For centuries, in many literary texts, in the minds of thoughtful writers and in varied societal perspectives, Sita and Draupadi consistently remained two profound female characters of Indian mythology which depict epitome of feminity, grace, patience and forgiveness. They are the archetype of ideal wife, sacrificing mothers and the women mistreated and often misrepresented. Both Sita and Draupadi have been the flag bearers of egalitarianism, challenging the notions of heroism and male protagonist.
These magnificent and eulogized women have been the source of inspiration for many generations now as they persisted in the face of heartbreak and injustice meted out to them by their own kith and kin. And a male-dominated society eventually aroused their determination and self esteem setting them up as a role models for the songs of feminine revolution.
But now as we stand on the foundation steps of the feminine era when women are rising to their appropriate prominence, don’t you think we need to learn and re-learn more ways from the vast treasure of Indian mythology to inspire us?.
Isn’t it time that the toils of Sita and Draupadi should now be replaced with the strength, steadfastness, intelligence and aptitude of modern women? Shouldn’t we now look for those unsung heroines of past who would be exemplary example for today’s women carving her niche gradually in the slowly fading space of patriarchy? When I pondered upon these questions, the story of Damayanti came to my mind.
In the Vana Parva of Mahabharatha, features the love story of a princess of Vidharba Kingdom named Damayanti. She was married to Nala of the Nishada Kingdom and her tale could be a classic example of how a woman is capable of maneuvering her otherwise unfavourable situation, intelligently.
The story goes on – Nala, was a strong King of Nishada Kingdom and his country prospered under his rule. He was a bachelor and one day a Brahmin came to his court suggesting a match for him. He recommended Damayanti and painted such impressive picture of the princess that Nala immediately fell in love with her without even seeing her.
As in those days, making a proposal upfront by a man was considered an inappropriate gesture, Nala had to wait for Damayanti or her father to make the first move and until then Nala pined for Damayanti. He would spent long hours in his palace gardens dreaming about her. A group of swans lived in the lake of the garden and Nala planned to deliver his message through one of the swans. There could be no more romantic way to woo a maiden. He whispered his message to the swan and asked that beautiful creature to relay it to the woman of his dreams. When the swan left for Vidarbh, the anxious wait of Nala begins with every sunrise.
After a week he found the that swan waiting for him in the same garden and he had news to give.
Damayanti too had heard about Nala and had fallen in love with him. Now that she knew he reciprocated her love she decided to arrange her own swayamvara wherein she could choose Nala as her suitor. She had asked Nala to immediately come to Vidarbha as soon as her swayamvara was announced.
Shortly after this Nala received the news of Damayanti’s Swayamvara , he leaves immediately. Since he was an excellent equestrian he made good progress and neared Vidarbha way before the swayamvara day.
The news of the swayamvara had reached the heavens as well. Four of the demi-Gods, Indra, Agni, Varun, and Yama, had also descended to the earth for the swayamvara. They accosted Nala as he was nearing Vidarbh.
Indra approached Nala and ordered him to carry on his message to Damayanti asking her to choose any of the four demi gods as her husband during swayamvara. Nala felt dejected but he had to accept this meekly as the King of Devas was asking him to perform this task. A day before swayamvara, Indra transported Nala to Damayanti’s chamber using his divine powers. But both Nala and Damayanti immediately recognised each other and fell into a long embrace.
Damayanti was determined to wed Nala and nothing could dissuade her now and at the appointed time she entered the swayamvara hall but to her amazement she saw five people looking exactly like Nala seated together. She realised that the demi-gods are trying to trick her so after watching the five men for few minutes, she observed that the four of them stared at her with unblinking eyes and fifth of them blinked regularly, so she garlanded the fifth one. The four demi-gods assumed their original forms and went back to heavens blessing the couple.
The story until now was perfect with beauty, love and romance, however the test of time begins when Kali who had also wished to marry Damayanti but her choice of Nala offended him decided to make Nala and Damayanti’s married life difficult. He started his mischief as soon as Nala and Damayanti settled in their marriage.
Kali distorted Nala’s thinking and exhorts him to involve into a challenge of game of dice with his brother wherein he starts with staking of his one ring and ends up losing the entire kingdom. His brother proposes him to stake his wife as well to retrieve back his losses but Nala after some thinking, declines the offer and leaves the country on foot in his loincloth and Damayanti accompanies her husband unquestioningly in only one sari.
Nala and Damayanti wander in dense forests like ascetics and survive on roots and fruits. One night Nala decides to hunt a bird for their meal and he tries trapping it in his loincloth, but bird flew away with the cloth and they now had to stay hidden during the day and could move only at night.
Damayanti wrapped end of her garment around Nala if they were near any people. They were at the striking distance of Damayanti’s father, King Bhim’s kingdom and Nala kept pleading to Damayanti to return back to her father’s kingdom to which she did not comply.
That night when Damayanti slept, Nala decided to leave her thinking she would return to her home if he deserts her. He tore off one end of her sari sufficient enough to cover himself and quietly slipped away in the middle of night. When Damayanti woke up she didn’t see Nala besides her and instead the torn end of her garment, she immediately realised that she was stranded alone in the forest and understood Nala’s purpose of doing so.
Damayanti was heartbroken and tried to look for Nala as she started wandering the forest aimlessly. She met all types of people in her search including horrifying creatures of the forest, barbarians and well-known hermits. Damayanti’s quest continued and her learning too. But Damayanti neither cursed, nor fretted her condition .
With a small caravan of nomads, Damayanti reached the kingdom of Chedi .The leader of the caravan recognised her as a noble lady and took her to the queen of Chedi. Damayanti did not reveal her true identity and told the Queen that she was forsaken by her husband who otherwise was very noble. The Queen received her with kindness and asked Damayanti to stay as her Sairandhari and serve her. Damayanti agreed.
Meanwhile, Nala after deserting Damayanti was bitten by a serpent which was actually a cursed celestial being. Nala was transformed into an ugly man due to the poison and the serpent told him for now it’s better for him as he needs to live incognito. But he also blessed Nala that he will be able to gain back his original physical being on his own will. Nala thanked him and went to Ayodhya and sought service of King Rituparna as his cook and charioteer named Bahuka.
While Damayanti continued to stay as Sairandhari for the queen of Chedi, she never gave up on the hope of meeting Nala again as she had many questions to seek and answers to offer. She maintained a low profile but the fire of her determination and strong will continued to burn inside her.
One day a Brahmin who visited King Chedi’s palace spotted Damayanti and recognised her as King Bhim’s daughter. He immediately informed her father and Damayanti was sent back to her parents’ house.
Damayanti then sent for emissaries to search for Nala again. But her father’s emissaries found no trace of Nala. However she realised that Nala might be living in disguise. This time she instructed her emissaries to ask a question to whichever man they suspected as Nala , “How much of a man is a person who deserts his wife and steals half of her clothes”?
She was sure only Nala would be able to answer this.
As per her plan, one of the emissaries came back with an answer from a man who was a cook and skilled horseman of King Rituparna.
His answer was“if a man does it to protect his wife and make her return back to her father, then he is a man enough”. The entire description of this man’s skills and his answer fitted Nala but the only twist was that the man was an ugly, and dark dwarf.
Damayanti knew better to find a way out from this tricky situation. She again announced her swayamvara and the news was sent across that since Nala is missing for a long time now, he could be dead and princess Damayanti wishes to settle down again.
She kept the notice from the day of announcement until the day of swayamvara extremely short so that only the fastest riders would be able to make it.
King Rituparna who was already smitten by the tales of beauty of Damayanti decided to participate in this swayamvara. He instructed Nala who assembled the team of the best horses and rode off with King Rituparna to Vidarbh. He managed to reach Vidarbh way ahead of time.
Damayanti heard of the arrival and immediately sent her maid to inquire about this charioteer. She also heard that King Rituparana had refused meal from their royal cook and asked his chariot driver to cook for him. Damayanti then secretly visits the royal kitchen and sees a dark, dwarf man busy preparing meals. This man was nowhere close to Nala but Damayanti knew him too well. Damayanti went and stood in front of him carrying her torn sari in her hands, Nala was stunned to see her.
Showing him one end of her torn sari Damayanti asked him that same question. This time Nala couldn’t answer and he quietly took out his loincloth, wrapped it around himself and came back to his original form. Thus Nala and Damayanti were together again.
Damayanti’s story has many similarities with Sita and Drauapadi who had faced hardships of rough forest exile with their respective husbands removed far away from their royal comforts.They both remained faithful companions amidst the sufferings their husbands had to face.
The difference here is that Sita and Draupadi in spite of all the trials met with the series of injustice towards them until they lived. Sita who performed her chastity test was still abandoned by her husband and later sacrificed her life for her self-respect and on the other hand Draupadi suffered a vicious taste of revenge and war which destroyed her own people.
Their stories are certainly inspirational but much of it comes with a suffering and a tragic end.
Damayanti’s story is far away from any sort of compromise. Yes, she suffers hardships due to misgivings of her husband like Draupadi and then abandonment like Sita, but Damayanti prevails upon them smartly to ultimately gain back her rightful status and esteem. She neither took revenge nor sacrificed but made use of her intelligence to not only come out of all the miseries but was also a saviour of her man having saved him from his troubles as well.
So from today, let’s start telling our girls this thought-provoking tale of Damayanti, a brave woman who took her fate into her own hands, without suffering on account of the mistakes of her man and strove to become a woman capable enough to use her own skills and turn the situations of her life in her own favour.