In Hindu mythology Shakuntala (Sanskrit: शकुन्तला, Śakuntalā) is the mother of Emperor Bharata and the wife of Dushyanta who was the founder of the Paurav Dynasty. Her story is told in the Mahabarata and dramatized by Kalidasa in his play The Recognition of Sakuntala.
Shakuntala was found by the Rishi Kanva surrounded and protected by birds (Shakunton in Sanskrit), and so she was named Shakuntala. According to one source, Titwala, a small town near Kalyan in Maharashtra, is believed to be the site of the hermitage where Shakuntala was born.
King Dushyanta first encountered Shakuntala while travelling through the forest with his army. Pursuing a male deer wounded by his arrow into the ashram (hermitage), he saw Shakuntala nursing the deer, her pet, and fell in love with her. He profusely begged her forgiveness for harming the deer and spent some time at the ashram. They fell in love and Dushyanta married Shakuntala there in the ashram. Having to leave after some time due to unrest in the capital city, Dushyanta gave Shakuntala a royal ring as a sign of their love, promising her that he would return for her.
Shakuntala spent much time dreaming of her new husband and was often distracted by her daydreams. One day, a powerful rishi, Durvasa, came to the ashram but, lost in her thoughts about Dushyanta, Shakuntala failed to greet him properly. Incensed by this slight, the rishi cursed Shakuntala, saying that the person she was dreaming of would forget about her altogether. As he departed in a rage, one of Shakuntala's friends quickly explained to him the reason for her friend's distraction. The rishi, realizing that his extreme wrath was not warranted, modified his curse saying that the person who had forgotten Shakuntala would remember everything again if she showed him a personal token that had been given to her.
Time passed, and Shakuntala, wondering why Dushyanta did not return for her, finally set out for the capital city with her father and some of her companions. On the way, they had to cross a river by a canoe ferry and, seduced by the deep blue waters of the river, Shakuntala ran her fingers through the water. Her ring slipped off her finger without her realizing it.
Arriving at Dushyanta's court, Shakuntala was hurt and surprised when her husband did not recognize her, nor recollected anything about her. Humiliated, she returned to the forests and, collecting her son, settled in a wild part of the forest by herself. Here she spent her days while Bharat, her son, grew older. Surrounded only by wild animals, Bharat grew to be a strong youth and made a sport of opening the mouths of tigers and lions and counting their teeth.
Meanwhile, a fisherman was surprised to find a royal ring in the belly of a fish he had caught. Recognizing the royal seal, he took the ring to the palace and, upon seeing his ring, Dushyanta's memories of his lovely bride came rushing back to him. He immediately set out to find her and, arriving at her father's ashram, discovered that she was no longer there. He continued deeper into the forest to find his wife and came upon a surprising scene in the forest: a young boy had pried open the mouth of a lion and was busy counting its teeth. The king greeted the boy, amazed by his boldness and strength, and asked his name. He was surprised when the boy answered that he was Bharata, the son of King Dushyanta. The boy took him to Shakuntala, and thus the family was reunited.
In the Mahabharata, a slightly different version of this tale is told, where Dushyanta's failure to recognise Shakuntala is in fact a ploy to have his subjects accept her as his true wife, since he had feared rumors might otherwise have arisen as to the propriety of the marriage.