nala, wearing which make him assume his normal form. Nala becomes Vahuka, who was a dwarf whose arms were short. He finds refuge at King of Ayodhya, named as Rituparana. Incidentally, King Rituaprna is a skilled dice player.
Search of Damyanti and Nala
Soon, Damyanti father’s finds her. Damyanti, not only good in look but sharp in brains, decides to find Nala with an innovative trick. She asks for her swayamvara to be conducted again. King Rituparna also comes, but he is accompanied by Vahuka, as he is good in riding chariots.
Damayanti was waiting on her balcony listening to the hoof beats as the carriages passed her palace. She immediately recognised the pattern of the hoof beats of the chariot being driven by Nala. She sent a maid to inquire who had arrived in the chariot and was informed that it was King Rituparna and his chariot driver. She was also informed that the king had refused the hospitality of Vidarbh and was asking his chariot driver to prepare his meal. Damayanti then asked the maid to smuggle some item of food. The taste was identical to her husband’s cooking. Throwing all decorum to the winds she ran down to meet the chariot driver and was stunned to meet a dark, short and deformed man instead of a fair, tall and handsome Nala. She asked, “Why does a man want to send his dutiful wife back to her father’s home?” The man replied, “Because he has lost his kingdom and cannot support his wife in the manner she was accustomed to before their marriage.” He then put on the magic garments and was returned to his original form.
Nala gets his kingdom back
Rituparna congratulated Damayanti and told her that she had found her husband but he would lose not only his best horseman and best cook but also his best friend. Nala had a proposal for Rituparna. “I will stay with you for a while and teach you all that I know of horsemanship if you teach me all that you know of gambling.” He added that he was not interested in playing regularly but just one time in order to win his kingdom back. Nala and Damayanti moved to Rituparna’s kingdom. Soon Rituparna was an adept horseman and Nala an adept gambler.
Nala sent a challenge to his brother. He was willing to stake Damayanti if Pushkar staked the entire kingdom. Pushkar still felt that the victory was incomplete without his brother’s wife and readily accepted the challenge. This time Kali and Dwapar were not there to aid him and Nala had become an expert player. Pushkar lost everything back to Nala. Nala had half a mind to send Pushkar out in a loincloth, but he was a large-hearted man. He gave Pushkar a part of the kingdom and suggested that he mend his ways
Nala and Damyanti story appears in Mahabharata – (Vana Parva).