Holi, the festival of colors, was celebrated every year with great pomp and festivities in the the Vijayanagar empire. King Krishna Deva Raya and the royal family used to be part of all the celebrations enthusiastically. There was an added excitement for the courtiers on that auspicious day. At the end of the day’s events the king used to give away two awards: The Biggest Fool & The Cleverest Wit.
Throughout the year, the courtiers would gather all the stories of foolishness and pick the best to be presented before the King on that day. But over the years, Tenali Ram would always win both the awards. Obviously the courtiers fumed with jealousy about this. They feared that this year also things were not going to be different. So the most cunning amongst them decided to prevent Tenali Ram from appearing in the court on that Holi day.
With this in mind they reached Tenali Ram’s house early in the morning. Tenali Ram was consulting his notes for the day in preparation for the contests. He was surprised to see the courtiers come to his home. But since it was a day of good will and happiness, he decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. The courtiers had brought along a huge jug of bhang (opium milk drink). It was a Holi tradition to consume bhang.
They insisted that Tenali Ram have a drink with them. He obliged. What he did not know was that the courtiers had made highly concentrated bhang which was sure to make anyone who drinks it sleep the whole day. They all pretended to drink along while Tenali Ram genuinely drank a cup. They insisted he have another cup. Tenali Ram knew that this was unwise. He realized that the drink was highly intoxication. Still as his better judgment was already compromised under the influence, he drank another cup and passed out. The courtiers made sure that Tenali Ram was in deep slumber and happily went to the court to take part in the contests.
Krishna Deva Raya enjoyed listening to all the tales of foolishness and cleverness from his courtiers through out the day. He was a bit surprised by the absence of Tenali Ram. In fact, he wondered why Tenali Ram was staying away on such an important day.
The overbearing heat of the afternoon woke Tenali Ram up from his sleep. He checked the time and was shocked. Quickly he realized that the courtiers had played a dirty trick on him. He still had just about an hour to make it to the court before the celebrations were over and awards distributed. He decided to repay the courtiers for their trickery.
Seeing a sleepy dishevelled Tenali Ram arrive at the court, Krishna Deva Raya was furious. The King thought it was very arrogant of his minister to have skipped court on that important day because of sleeping. Krishna Deva Raya decided to announce the awards right away to somebody else. But before he stood up, Tenali Ram moved to the center of the court and began to speak: “Your Majesty, I want you to help me solve a problem. This was such a severe problem that my head hurt thinking about it and I fell unconscious as you can see from my condition. And I think today being the day we give away the award for the greatest foolishness, it is appropriate that I get this matter resolved by your highness. “
“This morning,” continued Tenali Ram to the ever increasing curiosity of courtiers and the king, “an old man came to see me. He wanted me to tell him who amongst his three sons was the greatest fool. He had decided to pass on his good business to them but did not want to give any role to the most foolish son to be squandered away.”
“His oldest son suffered from the company of wicked friends who were always stealing from him. But he completely trusted them and was unwilling to get rid of them despite advise from the father. His second son was alcoholic. He was wasting all his money on trying new intoxicants. He would stay drunk all day. His third son did not know the value of time. He was always wasting his own time. He did not value other’s time. He would always be late. He did not care that others were waiting for him. Business under such a person was also bound to suffer. This old father wanted me to help him make the choice.”
The King and courtiers were now engrossed in the tale. Tenali Ram posed the question, “Can you or anyone in this court help me with this problem? I wracked my brain on it all morning and slept off in exhaustion. All the sons appear fools to me. I don’t think the business is going to be safe with any of them.”
Chatur Pandit who was having an upbeat day so far pitched in, “Clearly the drunkard son is the most dangerous and foolish. He has no control over his desire for this drink. He is the most foolish one.”
Krishna Deva Raya shook his head in agreement. Chatur Pandit was happy to see that. He was happy the whole day from having tricked Tenali Ram in the morning. He was sure he would win the awards from the King. But Chatur’s happiness did not last long. Another minister spoke up, “I disagree with Chatur Pandit, you Majesty, “said he, “the son with the wicked friends is the biggest fool. From the epics and folklore we know that a man’s greatest wealth is his friends. This fool is eating out of the hands of evil ones. They will ruin his life and the business. Anyone who cannot recognize the wicked ways of those pretending to be his friends is indeed the greatest fools.”
Krishna Deva Raya began to think. He felt that the minister made sense. As king he had always given first priority to surrounding himself with those who would not harm him. But before the king could speak in conclusion, another courtier spoke up.
“Beloved King, if there is one thing that is common to every man alive, it is time. It is of immeasurable value because we cannot bring up lost time with even the greatest effort. A person who cannot recognize the value of time cannot recognize the value of anything else in the world. Thus money, relationships, honor etc will leave that person quickly. The third son, thus, is the greatest fool.”
The King was confused with this. All the three opinions were valid. The courtiers had already split into teams supporting each notion and a noisy debate ensued in the court. The King understood that such a conundrum could have indeed brought about a headache for even clever Tenali Ram. But now Tenali Ram was standing in the middle of the court with a smile watching the growing din.
Suddenly he clapped his hands. The court fell silent. Tenali Ram spoke, “Your Highness, clearly it is difficult to judge who is the greatest fool among those three sons. Each of them can be considered the greatest. It is a matter of opinion. But I think all of us will agree that if one person had all these three characteristics, he will indeed be, without doubt, the greatest fool on this planet.”
The King and the courtiers laughed hearing this. “If such a person exists, then he is indeed the greatest fool ever!”, declared Krishna Deva Raya.
“Thank you very much, My King, ” bowed Tenali Ram, “I gladly accept the award this year too for the biggest fool” Krishna Deva Raya did not understand but the bunch of ministers who had visited Tenali Ram in the morning realized that they have been outwitted.
Tenali Ram explained, “This morning a group of courtiers visited me with the agenda of tricking me. I accepted their friendly gesture like a fool and became intoxicated. I drank more than I should have. Then like a fool I slept off without being aware of the passage of time on this important day. On all three counts, I have been the fool. Unknowingly those gentlemen have delivered for me the very award they wished to deny.”
Krishna Deva Raya was pleased to hear this. He saw how cleverly Tenali Ram had turned a potentially damaging day. In witty wisdom, Tenali Ram was unsurpassed in the court. As the proceedings of the day were drawing to a close by then, the King announced that that year too Tenali Ram deserved the award for both the greatest fool and the cleverest wit. The courtiers could not but wholeheartedly agree.