Once upon a time, there was a brave and handsome king named Nala. He ruled his kingdom of Nishada with honour and fairness. One day, a sage came to his court.
“O King! I have something to tell you. I have just visited the Kingdom of Vidarbha and have met Princess Damayanti. She is radiant like a perfect lotus flower and is most intelligent. In all my travels, I have never seen such beauty and grace!”
Nala thought about what the sage had said and could not stop thinking about Princess Damayanti. He had fallen in love with her. He wanted to meet her and tell her how he felt. But in ancient India, this was improper for a king to do.
“What if she chooses to marry someone else? I must tell her how I love her. I must know if she will love me too. But how?”
Nala pondered his dilemma. One evening, as Nala sat by the lake outside his palace, a golden swan swam up to him.
“O King! You are deep in thought. You look terribly worried. What is wrong, my King?”
“Ahhhhhh. I am in love with a beautiful princess I have never met. I would like to tell her how I feel – and to know how she feels about me – but I don’t know how.”
“O King! I cannot bear to see you troubled. I will fly to this princess and serve as your messenger. I will tell the Princess how handsome and kind you are.”
Nala was ecstatic. He directed the swan towards the Kingdom of Vidarbha. The golden swan flew across the desert and the forest. It was a long journey, but soon it arrived and perched in Damayanti’s courtyard.
The Princess was reading a book when she looked outside her window and noticed the golden swan. “How lovely!” she thought. “I wonder if it will be my pet.” She went outside to greet it.
The swan began to speak. “O beautiful princess! I wish to tell you about King Nala. He is the most brave king, and loving towards people and animals. A more handsome man does not exist in the universe! He has asked me to tell you that he loves you dearly.”
Damayanti had heard of this famous King Nala. She was overjoyed to hear that this great king loved her. “O golden swan! I too love King Nala in return. Please fly back to him and relay this message.”
The golden swan was very happy to bring this news to Nala. It flew back over the forest and the desert and returned to Nishada.
Meanwhile, Damayanti let her father know that she was ready for her swayamvara – where kings and princes from distant lands would be invited to Vidarbha and Damayanti would then garland the man she chose to be her husband.
Damayanti’s father invited great kings and princes, including Nala, as well as the Gods Indra, Agni, Varuna and Yama. The Gods were eager for Damayanti to choose one of them and intercepted Nala on the journey to Vidarbha. They asked Nala to be their messenger. They wanted him to go to Damayanti and tell her that she should choose one of them.
Nala was heartbroken to deliver this news to Damayanti, but he could not refuse the Gods. So the night before the swayamvara was to take place, the Gods secretly transported Nala to Damayanti’s room. There, he saw his beloved princess for the first time. He was astounded! She was more beautiful than words could describe!
“My dearest Damayanti! I come before you with a message from the Gods. They ask that you choose one of them as your husband.”
Damayanti was very upset. “But how can I choose them? It is you that I love!”
“O Princess! How can I, a mere mortal, compare with the Gods? They can take you to the heavens, where you can read your books amongst silvery lakes and fragrant flowers. What can I offer you that can compare to the heavens?”
“It is you that I love,” repeated Damayanti, “and you that I will choose.”
Nala returned to the Gods, who were eagerly waiting. “Well, what did she say?” they asked.
“She said that she will choose only me.”
The Gods were very disappointed. But being gods, they decided to all come to the swayamvara looking exactly like Nala – and to trick Damayanti into choosing one of them.
The next morning, Damayanti came to her swayamvara with her father and mother. She was dressed in clothes of silk and golden jewelry and looked radiantly beautiful. She was very excited that today was the day that she would get to choose Nala as her husband.
But she was shocked to find 5 men who looked exactly like Nala! Surely, this was some trick. How was she to know which one was the real Nala? Damayanti thought very hard about what she should do. She looked closely at each of the 5 men. She noticed that only 1 of them was blinking his eyes. And this man’s clothes were slightly wrinkled and the flower pinned at his chest was slightly wilted. The other 4 men did not blink, and the flowers on their chests were fresh and perfect.
“That’s it!” she thought. “Nala is not a God. He is not perfect like a God, and so he blinks and his clothes and his flower are slightly imperfect. I know which one is the real Nala!”
Damayanti walked up to the man who was blinking and said, “You are the real Nala. You are the one I choose.” Then she placed a garland of flowers around his neck. Nala and Damayanti smiled at each other and walked towards the throne, where Damayanti’s father and mother were seated. The king and the queen blessed the happy couple and began the preparations for their wedding….