Reading of the great epics like Mahabharata out to the public was given great emphasis throughout India, especially in Kerala. Learned men were appointed just for that task in the major temples throughout the state.
One such place was called Ampalappuzha. The ruler of the principality was known by the star of his birth, “Pooraatam”, and was reputed for his erudition. The temple had one scholar by name Neelakantha Deekshitar specifically for the daily reading from the Mahabharatam. The king had the habit of listening to the verses without fail.
One day Deekshitar was away on business. The king was greatly worried that he would miss his daily dose of Mahabharatam. It was then that he noticed a Brahmin seated in front of the deity doing his prayers. He was a stranger to the place and appeared to be of humble origin.
The king was not sure whether the visitor could handle the job, at least for the day. He decided to accost him with the question, “can you read from the Mahabharatam combining words together?” The king was trying to establish whether the newcomer was literate enough to read Sanskrit verses fluently and correctly. But, the actual words also implied, literally, whether the guy knew how to add something of his own to the original. The terse reply from the visitor was that “he would try”.
The reading started where it was left on the earlier day. The war was in full swing. Bhima was in great form thrashing the Kaurava army with his formidable mace. At that point, the Brahmin, innocently read a stanza:
“Then, the army of Duryodhana, thrashed by the mace of Bhima, took refuge under Karna, as the hair of a bald man does around his ears
(Tada Bheema gadaa trastaa Duryodhana varoothinee
Sikhaa khaarvaatakasyeva Karnamoola mupaagataa)”
The king was quite bald. The word Karna also means ear. Hence, the simile. The king had the whole of Mahabharatam on his finger tips. It was that his royal status demanded some one else reading the text out to him.
So, quick to catch the interpolation, he asked. “Is it in the original text?” The reader calmly and politely replied. “No, your Majesty! I added it”, as though that was what the king expected out of him.
The king promptly asked whether the visitor was Narayana Bhattathiri of Meppattoor. The reply was in the affirmative.
The story has an interesting background to it. The visitor was one of the greatest Sanskrit poets of the time who had just completed his renowned work called “Narayaneeyam”. The king was waiting eagerly for an opportunity to meet the poet. He, on his part, had heard about the learned king who welcomed poets and scholars with open hands. The poet came, specifically, for meeting the king. That was how their meeting took place. It is said that the poet stayed with the king for a while and composed an important poem on Sanskrit grammar, called “Prakriyaa Sarvasvam”.