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Indian Mythology: Nala and Damayanti - A Prose Poem

Updated: Aug 26

Chapter 1: Nala Abandons Damayanti
Nala Abandons Damayanti in the Forest

Damayanti wakes, shuddering at the silence of the forest.

It is the great silence that makes her eyelids flutter open.

Why cannot she hear her beloved's breath?

Her fingers reach, eyes half closed,

towards the floor beside her.

Anguish seizes her.

"Maharaja!" she cries, "Nala, why have you abandoned me?

Now I am lost, truly lost.

How lonely it is, how silent!"

She rises to her feet and stands at the door of the hut

flung wide as though to release a hasty thought.

Her breasts, once sandal-smeared,

are now adorned with dust and streaks of tears.

The woods are misty in the feeble light of the pre-dawn hour. He is no longer there to brighten it.

Nala, the sun itself.

She looks, she listens.

She stretches forward her lovely long neck

and peers into the trees.

"Oh Nala, they called you true and just.

Yet you have abandoned me while I slept.

I, your wife!

Have I not been a good wife to you?

When you lost your kingdom to your brother

because of your obsession with the dice,

did I condemn you like the others?

I, Damayanti, the most beautiful woman on the face of the earth,

scorned the very gods to choose you as husband!”

A light suffuses her pale face.

She lifts her head, her body taut.

She laughs, childlike.

"It cannot be true you are gone, my Lord.

I think you are playing with your Damayanti.

This is a game.

Come to me.

Where are you hiding?

Show yourself to me!

I am afraid.

Nala, do not play this cruel game with me.

Ah, I see you!

I see you, beloved, in that thicket!"

She points a trembling finger at the trees.

"Why don't you answer? Just one word is all I ask!"

She falls silent.

She looks around, eyes wild.

Her limbs slacken.

The tears well up in her eyes and drop,

leaving pale trails on her cheeks.

She brushes them away and straightens her shoulders.

"Gone, you are truly gone, King.

I must not weep for myself,

but for you, alone and exiled.

What will you do, my Lord,

when thirsting, hungry and exhausted,

you fall asleep beneath some tree

without your Damayanti beside you?

Your Damayanti will not be there to comfort you."

She walks into the forest,

but sees not the beauty about her,

nor senses the fragrance of the jasmine wild.

She hears not the peacock's cry.

She sinks to the earth, weeping.

She springs to her feet.

She clasps her hands, she curses:

"Whoever has cast this evil spell upon my Lord,

I pray he suffers a far bitter fate.

I pray his days are darker than yours, my Nala!"

Screaming, she trips, horrified over a great serpent's coils.

Great, gleaming powerful coils embrace her.

Yet even now she weeps for Nala and her children,

and not for herself.

"My children," she gasps, "will your orphaned fingers ever clasp a father's hands?

Ah, Nala, my Love, you who would have saved me if you could,

what will you do, when free from the evil spell,

you regain all but your wife?

Who will look after you with love, my Prince, when I lie dead?

Ah, these eyes shall never behold you again.

Come to me now, let me see you one last time!"

She should perish, swallowed by the great serpent.

Its forked tongue flickers over her shivering limbs.

Those foaming jaws gorge her body till her hips.

Her perfect breasts heave in panic.

"Help!" she shouts,

"pity me, save me from this dreadful death!"

The vultures reel overhead, waiting.

But she is saved by a hunter wandering through the forest.

He rushes to her side, marvelling at her loveliness.

He slices through the serpent

with a single, swift blow of his sword.

He lifts her from the dying, writhing coils

and wipes the foam from her body,

fingers trembling with desire.

Seeing her hunger he feeds her.

He watches her closely,

he watches the hunger die in her almond eyes.

But there is hunger in him now.

"What are you doing here in this wilderness, beautiful one? How did you fall into the jaws of death?"

She tells him how her Lord and King of Nishadha,

possessed by some evil spirit,

lost all in a game of dice with his avaricious brother.

The hunter does not listen to her words.

Lust rises in him as he gazes at her voluptuousness

so revealed to his eyes;

those long, dark lashes cast shadows upon her cheeks.

Her tender sighs,

her honey-sweet voice sets him afire.

He puts his arms around the startled queen,

his lewd whispers hot upon her neck.

She flings him from her.

She burns, oh how she burns,

a goddess insulted!

Her eyes blaze.

Her very skin catches fire.

"If I am clear in heart and true to my Lord,

then may you,

vile murderer of innocent beasts fall to the earth stone dead!"

And the hunter falls,

struck by the lightning blazing from her eyes,

his breath stopped, eyes rolling,

shaking hands clutching at his throat.

Flames flicker on the wind.

The hunter is a pile of ashes at her feet.

"What former deeds of mine are the cause of all my travails?" she whispers, staring at the ashes with horror.

~ ~ ~

The forest reveals its true self to Damayanti

as she flees through the trees in the twilight,

she knows not where.

It is evening.

The forest lonely, filled with shadows.

She hears the sound of beasts greeting the oncoming night.

Lions, wolves, deer, bears, leopards.

Then the strident low trill of the crickets begins.

She thinks about those silver belled anklets

she so loved to wear.

The trees are assuming the shape of truth.

The Semul tree is the goddess Lakshmi with arms outstretched. The bright red cup-like flowers, sacred to Lord Shiva,

glow like drops of blood.

The Creator of the world,

Pitamaha once rested after his labours beneath Semul branches.

How strange then that its thorns

torture the unfortunate in one of the seven hells!

Bird nests blanket the trees.

All this Damayanti beholds.

She sees the Creator resting beneath the branches of the Semul.

She rushes towards Him, words about Nala on her lips

but He is gone.

Fantastic images pass before her entranced eyes.

She wrings the now short tattered skirt of her saree

in fear and awe.

It is difficult to believe

that she destroys with a flash of her soul-filled eyes.

She walks on,

eyes forever darting in all directions,

eyes yearning for the sight of her Lord.

She feels her aloneness pressing upon her.

Who is there to shelter her from the shadows

in this wild place?

As though through a mist, she sees hideous shapes

flitting through the trees.

A great wind begins to blow,

whipping her long hair into her eyes,

whistling past her unadorned ears.

"The rakshasa breathes!" she cries,

her knuckles white on the hem of her garment.

The demon's breath is the wind,

mowing down the trees in its path;

bending Damayanti's slender waist like the stem of a flower.

She shields her eyes from the storm of leaves and dust.

She stares ahead.

She watches the giant turn

into a gnarled old woman in a shining robe,

a deer,

an eagle,

a wolf.

She sees the pishachas flitting through the green gloom

their feet turned backwards,

shrieking in nasal voices.

Serpents swing from the branches above her,

fierce bison paw the earth, grey boars root for food.

The roar of the waterfalls fills the forest.

Moonlight limns the shapes of beasts at the waterhole.

The sound gladdens her.

Peaks rise before her.

She glides towards a rock like a pishacha.

She lifts her face heavenwards and speaks:

"Nishadha's king, where have you gone,

leaving me alone in this uninhabited wood?

You gave your people numberless gifts,

you performed the great Aswamedha Sacrifice

- who could offer more to the gods?

But what have you given me?

An empty vow!

True men remain true to their vows.

So say the holy books.

Will you not keep your vow,

you who the people call `lion-hearted'?

Am I not your chosen one?

Why do you fail to answer your wife in this dark,

haunted place?

The lord of the jungle waits for me,

jaws agape,

and you who said none else is as dear to you as Damayanti

You lied to me!

Weary am I,

weak, miserable,

stained with the dust of my lonely wanderings.

Will I find you on that hill?

Or perhaps lying on the leaves,

resting from your flight beneath some tree on the horizon?

Who will I question in this place

‑ have you seen Nala somewhere in this jungle ?

Is there no one here to give me tidings?

Will no one tell me –

"Sweet Princess, that King with the lotus eyes you seek

just passed this way"?

The golden tiger draws near.

He stands squarely before her,

powerful paws planted on the earth like pillars with roots.

He pants, great wet pink tongue lolling drops of saliva.

She winces at the sight of his long yellow fangs.

She draws back two steps,

her garment stretched to tearing point

between her shaking fingers.

"Dreadful lord of this wilderness,"

she stares into his eyes,

"you are the king of beasts

and I am the daughter of Vidarbha's king, Bhima.

I am Nala's wife, Nala, Subduer of Foes.

I seek him here, alone and miserable.

Will you not offer me comfort? "

The beast does not answer.

He turns his back on her and stalks down to the river

that glitters through the reeds.

River seeking sea as Damayanti seeks her lord.

She gazes at the mountain beneath her,

at the rich slopes falling away from her

and thinks of the hidden veins of gold and silver

within the mountain's heart.

She hears the birds sing,

their wings rustle softly among the Kinsuk,

Ashoka and Fig trees.

Perhaps the mountain has seen Nala.

"O Lord of the Mountain,

you who see far and pierce the blue of the skies;

you, refuge of living things,

I worship thee.

I, a monarch's child,

a prince's consort,

the highborn Damayanti, hail thee.

Have you seen Prince Nala, the noble,

the terror of all enemies?

He is dark, yet the sun itself.

They sing songs about him.

He is just, well read in the Vedas,

drinker of soma juice, worshiper of Agni,

and he is generous,victorious.

He is my husband. Have you seen him ?"

But the mountain does not answer.

"Speak, dearest Prince," she cries.

"Your voice will be music to my ears

more soothing than the sound of sacred legends !"

But Nala does not answer.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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