When Hemanga saw Damayanti for the first time, he wished that the creator had made him a human instead of a swan. The poets were not exaggerating. He had seen no woman, neither in the heavenly abode of devas nor in the netherworld of asuras, who was as stunning as Damayanti.

Hiding in the canopy of the chembaka tree in her garden, Hemanga watched the princess. In the delightful breeze of the spring, her long tresses swayed like blades of grass in a meadow. Her dark eyes sparkled with mischief and a zest for life. Hemanga watched as she strolled in the garden with her friends. There was something arresting about her voice – like a bubbling brook. Just listening to her laugh brought a surge of happiness. She went past Hemanga’s hiding place and the swan followed her, panting and puffing, cursing the cold breeze that made him shiver. Who in the right mind would prefer to walk in this weather when all one would want was to snuggle in a bed of feathers?

Hemanga sighed, hopelessly in love. Damayanti was standing at the steps of the lotus pond and she looked like a sculpture that had come alive. Her long, thick hair, her large, long lashed eyes, her sharp nose, her slim waist, her clear skin, her dimpled smile . . . Hemanga couldn’t take his eyes off her. She paused to smile at the little worms that dangled from leaves, to coo to the cuckoo, and to feed the fish. The swan darted from bush to bush, gazing at the princess as she stood watching the dewdrop that hung on the tip of flower petals. He followed her as Damayanti treaded softly over the grass, tracing the path of a dragonfly. And as she sat lazily on a rock, her feet dangling in water, her eyes dreamy in contemplation, Hemanga continued watching from a distance. The swan could hear the murmur of poetry in the breeze. It was bliss to behold someone who radiated so much joy just as it was terrifying.

Did she really need a man?

A scream startled the celestial bird from its romantic reverie. The princess was wading deeper through the freezing water of the lake and the female palace staff were pleading with her to return. She ducked underwater and disappeared, leaving ripples of water to spiral out. The bird took off, scanning the water surface, looking out for Damayanti. He saw her swimming some distance away. A small island loomed ahead; half hidden in the mist. An egret burst out from the tangles of water lilies and shrieked past his ears, leaving Hemanga startled. He hurled abuses at the egret, which circled and landed in the water, a few feet away.

When Hemanga turned, the princess was already in the island and walking towards the bush. Hemanga hurried towards her and when he saw what she was up to, he screamed in terror,


Damayanti smiled at him and extended her hand to the bush. The cobra struck like lightning, but the princess was quicker. She retracted her extending hand. The cobra spread its hood and regarded her with its cold eyes. Hemanga caught hold of Damayanti’s ankle and tried to pull her back.

“Don’t be afraid. The poor creature has got stuck in the thorn bush. Let me help it,” she said, gently pushing him away.

As she extended her hand and the snake lashed out, Hemanga found himself cringing, his eyes shut. When he opened his eyes, the cobra was safely coiled in Damayanti’s wrist. She walked to the water and Hemanga followed, babbling incoherently. Damayanti set the snake free and stood watching the silver line the snake left in its wake as it swam towards its freedom.

“You almost got killed,” Hemanga glowered at her.

Damayanti stared at him.

“You . . . you can talk?” Damayanti shrieked in surprise.

“Well, I have been crying hoarse, warning you never to meddle with those obnoxious creatures. Cobras are nasty. And that cobra you rescued was no ordinary cobra. There was something sinister about it. It meant real harm.”

Damayanti squeaked, “You can really speak.”

The swan rolled his huge eyes, “Of course, I can speak. I was pleading with you not to touch those . . .”

“But you can talk like a human, how wonderful!”

“I have been talking for quite some time and you were . . .”

Hemanga’s voice trailed as realisation dawned on him. His head dropped in shame.

“Why are you silent, have you swallowed something?”

Damayanti chuckled.

“I am swallowed by shame, Devi,’ Hemanga stammered, struggling with embarrassment. ‘My apologies. When one is excited . . . agitated . . . or . . . uhm . . . a little bit . . . well . . .er . . . afraid . . .one falls back into speaking one’s mother tongue. I might have talked in swan tongue to you in my . . .er . . . excitement.”

Damayanti laughed and gently touched his golden head, “Are you for real? A talking swan?” Hemanga stammered, “I . . . I . . . er . . . am from Manasarovara, the lake of Brahma.”

“What? You are again talking in swan tongue, are you . . .excited?” Damayanti threw her head and laughed in delight.

Hemanga blushed deeper, “Er . . . No. No. No, not at all Devi.” He realised that he was still talking in swan tongue and switched to say, “I am a messenger.”

“A messenger?”

Hemanga bowed gracefully and said, “A messenger of love, Devi.”

Damayanti chuckled, “What does that even mean?”

“I will find the perfect one for you,” Hemanga said.

“And let me guess. You are the perfect one!”

Hemanga was blushing so much that he did not want to turn towards her. When she came around to face him, he turned on his heel hiding his face with his extended wings. Eying her through the gap in his feathers, Hemanga said, “I am a humble swan. I come with the message of love from the perfect man.” He saw Damayanti blush. Beads of perspiration lined her brows. Hemanga felt a pang of jealousy in his heart. If only Brahma had made him a human. Sighing, he pushed away that thought.

Excerpted with permission from Nala Damyanti: An Eternal Tale from the Mahabharata, Anand Neelakantan, Penguin India.