Diwali is here! And that brings us to the end of yet another financial year. Time to thank gods for the last year and pray for a better year ahead.
According to the traditional Indian calendar, Diwali is celebrated over a period of four or five days. The festivities begin with Dhana Trayodashi, popular in North India as Dhanteras. On this day you have a series of rituals that are followed in different parts of the country. Some worship Kubera, the god of wealth and yet others worship Dhanavantari, the god of medicine.
But one of the more fascinating rituals is to play the game of dice and gamble in Krishna temples across Vrindavan in the North and coastal Andhra and Karnataka in the south. Two groups of priests take on the roles of representing Krishna and Radha and play the game of dice. The winner gets to take gifts in the form of rice, jaggery, silk clothes and sometimes gold and silver objects. Let us not forget how a game of dice between the warring brothers of the Kuru clan and Pandavas changed the course of the epic Mahabharata!
Radha, Krishna playing dice
In fact, not just there, but in several ancient cultures in Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Telangana, coastal Karnataka, traditional board games are played this season. There are no specific stories within any known mythologies about gods playing board games.
Several of these stories come from rural, folk and oral traditions. There are numerous miniature paintings across traditional Indian schools of art like Kangra, Basholi, Mewar, Deccan or Rajput showing gods like Krishna and Shiva engrossed in playing board games.
While most of these art works might be a fragment of imagination of some of our finest artists, there is no denying that traditional board games have been a part of ancient Indian culture.
Over a period of time, many of them have been forgotten and undocumented. A handful of them have managed to survive because they were probably easier to play. If you visit the ancient heritage sites of Hampi in Karnataka, Lepakshi in Andhra, Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, you can find several of these games carved on the floors of temples and other halls in the region. It was a common pastime, along with books and other art forms, in an era that didn’t consist of television and internet. However, what is exciting about this is to revisit some of our ancient traditional board games.
Pagade is a race game is known by numerous names in different part of India. It is called as Pagade in Kannada, Chaupad, Chopat or Chausar in Hindi, Pachchisi, Sokkattan or Dayakattam in Tamil, Pagdi Pat in Marathi. An ancient version of Ludo is played with two to four players. The game has four arms joined at the sides of a central big square which is ‘home’.
Each arm is made up of three rows of eight squares. Players have to do an entire round of travel across all the four arms before they make their way back ‘home’. There are strict rules to the game and they vary from place to place. The game can go on forever if played properly! No wonder it was one of the biggest time pass for people in villages across India.
Chaduranga is yet another ancient form of chess. It is a strategy game that requires one to be smart and intelligent while making one’s moves across to board to defeat opponents. There are different versions of it across India. The Ain-i-Akbari mentions Akbar’s love for chess and how it helped him master strategy.
Ashta Chamma or Chauka Bara is another race game where in two to four players race their respective coins on a board of 5x5 squares to reach the inner most square. The movement of coins is controlled by throw of four cowrie shells, hence it is a game of chance. Since each player has four coins, he can decide which coin to move, hence it also comes under strategy games. This is again played across India. It is called Dyootardha in Sanskrit, Ashta Chamma in Telugu, Chauka Bara in Kannada, Changaabu in Rajasthani, Kavidi Kali in Malayalam, Khaddi Khadda in Punjabi and so forth.
Paramapada Sopanam is the famous game of ‘Snakes and Ladders’ everyone must have played at some point as a kid. This is one of the easier games found across India. One can find references to it from several ancient texts. The erstwhile Maharaj of Mysore Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar (1794 -1868) was a great lover of board games. He employed several professional gamers in his court.
He loved these games so much that he even authored books on them. He kept a serious interest in astrology, philosophy and mathematics and spent a good deal of his life inventing complex symbolic games and puzzles.
Only a few of the encyclopedic records are to be found in the Jaganmohan Palace art gallery in Mysore. A majority of manuscripts are either at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London or in private collections in others museums across Europe and America. I have only mentioned a few games here. But there are atleast two dozen distinctly different board games across India.
In the recent past several interested individuals and not-for-profit organizations have begun making traditional board games. Companies like Kreeda in Chennai, Kavade in Bangalore started by Sreeranjini, a games-lover and enthusiast and few others are bringing traditional board games back to public life.
Kavade even has a lovely little store in Bangalore, probably a first in India that is exclusively producing and selling these board games at highly affordable prices! Sreeranjini has gone out of her way to make these special. Each game is hand-made and hence unique! These games are catching up among enthusiasts of all age groups. They can be ordered online on their respective websites. With increasing difficulty in finding space for outdoor games in shrinking and polluted cities, indoor board games, and that too traditional Indian board games are getting a new lease of life.
They also make for excellent gifts for friends. So this Diwali season and after, help yourself to master one good traditional Indian board game and see how much fun our ancestors had! A happy Diwali! Spread the light, not the noise!
(All images by Krishnamurthy, Suresh Nalapat, Raghavendra P S, Veejay Sai.)