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Vice of Dice!

King Nala of Nishada had only one thought on his mind. He intended to marry Damyanti, the beautiful princess of Vidarbha! One day King Nala sat near the royal pond and watched the graceful swans.
"IF only I too had wings!" sighed King Nala.
A strange feeling of despair overcame him and he ruthlessly caught a swan.
"Please set me free!" pleaded the frightened bird.
"Sorry!" muttered King Nala, feeling ashamed of his mean behaviour. "I was just filled with jealousy and thoughts not worthy of a king."
"Why are you so sad?" asked a swan.
"I can't fly!" said the King.
"But you make your horse fly like the wind!" retorted the puzzled swan.
"I have to tell the princess of Vidarbha that I want to marry her!" said Nala. "A horse can't fly over moats and walls. Only a bird can."
"We will fly to Vidarbha with your offer of marriage!" said the swans.
King Nala waited eagerly for their return. His courtiers could not understand his
sudden desire to be always near the pond!
One day the swans suddenly came back.
"Will she ....will she be my bride?" asked King Nala hesitantly.
To his delight, the swans nodded their long necks.
"Go to Vidarbha for her swayamwara!" said the leader of the swans. "Her dearest wish is to be queen of Nishada!"
News soon came that the swayamwara of princess Damayanti was to be held. King Nala rode to Vidarbha as quickly as he could. He found the roads to Vidarbha were teeming with chariots, carrying kings and princes eager to be the chosen bridegroom of the lovely princess of Vidarbha!
As he wound his way slowly towards the royal palace, King Nala met four handsome men. They were the Gods- Indra, Varuna, Agni and Yama. King Nala prostrated himself before them and sought their blessings.
"THAT we cannot give!" said Lord Indra. "I intend to make her my bride!"
"We'll see about that!" retorted Lord Agni.
"But she is promised to me!" blurted King Nala.
"We know that!" said Lord Varuna with a smile.
"Let me meet her just once!" pleaded King Nala.
"You will meet her," promised Lord Indra. "But you have to tell her to choose one of us! Otherwise you will have to jostle your way through this motley crowd!"
"Perhaps reach the palace after the swayamvara is over!" laughed Lord Agni. "We will see to that!"
King Nala knew he had to do as the Gods bade him. Immediately he found himself inside a beautiful garden.
" You must be King Nala!" exclaimed a melodious voice.
King Nala found himself staring at a beautiful vision! It was none other than princess Damayanti.
"Be sure to be at the swayamvara!" laughed the princess.
But King Nala's glum looks told her something was amiss. She asked him what thoughts troubled him. He told her about the royal Gods and their determination that she garland one of them at the auspicious moment.
"Never!" exclaimed the princess angrily. "I intend to be your wife!"
King Nala was happy. The angry Gods planned a nasty surprise for the hapless
King at the swayamvara! Damayanti entered at the auspicious moment. Her eyes anxiouly searched the royal gathering for King Nala. Just when she saw him and made her way towards him, the four Gods changed themselves into Nala! Damayanti was confused. She looked at each Nala carefully. But each one was identical to the other! Damayanti closed her eyes and prayed to the Gods to reveal themselves. Once again, she looked at each one of them. Only one was blinking! She promptly put the garland around his neck. The Gods regained their normal forms and blessed the couple. King Nala and Damayanti were wed amidst great rejoicing.
King Nala did not know that after the swayamwara, his four celestial acquaintances had met two Gods who were late for the swayamvara. They were Kali and Dwapara. Both were very angry that the swayamvara was over and a farce, as Damayanti had already made up her mind to wed only King Nala. They vowed revenge.
Time passed. Kali knew King Nala was fond of gambling. One day, he entered the mind of Pushkara, the king's brother and invited King Nala to a game of dice. Dwapara entered the dice and no matter how he rolled the dice, Nala always lost. He staked his horses, chariots, wealth, clothes and even his throne. He lost. Finally Pushkara, egged on by Kali's spirit, mocked him to stake Queen Damayanti. Nala refused and the royal couple was forced to leave the palace with their children.
They stumbled through the forest outside Nishada and finally reached a spot from where they could see Vidarbha. Nala begged Damyanti to go back to her father until he got back the kingdom he had foolishly lost. But Damyanti refused. They decided to spend the night at that spot. The moment Damayanti fell asleep with her children, Nala crept away. He hoped she would go to her father, while he found a way to get back his kingdom.
Nala stumbled upon a small bush fire. He put it out. Out emerged a poisonous snake. It bit him and immediately changed into a celestial being. Poison filled Nala who became dark, short and deformed.
"Dear Nala!" said the God. "Kali is inside you. My last bite as a snake put venom inside you. Kali will go away. Go to King Rituparna's kingdom and become his charioteer. He will teach you how to master the game of dice. Win back Nishada. Take this piece of cloth. At the appropriate moment, wear it. Your original form will return."
Nala did as told. He became the charioteer of King Rituparna of Ayodhya and his chief cook. Rituparna was amazed at Nala's mastery over horses as well as culinary expertise. They became good friends.
Meanwhile Damayanti kept on searching for Nala. Her disheveled appearance made people think she was mad. Her father's emissaries finally found her and coaxed her to return to her father's palace. Damayanti sent the emissaries far and wide to find Nala. One came back and told her that King Rituparna's had a fantastic charioteer who was also a wonderful cook. Damayanti knew then that King Rituparna's charioteer was her husband. But she was puzzled by his physical description! Short, dark and deformed? Nala was tall, fair and upright!
She told her father to send a message to Ayodhya that another swayamvara was to be held. Everything happened just as she had planned! King Rituparna proceeded to Vidarbha with Nala. Nala drove the horses so quickly and skilfully that the King was very impressed. He was amazed that Nala could tell the speed of the horse from the foam in its mouth and even the distance traversed! Nala meanwhile was amazed to see the King give the exact number of leaves on a tree by just looking at the fallen leaves beneath it! King Rituparna promised to teach Nala the art of gambling in exchange for tips to become an expert on horses.
On reaching Vidharba, King Rituparna was surprised to see no preparations for a swayamvara. Prudently he kept quiet. Nala was busy cooking dinner for his royal master. Damayanti asked her maid to smuggle a bit of Nala's cooking into her room. The moment she tasted the food she knew Nala was her husband. But his appearance puzzled her!
She went to Nala. "Why does a man leave his wife in the deep, dark forest?" asked Damayanti.
"So that she is scared of the snarling wild animals and goes back to the safety of her father's home!" retorted Nala. "Why does a married woman hold a second swayamvara?"
"To make her husband take back what is his!" retorted Damayanti.
Nala admitted he was indeed her husband. He put on the royal cloth given to him by the celestial being. Promptly Damayanti's Nala stood before her! King Rituparna was sad to lose his charioteer and cook! He taught King Nala how to play dice. Nala went back and challenged Pushkara to a game of dice. The dice had no magic powers and Nala won. He got back everything he lost. Kindhearted King Nala forgave his brother and gave him half his kingdom.
Nala and Damayanti lived happily ever after, all the travails they had faced soon forgotten. But a lesson had been well learnt! However much the odds against one, these can always be overcome given the determination and will to do so!
By Hema Rao

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