Clown, jester, poet…Tenali Rama, minister in the court of the ruler of Vijaynagar, Krishnadeva Rai (reign: 1509-30), was a multi-faceted personality. Stories, about Tenali Rama and his practical jokes on everyone around him, including distinguished fellow poets and the emperor himself, abound in south India.
His fame spread beyond Vijaynagar (present-day Andhra Pradesh), to areas that come in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka today. Tenali Rama was also a great scholar of several languages that included Marathi, Tamil and Kannada.
The kingdom of Vijaynagar had not been enjoying good relations with its neighbouring state for a very long time. Jealous opponents of Tenali Rama, the king’s minister, found it the perfect opportunity to damage his reputation. So they went about poisoning Krishnadeva Rai’s mind against him.
One day, when the king sat in his chamber pondering over the affairs of the state, one of his courtiers came up and whispered into his ear: “Your Majesty, have you heard the latest?”
The king was surprised and exclaimed: “No, I have not! What’s going on?”
In his gravest voice, the courtier answered: “Your majesty, I will tell you only after you promise not to harm me.”
“Don’t be silly,” laughed the king. “Say whatever you want to; you need not be afraid of me.”
“Your Majesty, Tenali is on the payroll of the neighbouring king. He has been spying on us for them.”
“What are you talking about?” asked the king angrily.
“I told you, your Majesty. This has been going on for a long time. But you would not listen to a word against Tenali. He has cast such a spell on you that you refuse to even think that he might betray you.”
“Tenali Ram is faithful to the kingdom. He cannot do this. You have been misinformed,” the king replied with confidence.
But the courtier convinced the king to regard the statement with some gravity and not dismiss it outright. Those were times of great intrigue.
“Your majesty, I am fully confident about the truth of my information. Do you think I would have spoken to you without verifying such the information?” said the courtier.
Now the king was obliged to turn the statement over in his mind. He promised to get the matter investigated and said that if Tenali Rama was found guilty, he would be punished.
The king sent for Tenali Rama the following day. Without wasting time on preliminaries, he asked the minister whether he was in league with the neighbouring state.
The question shocked Tenali Rama so much that he was stunned and could not say anything.
When Krishnadeva Rai found him silent, he became angry and thundered: “Your silence says you accept the charge.”
Deeply hurt that the king could doubt his loyalty, Tenali Rama said he refused to answer to such a preposterous charge.
This made the king even more angry. He ordered Tenali Rama to leave his kingdom.
Tenali Rama was surprised at the mildness of the punishment. Acts of treachery against the state earned the offender the death sentence in those days.
The king had his reasons, however. “I have decided on such a mild punishment for you because of your high stature, and the fact that we have enjoyed the best of relations thus far. Had it been anyone else, I would have got his head severed.”
Tenali Rama did not say a single word in his defence and went away with his head bowed.
When his enemies heard that Tenali Rama had been expelled from the kingdom their joy knew no bounds.
Tenali Rama now reached the neighbouring state and met the king there. He recited a poem in praise of the king. That pleased the king very much. He asked Tenali Rama who he was and when Tenali Rama revealed his name, the king welcomed him warmly. He had heard much about Tenali Rama’s sagacity.
But the king was surprised to see Tenali Ram in his court. “Raja Krishnadeva Rai considers me his enemy. So what are you doing here?”
The minister replied: “Majesty, you are a learned man. You have great strength. You are a good administrator and wish your people well. Our king also possesses all these virtues. He regards you as a friend and he has send me to remove the existing misunderstanding between us.”
The king was surprised. “Your king considers me a friend? But our spies warned us that Krishnadeva Rai was thinking of attacking us.”
Tenali Rama said: “Our spies have fed our king the same pack of lies. That is why he has sent me to you. Has war ever benefitted anybody?”
The king was impressed by Tenali Rama’s story. He said: “I do not want war, either. But how can I believe that Krishnadev Rai really wants peace?”
Tenali Rama suggested that the king send a messenger with gifts and a message of peace to Vijaynagar. And if king Krishnadeva Rai accepted the gifts, it would mean that he, too, wanted to be friends. But if he returned the gifts, then obviously, he wanted war.
The king had one doubt. “Won’t it be an insult to me if I sent the message first?”
Tenali Rama had a ready answer. “I have come with the message of peace and so it is us who have made the first move.”
The king liked the sound of that and sent his special messenger to Vijaynagar the next day.
Meanwhile, king Krishnadeva Rai had come to know that Tenali Rama was innocent and that the courtiers had conspired against him. As soon as the messenger from the neighbouring state reached him with costly gifts, he was delighted.
He was full of praise for Tenali Ramaa’s wisdom and sent his own minister with gifts to the neighbouring state, with a request that the king send back Tenali Ram.
And when Tenali Rama returned to Vijaynagar, King Krishnadeva Rai warmly welcomed him and offered him gifts.
He also promised to punish the clique of courtiers who had poisoned his ear against his favourite minister.