Tenali Ramalingam, or Tenali Rama as he was known was the extremely intelligent court jester of the emperor Krishnadevaraya who ruled the Vijayanagara Empire. Not only was he the court jester, but also, he played advisor to the king on many occasions and helped Krishnadevaraya come out of difficult situations and saved the reputation of the kingdom.
This story is about one such incident. Vijayanagara Empire was known for the intelligent and extremely knowledgeable scholars. Once a scholar from Kashi visited Vijayanagara Empire. The emperor as was usual, welcomed the learned man and enquired about the purpose of his visit to his palace. The scholar, who had a look of arrogance said, “Well, your Majesty, I have heard that you have many learned scholars in your kingdom. I would like to have a debate with them on any literary work they choose. It does not matter to me, you see, as to what work is chosen, for, I have read all the literary works that are available, ha.. And, if your men defeat me, I shall surrender all my titles, whereas, if I defeat them, they should become my slaves. Can any of your scholars debate with me?”
The Emperor was confident of his learned men and agreed to the condition and ordered, “Let the debate take place tomorrow”.
However, the arrogance and pomp of the scholar dampened the confidence of the learned men of the court and they feared that they would be easily defeated. They met the emperor and with great apprehension, told him about their reluctance to participate in the debate.
Krishnadevaraya was furious. “Is there nobody to take on this scholar?” he roared in anger. “Is my empire starved of learned men? Is it not a shame to the empire that we do not have even one single person to debate with this scholar?” he seethed with anger.
Tenali Rama who was present watching what had happened, stepped forward. “Your Majesty,” he said humbly. “I will debate with that scholar tomorrow. Do not worry”
The emperor was angrier than before. “Rama, this is not the time to joke about. I am seriously talking about the stake of the kingdom and here you are joking eh?”
Raman said hurriedly, in a firm voice, “I mean what I say your majesty. The only requirement of mine is that these scholars here should come dressed up as my disciples and I shall take care of the rest”. Krishnadevaraya could do nothing and he agreed half-heartedly.
The next day, as the court gathered with the scholar from Kashi present, Raman walked in majestically, his ‘disciples’ in front of him, hailing his praises and ‘titles’. He was wearing a grand silk dhoti and a dazzling turban studded with Gems and had big rings on his fingers and a heavy gold chain around his neck. He carried a bundle wrapped in red silk and held it close to his chest. Even the Emperor was stunned at this show but was not still sure of Raman’s capability.
Raman sat with his disciples on the dais where already the scholar from Kashi was seated. Raman placed the silk bundle in front of him and looked at the emperor for his consent to start the debate. The emperor signalled that the debate could be started.
Raman cleared his throat. “Hmm.. Hmm.. Respected Sir,” he said addressing the scholar from Kashi. “Since you have told that we could debate on a literary work of my choice, I have chosen to debate about “Tilakashta Mahisha Bandhanam.. Will you start the debate or should I?” He stopped to observe the scholar. The scholar had a shock of his life. He had read almost all the literary works of his time but had never even in his dreams heard of this work “Tilakashta Mahisha Bandhanam”. He realised his mistake of having allowed Tenali Rama to choose the work of his choice. His face was filled with panic and he hurriedly looked at the emperor and said very humbly, “Your Majesty, I have read this work about thirty years ago and I seek a day’s time to recall the contents of the work. If you permit, can we debate on this tomorrow?
The emperor was surprised at the scholar’s action. However, he had also not even remotely heard of “Tilakashta Mahisha Bandhanam” and was sort of confused as to how Tenali Rama had mastered this ‘rare’ literary work. Anyhow, the scholar was a guest and the emperor could not be rude to him and so he said, “Well, Sir, if you wish the debate to take place tomorrow, so be it. The darbar is adjourned now.”
The scholar hurriedly got up with his disciples and rushed to the guest house where he was staying. The next day he was not seen at the darbar and when the emperor sent word to the guest house, they found he had left the kingdom with bag and baggage.
The emperor, with a bemused expression looked at Rama and asked him, “Rama, even I have not read this literary work ‘Tilakashta Mahisha Bandhanam’. What is it about?”
Rama with a sparkle in his eyes, opened the silk bundle he was holding and to the utter shock of every one present, the bundle contained a dried twig of a sesame plant and a rope which is used to tie a buffalo.
To the confused onlookers, Raman explained, “This sesame is called ’tila’ in sanskrit.’Kashta’ in Sanskrit, means stick and so the twig of a sesame plant is ’tilakashta’.’Mahisha’ is buffalo in Sanskrit and ‘Bandhanam’ means tying in Sanskrit. This rope therefore is ‘Mahisha Bandhanam’ as it is used for that purpose. Now you know what “Tilakashta Mahisha Bandhanam” is all about!”
The courtiers and the emperor were guffawing uncontrollably at the wit of Rama and the emperor as usual gave Rama loads of gifts for saving the name and fame of Vijayanagara Kingdom.