Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita – Gaṅgāvataraṇam and Nalacaritram

This article is part 5 of 7 in the series Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita

Sarga 6

The sixth Sarga describes Bhagīratha’s efforts at procuring Gaṅgā from Śiva through penance and praise. Trickling from ¾iva’s dreadlocks, the river, now subdued, follows Bhagīratha. On her way, Gaṅgā engulfs the hermitage of Jahnu, is drunk up by him and then released through his ear. She then reaches the holy city of Kāśi –

आमन्त्र्य मूर्ध्ना प्रणतेन शम्भुमारुह्य च स्यन्दनमग्रतस्तम् ।
संप्रस्थितं पार्थिवमन्वयासीत्स्रोतः पयं कीर्तिरिवास्य मूर्ता ॥

When the king took leave of Śiva and set out in his chariot, the river followed him as if she were his white fame. (6.25)

यामापतन्तीं महता रयेण सम्रभ्य तावज्जगृहे महेशः ।
तां लीलयैवापिबति स्म जह्नुस्ततोऽप्युदग्रा ननु तं प्रपन्नाः ॥

She had earlier been imprisoned by Śiva for rushing at him with great force and now this sage, Jahnu, drank her up at the drop of a hat. The Lord may be strong but his devotees are stronger. (6.37)

Sarga 7

The seventh Sarga describes the city of Kāśi when the river entered it. The sudden commotion which the river’s entry caused in the city, the conversations which women had amongst themselves on seeing the king and the river that followed him, the praises which sages showered on Gaṅgā and the prayers offered by Bhagīratha to Lord Vi¾van¡tha are superbly detailed by the poet.

स्थविरेषु गतेषु जाह्नवीसलिलोत्पीडभिया ततस्ततः ।
क्षणमध्ययनोपघाततः परितुष्टा वटवो विजह्निरे ॥

When their old supervisors dispersed in fear on seeing the approaching river, the students welcomed the short respite which they got from studying. (7.3)

इयमप्यपरा वराकिका दृगिवास्माकममर्त्यवाहिनी ।
अनुगच्छति तत्र तत्र तं पुरतो गच्छति यत्र यत्र सः ॥

This river is like our wretched glance. It follows Bhagīratha wherever he goes” – So said the women of Kāśi. (7.12)

Sarga 8

The eighth Sarga describes the victorious return of Bhagīratha to his capital after offering oblations to his forefathers in the hermitage of Kapila. This canto has descriptions of the ocean and the city of serpents in the nether world.

स्यमुपेतसमीरहुताशनैः स्फुटितभूविवरोदरशायिभिः ।
कणधरैरनपेक्षितवेतनैः प्रभुरवर्तत यत्र स वासुकिः ॥

Vāsuki ruled over that kingdom in the nether world and he paid not a penny to his servants, the serpents, because they subsisted on wind alone for their food and made any hole they could find their home. (8.36)

कतिचिदच्युतमञ्चकुलोद्भवाः कतिपये हरकुण्डलवंशजाः ।
रविरथाश्वगुणान्वयजाः परे तदिह तार्क्ष्यभयं न यदोकसाम् ॥

Some of these serpents are from the clan of Vīṣṇu’s bed, some from Śiva’s earring and few others from the reins of the suns horses. And therefore none of them have any fear of Garua. (8.40)

The above verse alludes to the mythological facts that Vīṣṇu reclines on a serpent, Śiva’s ornaments are snakes and so are the reins of the sun’s horses.


This is a nāṭaka, one of the ten major types of drama described by the legendary sage Bharata in his Nāṭyaśāstra. Unfortunately however, the drama is incomplete, ending abruptly in the sixthact. The work is based on the famous story of Nala and his beloved, Damayantī, that occurs for the very first time in the epic Mahābhārata. The contents of this drama are summarized below along with the English translations of some memorable verses –

Act 1

The drama begins with a customary invocation, the nāndī. There are three verses given here, the first on Śiva’s ardhanārīśvara form, the second on goddess Pārvatī and the third on Rāma’s side-glances. This is followed by a long prelude where, through the dialogues between the stage-manager and his assistant, the audience is introduced to the subject of the drama as well as its composer and the illustrious family in which he was born. At the end of the prelude, we are told that Nala, the king, has seen Damayantī in a dream. Then enters Nala exhibiting his lovelorn condition –

O Kāma, like an object reflected in the mirror, you have shown me something that is impossible to attain. And my mind, which till now was peaceful, is not where it must be. Is this the way you show your strength? Is this a joke you are playing on me? Or is this your only skill? (1.13)

He then reveals to the jester Cārāyaṇa, his friend, the reason why he is sad. He also tells him how, when he caught a divine swan which he came across while hunting and then freed it, the grateful bird promised to unite him with the woman of his heart.

The jester then asks the king to paint the lady of his dream so that the astrologer Satyācārya, skilled in the art of interpreting bodily marks, could look at it and comment on her whereabouts, family, marital status and the like. The king is sure that she is unmarried because he didn’t see a marital cord adorning her neck.

The above verse tangentially refers to the three lines on Damayantī’s neck, a mark of feminine beauty. When Cārāyaṇa leaves to get the articles for painting, the chamberlain arrives and informs the king that his subjects are waiting at the palace’s doorstep to get a glimpse of him. The tired king orders him to dismiss the crowd but let Satyācārya alone in. Meanwhile, the jester enters with the queen’s servant, Kalāvatī, who is carrying the articles necessary to paint. The jester inadvertently blurts out the king’s desire for the mystery woman and the queen’s servant, angry at the king’s love for another lady, departs saying that she would narrate all that had occurred to her mistress.

When the king finishes painting the lady exactly as she was seen in his dream, the astrologer arrives. The jester chides the astrologer when the latter asks the king the reason why he was summoned – Arent you an astrologer? Why do you hold a mirror in your hand and ask us how your face looks? It is you who must be telling what is going on in the kings head. The astrologer predicts that the lady is either from Vidarbha or Virāṭa, is the daughter of a king, would surely marry, would have a partner who is a monarch and would face lot of obstacles both before and after her marriage. He also predicts that a non-human messenger who has the power of speech would, that very day, narrate everything about her to the king.

After the astrologer leaves, the king entertains himself with a walk in the royal garden. There he meets the divine swan which he had seen earlier and learns from it about Damayantī, the daughter of king Bhīma from Vidarbha. He also gets a message from the goddess Sarasvatī, who is described here as Bhīma’s sister, about how the creator Brahma, her husband, having created this girl, a gem of the three worlds, wanted Nala to marry her. After the swan leaves, heralds announce that it is afternoon and the king exits to have a bath.

Act 2

The second act begins with an interlude where Vācaspati, the preceptor of gods, is worried about his master, Indra, deciding to marry Damayantī. Furthermore, the sage Nārada, who has a penchant for inciting quarrels has visited Indra.

Then enters Vācaspati’s student, Vi¾v¡vasu and the two decide on a plan to make Damayantī marry Indra by requesting Nala to become Indra’s love-messenger to Damayantī. This would lead to a two-fold benefit. King Nala would not get angry at Indra for sending somebody else as a messenger to Damayantī and Damayantī would consider marrying Indra because if someone as accomplished as Nala could agree to become a messenger of Indra, it would imply that Indra is more suitable than Nala.

After the interlude ends, Indra, who has already been instructed by Vācaspati on what to do, enters the stage accompanied by Viśvāvasu, who is in an adjacent aerial car and Mātali, his charioteer. The trio then traverse through various places on the way before entering Kuṇḍinapurī, the capital of Vidarbha. Here they see a woman in the garden plucking soft shoots, apparently for Damayantī who is now suffering the pangs of love.

After dismissing Mātali, Indra orders Viśvāvasu to find out from her about what Damayantī’s desire is. Hiding himself under a charm, he not only overhears their conversation but also continues to speak to Viśvāvasu without the woman getting to know about it. Mistaking Vi¾v¡vasu for Bhadramukha, Nala’s messenger, the woman introduces herself as Damayantī’s friend and describes to him her mistress’s lovelorn condition. From their dialogue it is clear that Damayantī has set her heart on Nala alone. The woman departs to inform Damayantī that Nala would be arriving any moment while Indra and Vi¾v¡vasu wait for Nala in an adjacent garden of Campaka trees.

Act 3

The third act starts with a short interlude between Sāvitrī, a goddess and friend of and Anaṅgalatā, an attendant of Damayantī. Having known that she is in a deplorable state, the goddess orders Anaṅgalatā to fetch goddess Sarasvatī to the temple of Gaurī, Bhīma’s tutelary deity and herself sets out to bring Damayantī there.

Then enters Damayantī along with three of her friends, Sāraṅgikā, the woman who had conversed with Vi¾v¡vasu in the previous act, Vāsantikā and Candrakalā. They are confused about the identity of the person with whom Sāraṅgikā had spoken. The king and the jester also enter the garden where the three are sitting and hide behind a tree to overhear their conversation. The king who is initially in doubt about the identity of the lovesick woman in front of him learns that she is none other than his sweetheart.

In the meantime, Sarasvatī, who is pained beyond measure on account of Damayantī is searching for her along with Sāvitrī. The goddess is also worried that Nala has not yet turned up, unaware of the fact that he is hiding behind a tree. Knowing that Sarasvatī is searching for her, Damayantī and her friends go out looking for the goddess and all of them meet midway. As the womenfolk prepare to leave for the temple of Gaurī, the king and his jester follow them. On hearing a commotion behind the screens and anticipating that his soldiers must have come looking for him, Nala asks the jester to go and stop them. Listening to Sarasvatī ask Sāvitrī if Nala had arrived, the king reveals himself and offers his respect to the goddess

Sarasvatī asks Damayantī to offer a betel-leaf to their guest, Nala. But when the bashful girl is still confused about what to do, the jester arrives and informs Nala that Indra has just arrived. Nala prepares himself to meet the lord of gods while the womenfolk, who are aware of Indra’s intentions, decide to hide Damayantī from his view.

Act 4

In the fourth act, Nala describes to the jester Cārāyaṇa how Indra, after approaching him along with Viśvāvasu, pleaded with him to become his love-messenger and how he promised Indra thus –

I shall be your messenger and speak to her in such a way as behooves the cause of love. I shall also bring her to you, by force, if needed. But what I cannot say is whether or not she will accept you. (13)

Indra also grants him the power of disappearing at will – the knowledge of Tiraskariṇī – so he can enter the harem unseen. When the king does enter the harem, he is recognized by Sāvitrī through her divine powers. Sāvitrī in turn has been sent by goddess Sarasvatī who has already been made aware of the conversation between Indra and Nala through her spies. Sāvitrī reads out a message where it is made clear that Damayantī  would adore him and none else as the lord of her life if he accepted her and would die if he didn’t. Nala is now in a fix because he doesn’t know how to report this back to Indra. He fears Indra would not believe him. However, it is finally decided that the jester will report to Indra on the behalf of Nala that the latter did all that he had promised to do as a messenger but had no say on whether Damayantī would accept him.

It is moonrise by then and the jester arrives with a message from Indra which he whispers in to Nala’s ear. Soon a messenger arrives from Indra and leaves after placing a letter in front of the king. The letter has says this – You have humiliated us and therefore, we shall do to you what we deem fit. The jester also informs the king about Bhīma’s decision to give his daughter in marriage to Nala alone.

Acts 5 and 6

The fifth act is a short one. Nala and Damayantī are married by now and are in each other’s joyful company. Damayantī is reclining on Nala’s lap and dreams that she is in a forest and that her beloved has abandoned her. She wakes up terrified and is consoled by Nala.

In the sixth act which is incomplete Nala’s minister, Kāmantaka learns from the spy, Bhadramukha, about the friendship between Puṣkaraka, Nala’s wicked relative and Indra. The king meanwhile sends a message to Kāmantaka about the sudden degradation of piety in his kingdom. The drama ends incompletely with Kāmantaka dispatching the chief security of the city, Sāraṅgaka, to gather information on any supernatural being, whatsoever, that might be responsible for such a state of affairs in the kingdom.

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Shankar Rajaraman Nilakanthadikshita Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita &#8211; Gaṅgāvataraṇam and Nalacaritram shankar

Shankar Rajaraman

Dr. Shankar is an 'ashtavadhani,' psychiatrist, poet, and Sanskrit scholar. He is a master of a complex poetic form in Sanskrit known as 'chitrakavya.' He translated Gangadevi's Madhuravijaya and Uddandakavi's Kokilasandesha into English.
Shankar Rajaraman Nilakanthadikshita Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita &#8211; Gaṅgāvataraṇam and Nalacaritram shankar