In the village of Tenali in the present day Andhra Pradesh, lived a lad by name Ramalingam. He was called Rama in short and was a shrewd and intelligent fellow but a happy-go-lucky fellow with no intention to work. Most of his time he whiled away in the woods nearby.
One day when he was having a sound nap under a shady tree on a hot afternoon, he was woken up by the voice of a ‘sadhu’. The sadhu was calling out to him, ” Oh, lazy lad, get up! You should be working hard at your age like your other friends, and not be lazing around. Ramalingam woke up groggily from his slumber and looked at the Sadhu. “True Holy Sir, but I have not had any education. Who will give me a job??”, he replied , followed by a big yawn.
The Sadhu said ” I will teach you a mantra. Go to the Kali Temple at night and keep reciting the mantra. Ma Kali will bless you!” Saying thus, he taught a short verse to Rama. Rama sincerely followed the advice of the Sadhu and went to the Kali Temple at night, sat in front of the Kali idol and started chanting the verse. He would have chanted the verse for a few hours, when suddenly, Ma Kali appeared before him. She was a terrifying sight with a thousand heads and her self adorned by shining jewellery. A radiance of a thousand suns was emanating from her. Rama was not in the least shocked at the sight of the Goddess. Instead he started laughing. He laughed out loud that Ma Kali started wondering at what he was laughing and in a booming voice asked him “Why are you laughing huh??” Rama controlled his laughter and told the goddess, “Ma, I looked at your thousand heads and was wondering how you would manage if you get a cold and running noses, since I am not able to manage my one running nose, when I get a cold… hahahaha….” Hearing this the goddess also laughed and said, “You are a smart lad. I am very happy. You deserve my blessings. May you be a VIKATAKAVI !” (Vikatam means jest and kavi is poet)
Rama said “Thank you for your blessings Ma. VI KA TA KA VI is a palindrome and reads the same in both directions . But by my being a VIKATAKAVI, I will make others happy. What about myself? ”
The Goddess was even more pleased at the fearless Rama and she instantly held out two bowls. Said she, “Rama, this gold bowl in my right hand contains sweet milk, and you will be very knowledgeable and wise if you drink this. And this silver bowl in my left hand has sour curds and by drinking this you will become very wealthy. Which do you choose?”
Rama asked her , “Ma, why is wealth represented by sour curds?” “It is because wealth is not always acquired by pleasant and righteous means.” said the Goddess. “Now choose what you want!!” Rama looked at both the bowls for a long moment and said, “I need to taste both to decide what I want” . The Goddess unwittingly held out both the bowls to him. In a flash, Rama grabbed both the bowls and gulped down the contents of both of them.
The Goddess was furious but Rama said “Ma, forgive me ,but what is the use of knowledge without wealth or wealth without knowledge?” The Goddess calmed down and smiled and blessed Rama that he would be wealthy and wise. She also told him that this would attract a lot of enemies but he would manage to tackle all unpleasant situations. She vanished thereafter.
Rama, pleased with himself returned home, a very wise youngster, and later went to seek his fortune at the court of Krishnadevaraya, the Emperor of the Vijayanagara Kingdom and became very well-known as Tenali Rama.
This is the story of Tenali Rama.