Sonadurg was a neighboring kingdom of Krishna Deva Raya’s Vijayanagar empire. Sonadurg was rich in gold and diamond deposits. But the kingdom was ruled by corrupt King Andhermukh. The people of the kingdom suffered from the King’s exploitation. Some of his noble ministers who detested his ways decided to seek help from Krishna Deva Raya to displace Andhermukh and make the his younger brother, the just and humble Prince Surajmukh, the new king.
A team of these ministers secretly made a trip to the Vijayanagar court. Krishna Deva Raya was moved hearing about the tales of suffering of the common folk in his neighboring kingdom. Immediately he ordered his vast army to march to the border in preparation for battle. The news of the great Vijayanagar army approaching reached the wicked King Andhermukh. The coward ruler trembled. He knew he had no chance in a battle. So overnight he fled the kingdom on his horseback carrying as much from the royal coffers as he could.
Prince Surajmukh was immediately ordained as the new King by the priests and ministers. The people of Sonadurg rejoiced. New King Surajmukh wanted to show his gratitude to King Krishna Deva Raya. So he sent three caravans laden with exceptional treasures and riches to the Vijaynagar court.
Krishna Deva Raya was very pleased at having avoided a bloody war. As a wise king, he knew that in a war there are no victors. Only bloodshed and hatred remained. But as a practical king he also realized the importance of maintaining a well trained impressive army and a court packed with clever strategists as a clear deterrent to enemy kingdoms.
When the caravans from Sonadurg arrived, the king decided to distribute this new wealth among his military leaders and courtiers. However, he wanted to have some fun with his cleverest minister, Tenali Ram, on this occasion. Though Tenali Ram was exceptionally brilliant and wise, he had a reputation of being lazy. Tenali Ram always used to be last one to arrive in court just in time for the proceedings. Though he was never later, this last minute arrivals of Tenali Ram was slightly irritating the King. So Krishna Deva Raya decided to use these treasures and gifts from Sonadurg to teach Tenali Ram a lesson.
Next day the King arrived very early to the court. Though he was there an hour ahead, most of the courtiers had arrived and others were coming in. As expected there was no sign of Tenali Ram. Previous night, the king had ordered palace servants to arrange 42 of the costliest gifts from Sonadurg in the display area of the court. There were a total of 42 generals, ministers and courtiers in King Krishna Deva Raya’s court.
Pointing to the display area, the king announced, “Respected members of my courts, here are the best of the presents we received from Sonadurg. I am sharing them with you. Each of you can choose exactly one from those displayed. Whatever you can get your hands on first will be yours.”
As soon as the King finished speaking, there was a mad rush towards the gifts. The members of the court had been eying the precious diamond necklaces, golden garlands, emerald pendants etc that were on display. The courtiers fell over each other to grab the best possible gift to take back home. Within five minutes, the display area was empty except for a shallow silver bowl that everyone had shunned. The courtiers returned to their seats admiring whatever they could grab and comparing their gift with their neighbors. Everyone was happy that they weren’t stuck with the worthless silver bowl. They realized that Tenali Ram was not present and so will be stuck with the silver bowl. They were happy that they had now a chance to tease him.
As the clock struck ten to mark the beginning of that morning’s court session, Tenali Ram entered. Promptly he noticed that all the courtiers were holding and admiring priceless gifts.
Seeing Tenali Ram, Krishna Deva Raya spoke:”Dear Tenali Ram, I am sorry you have arrived last. I distributed the gifts from Sonadurg. Everyone could take whatever they could find. I am sorry now there is only this shallow silver bowl left for you.”
Seeing the King smile, Tenali Ram realized that he was being mocked for arriving just in time. He understood that the King wanted him to be in attendance early in the court if possible. He made a mental note to do so in future. But now he had the opportunity to do something clever. In fact, Krishna Deva Raya expected nothing less from his smartest minister.
Tenali Ram walked over to the display area, picked up the silver bowl and immediately covered it with his shawl. With the bowl thus covered with his shawl, he walked back and took his seat. The king and the courtiers were puzzled by this behavior.
“Tell me, Tenali Ram,” chucked the King, “why are you covering the dish? Are you ashamed of not being able to collect anything more valuable?”
“Quite the contrary, O Beloved King,”, said Tenali Ram, “I do not want you to be ashamed” “Me? Ashamed? What do you mean?”, asked the King.
“Your Majesty,” Tenali Ram began to explain,”Every time I return from your court, I carry precious rewards and gifts that you generously bestow on me. People on the streets notice them when I walk back home and they praise your generosity and my wits. Today I am to return with this empty bowl. I will keep it covered so that people will still think it is full of gold coins and thus your reputation will remain intact.”
Hearing this, Krishna Deva Raya happily realized that once again Tenali Ram had outsmarted him and the courtiers. He unhooked his costliest royal necklace and dropped it into Tenali Ram silver bowl so that Tenali Ram did not have to cover an empty bowl on his way back home. All the other courtiers saw how Tenali Ram managed to score the most precious gift that day as well with his quick wit and cleverness.
The Most Precious Gift – Tenali Raman Stories