By appointment

Accounts of how jesters came to be recruited to their role range from the credible to the mythical.  A courtier spotting a suitable candidate on his travels is feasible.  A king appointing a jester based on a brassy rejoinder, likewise.  However, this delightful tale, concerning the legendary Indian jester Tenali Rama, is the first I have come across in which the roguish wit is appointed as a jester by a goddess.  And noteworthy that the fierce Kali condemns him to a life as a jester as a curse, outraged as she is by his breezy mockery.  Only when he then makes her laugh does she soften and ensure that his jokes would be appreciated at court.  Note that the first mention of ‘Tenali’ refers to his village.

One day a passing sannyasin came to Tenali, where he noticed the fine character and excellent bodily form of the young Brahmin lad, Rama.  The holy man taught Rama a mantra which, if recited 30 million times in a single night in the Kali temple outside the village, would cause the fierce goddess to appear.  At night, Rama went to the Kali shrine and recited the mantra.  (Some say: his mother was so vexed at the impudent, hyperactive boy that she sent him in despair to Kali, as the only “mother” who could handle him.)  The goddess appeared in her terrifying form, with a thousand heads, and with two pots in her hands – one with the elixir of wisdom (vidya), the other with that of wealth (dhana).  She asked Rama to choose whichever one he desired.  The impudent lad snatched both pots from the goddess and drank them to the bottom.  Kali was enraged, but Rama, quite unafraid, began to laugh.  “How dare you laugh at me!” cried the ferocious Kali, until Rama explained: “I suddenly thought how much trouble it is for us, with only one head and two hands, whenever we have a runny nose – and how much worse it must be for you with your thousand heads!”  The goddess cursed him:  “You will become a ridiculous jester (vikatakavi) from this time forth.”  But Rama was pleased: “You have given me a great boon; whichever way you look at my title, it reads exactly the same.”


Kali, marveling at the boy’s wit, felt compassion, and promised him that he would be praised for his jests at the royal court.  Then the goddess disappeared, and Rama left for the capital to pursue his new career.

Tenali Rama displays all the qualities of a jester – playfulness, irreverence, fearlessness and wit.  One of his jokes rests on the fact that vikatakavi is a palindrome in Indian syllabic scripts.  David Shulman, who quotes this story, comments perceptively that:

The palindrome epithet points to Temali Rama’s peculiar path to truth.  Reversal is of his very essence … The jester is a walking palindrome: his double vision, which flows naturally out of the contrary movements within his nature, inevitably precipitates reversal in any seemingly stable entity or concept which he approaches.

Sources: ‘Tennalraman katai’ I, in Katacintamani enru valankukira mariyatairaman katai (Madras: 1975), pp. 48-49; Robinson, Edward Jewitt, Tales and Poems of South India (London: 1885), pp. 342-43; David Shulman, The King and the Clown in South Indian Myth and Poetry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 182-84


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This