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Narratives of Love: Pahari Miniature Paintings of the Nala Damayanti Theme

Introducing the Pahari Miniature Paintings of the Nala Damayanti Theme

Some love stories transcend the boundaries of time. They are immortalised through the memory of other people and become legends. While stories like Sohni-Mahiwal and Heer-Ranjha originated as folk tales, others, like the tale of Nala Damayanti, find a basis in mythology.

The Pahari Miniature paintings of Nala Damayanti not only tell us their story but also give us an understanding of how the Pahari painters perceived them.

Unlike Sohni and Mahiwal, Nala and Damayanti actually do end up getting their happy ending. Let’s take a look at what their story was and how it inspired the Pahari artists for generations.

Exploring Royal Romance Through Pahari Miniatures

Pahari paintings refer to the paintings belonging to the hilly regions near the Himalayas, such as Himachal Pradesh. These paintings were bold and expressive, and over time, they adopted certain artistic qualities from the Rajasthani and Mughal schools of Miniature painting. Popular painters of the Pahari school include Ranjha, Nainsukh, and their descendants.

Nala and Damayanti’s love story captivated Pahari artists. They created many paintings of this theme, from the occasion that Nala first met Damayanti to their time together, their struggles and separation, and when they finally reunited.

These miniature paintings are a testament to the remarkable talent of the Pahari artists. The intricacy of each fine brushstroke, the soft yet vibrant colours, and the attention to detail make these works of art truly exceptional.

Nala: Unparalleled in Fame or Glory

The tale of Nala and Damayanti is first mentioned in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Nala, a renowned king, was known for his handsomeness and expertise in charioteering.

He was described as learned, knowledgeable, and charitable. Damayanti, a princess of extraordinary beauty and virtue, was equally celebrated. They each heard praise of the other, and soon grew to love each other.

One day, Nala caught a swan, and the swan pleaded to be freed, promising him that he would speak to Damayanti on his behalf. Thus, they exchanged messages in which they confessed their love to each other.

So What’s the Deal With Damayanti?

Damayanti was exceptionally beautiful. Her beauty even caught the eye of the gods, who all vied for her attention. One day, storytellers arrived at her father’s court and sang his praises. They went on to speak highly of Nala, and Damayanti overheard their performance. She was enraptured by the thought of someone so mighty, handsome, and powerful.

Damayanti’s father arranged a swayamvara for her marriage—a ceremony where she would be free to pick whoever caught her eye and marry him. However, Damayanti had already fallen in love with Nala, the king of Nishadha. The two had been courting each other through a messenger bird, in this case a golden swan, or hamsa.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

The gods choose Nala to be their ambassador and to convince Damayanti to marry one of them. They give him the power to turn invisible, and he is able to enter Damayanti’s private chambers and meet her. Nala, though conflicted by his own feelings towards her, relays the message, to which Damayanti states that she will choose only him.

The swayamvara entails the jealous gods playing tricks on Damayanti, trying to get her to choose them instead of Nala. They remain unsuccessful in the end, and Nala and Damayanti get married. But their happily ever after is yet to come!

The evil god Kali is furious at their union and wants Damayanti to himself. He possesses Nala’s body and causes him to make a series of bad decisions, from betting (and losing) his kingdom and wife in a game of dice to losing a battle with the snake god Karkotaka.

Parallels and Symbolism

Does this sound a bit familiar? If you thought Nala Damayanti was a rip-off of the bet between Yudhishthira and Duryodhana, you’d be dead wrong. These parallels exist because they are completely intentional.

In the Mahabharata, the tale of Nala Damayanti is a consolation offered by a travelling sage to Yudhishthira after he has lost everything. Nala is always principled and upright; even when faced with evil, he continues on the moral path and binds himself to righteous duty. Just as Nala and Damayanti were able to find their happy ending, you will too—that’s the meaning behind this story.

Interestingly, the queen-mother of Devi Chand of Bilaspur commissioned a series of Nala Damayanti paintings, perhaps as a warning to her family not to fall into immorality. Ironically, Kharak Chand, Devi Chand’s grandson and later successor, succumbed to the same vices that caused Nala’s downfall.

A Happily Ever After

After Karkotaka bites him, Nala turns into a dwarf called Bahuka. His skill with horses lands him a job as a charioteer for King Rituparna of Ayodhya. During this time, he learns the art of dice from Rituparna, which will later be instrumental in winning his kingdom back.

Nala goes into hiding because he is ashamed of his life now. Damayanti realises this and declares that she is ready to remarry as a ruse to lure him out. It works, and while she does not recognise him at first, her love causes him to change back to his original form.

Finally reunited with his wife, Nala plays another game of dice with his brother. Rituparna’s teachings come in handy, and Nala is finally able to reclaim everything he had once lost.


The earliest depiction of their love story can be found in a Gujarati-style manuscript from the 15th century. Another illustration of this theme is found in a Mahabharata manuscript from 1516 A.D.

The Nala Davadanti Rasa is an illustrated Gujarati version of the Nala Damayanti theme that dates back to the 17th century. Most of the Pahari Miniature paintings of the Nala Damayanti theme date back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Inspiration behind the Pahari Miniature Paintings of the Nala Damayanti theme

The part of the Mahabharata that mentions this story is called the Nalopakhyana; however, there are certain inconsistencies with the narratives portrayed in it and in the Pahari Miniature paintings of Nala Damayanti. The art researcher, Dr. A.K. Coomaraswamy, wrote that he was certain that the version in the paintings was not referencing the original Sanskrit text.

K.K. Handiqui accidentally caused the discovery of the text behind these paintings. In 1934, he translated the Naisadhacarita into English, which inevitably helped Coomaraswamy in his research. The Naisadhacarita by Sriharsa was a poetical masterpiece of the 12th century and forms the basis for the majority of the Pahari paintings of the Nala Damayanti theme.

The Process of Creation: How the Nala Damayanti Theme Was Brought to Life

The love saga of Nala and Damayanti takes centre stage in many Pahari paintings. These artworks portray the various phases of their story, from their initial meeting to the challenges they faced. The artist would first create a series of sketches, and a master artist (most likely to be the head of the atelier) would review them and leave notes and corrections. They would then rectify these mistakes while starting the final piece.

Timeless Love Illustrated Through the Pahari Miniature Paintings of the Nala Damayanti Theme

Since the tale of Nala and Damayanti is quite long, it cannot be captured in a single painting. Pahari painters often drew these paintings in series to illustrate the story from start to finish. They also divided a single painting into several panels or scenes in order to convey the story more efficiently.

The most popular Pahari Miniature paintings of the Nala Damayanti are a 48-part series of paintings. A.K. Coomarswamy first compiled and published 29 of these paintings in an extensive catalogue.

At first, these compilations looked like incomplete depictions of the story, omitting certain scenes and missing important information. This was resolved when the paintings compiled by Coomaraswamy seemed to fit perfectly with another collection of Pahari paintings in the possession of Karan Singh.

The Karan Singh set was fully painted, whereas the Coomaraswamy ones were finished sketches. The most interesting insight into these sets is that there is a set of sanguine drawings (in the possession of the National Museum) that were created in preparation for this set.

Scale, Setting, and Artistic Limitations

Sriharsa relished in providing detailed descriptions of landscapes, sites, architecture, and the settings of his works. He describes it with no limitations. The Naisadhacarita takes place on a grand scale and on a highly extravagant stage.

The Pahari painter was limited, however, both by the complexity of creating such a scene and by the limited space on the canvas. They took several liberties while painting the Nala Damayanti theme and stuck to subject matter they were familiar with: the Pahari kingdom, its palaces, and its terrain. Thus localised, the story became based not in the kingdom of Nishadaha but in the hills of the Pahari kingdoms.

Another peculiarity is that the swan in these paintings often isn’t a swan at all! While the swan (hamsa) is a frequent motif of Hindu folklore and mythology, it was actually rare to spot one in real life in the Pahari hills.

The Pahari painter would have been far more familiar with waterfowl like the heron, which is why the golden hamsa in Pahari Miniatures often resembles it.

Artistic Liberty: How Realism Does Not Always Create Good Paintings

Nala’s transformation due to a curse and his eventual reunion with Damayanti are beautifully illustrated in these paintings. The Pahari painters managed to portray even the most delicate of emotions through body language and meticulous detailing of scenes and composition.

When Nala enters Damayanti’s chambers while invisible, the painter shows the small detail of his ring getting stuck to the skirt of one of her maids. This moment creates a strong composition and makes an otherwise unremarkable scene appear more dynamic.

Inconsistency is one of the peculiarities of these paintings. The Pahari painter had a spirited imagination, and so the paintings, though part of a series, contain elements that vary in size, shape, and placement according to the artist’s discretion. These constantly changing elements make the scenes more dynamic; they create a larger-than-life atmosphere.

The artist’s goal is not a realistic depiction of the surroundings but an accurate portrayal of the emotions overshadowing each scene. Every element in these paintings was a prop that the artist moulded to suit the individual scenes and make them more expressive.

Characters, Archetypes, and Identifying Factors of the Nala Damayanti Miniatures

As someone who was reputed for her beauty, the Pahari artist portrays Damayanti in a way that convinces the viewer that she is truly beautiful inside and out. Her love for Nala persists even after the misfortunes that plague them.

The ‘types’ of characters in the Pahari Miniature paintings of the Nala Damayanti theme feature in numerous other Pahari paintings. Sages, maids, dancers, and others are depicted in specific styles and clothing. Rolling mountainous landscapes are equally as visible in the Nala Damayanti paintings as they are in the paintings of the Gita Govinda.

Through these minute resemblances, we are easily able to discern if the painter who painted a Bhagavata Purana Miniature also painted one on the Nala Damayanti theme. We can also discern where the painting originated from—if the painter worked at the court of Balwant Singh of Jasrota or Govardhan Chand of Guler.

According to researcher Mr. Eastman, Nala is based on Sansar Chand, the king of Kangra. This theory has since been refuted. Another interesting feature of these paintings is that, since Nala is a mythological figure, he is never shown smoking a hookah. As a general rule of thumb, Pahari painters did not draw religious or mythological figures with hookahs, as it would be considered disrespectful and in poor taste.

The Message of the Pahari Miniature Paintings of the Nala Damayanti Theme

The story of Nala and Damayanti in Pahari paintings continues to mesmerise art enthusiasts and romantics alike. It serves as a reminder of the enduring power of love and the ability of art to immortalise such tales for centuries to come.

Want to learn more about the famous lovers in Indian art? If you want to read about themes of love and romance or explore rare and niche themes in traditional Indian art, look no further than the Rooftop App. Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store to keep learning!

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By Melissa D’Mello

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