The board game theory of life

India is the birthplace of many modern board games
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First Published: Fri, Jan 25 2013. 06 51 PM IST
A watercolour painting of Shiv and Parvati playing chaupar.
A watercolour painting of Shiv and Parvati playing chaupar.
Updated: Sat, Jan 26 2013. 04 17 PM IST
It is a simple game involving five pebbles of medium size. We called it Anchangal (five stones), but it could well have been played with 10 or 11 stones. It took a little practice and there was scope for improvement. You started by throwing one pebble up in the air and picked up another pebble while it fell. Then you graduated to picking up two pebbles while one was in the air; then three and more. You could throw two pebbles up in the air and attempt to pick up an equal number. It took concentration and hand-eye coordination. It absorbed my friends and me for hours when we were children.
Most often, we played it on hot summer afternoons at my grandmother’s house when the adults slept. But the game, which required little more than a flat surface and five stones, could be played in railway compartments, waiting rooms and balconies. We spent a lot of time foraging for the right-sized pebbles and cowrie shells to add to the game’s toolkit.
An excellent website called Traditionalgames.in has a video clip showing how the game is played. Other websites devoted to traditional games conjecture that this simple game spread through the Silk Route to Turkey, Spain and Korea, where it is called Besh Dash, Payana and Gonggi, respectively. Having played it for years, I can attest that it does indeed improve eyesight, concentration and motor skills. In fact, I have restarted playing it now because it is—like doodling—a great stress buster and a harbinger of the elusive muse that only surfaces when you are distracted or in a Zen state of mind.
India is home to many of the world’s most ancient games, including Pachisi, which was exported to England, recreated into Ludo, and then returned to India to be played by many a child during the summer holidays. “Nowadays, Indian children play Ludo completely oblivious to the fact that it is a monstrous decomposition of their own fantastic board game,” said Irving Finkel in Time magazine in 2008. Finkel, who works at The British Museum, is an authority on board games, including the Royal Game of Ur, widely considered to be the oldest board game in existence.
India’s contribution to board games is extensive, as documented by Finkel, R. Vasantha and V. Balambal, all of whom are experts on the topic. In speeches and reports, Vasantha describes some of the more interesting indoor games such as Mancala, Tigers and Goats, and Single Track. Balambal, who specializes in the indoor games of Tamil Nadu, is mentioned in Levingston’s Board Game Blog (http://boardgameblog.wordpress.com/) along with Nirbed Ray and Amitabha Ghosh, who have edited a hard-to-find book called Sedentary Games of India, published by The Asiatic Society, Kolkata. Anyone interested in how board games were created, spread and played should read these blogs.
My favourite game used to be Snakes and Ladders, but now I find that it too is a monstrous translation of the original Indian version. In 1860, a Harvard dropout named Milton Bradley created a board game called The Checkered Game of Life or Life, as it was popularly called. In the game, the players simulated their travels through life with jobs, children, education and hurdles. The Game of Life was arguably America’s first parlour game, and certainly its most popular.
Bradley may have popularized the game but he borrowed its ideas from many an ancient culture, including India, where this checkerboard and the accompanying game were called by various names: jnana chaupar, gyan chaupar, and parama pada sopanam (steps to the highest place). Originating around 1200, this game had squares called houses and four players whose movements were dictated by the throw of dice. It was thought to be excellent preparation for the victories and vicissitudes of life with all its glorious vagaries. Players took on personas, and if they were virtuous, they climbed the ladder. Fortunes changed with the throw of a dice, which brought along winds of change. If you were unlucky, you were swallowed by a snake and had to go down several steps. But don’t fear, was the underlying message: After every snake came a ladder; after falling down, you would go up.
The main thing was to maintain equanimity because the game had no clear winner. All that mattered was to reach the top of the board and everyone would. The original game didn’t have the “winner-take-all” strategy that became part of its Western avatar. Rather, it was heavily imbued with the Hindu notion of maya or illusion that translated into ladders of success and snakes of failure, both of which were part of the game of life.
Traditional Indian games are being revived through companies such as Chennai-based Kreeda, Mysore-based Kreedaa Kaushalya and others. I became interested in ancient Indian board games after listening to Jill Lepore’s excellent lecture on “The Meaning of Life”. Say, you are an elementary schoolteacher and you want to teach your students the meaning of life with all its ups and downs, what do you do? Perhaps you should play Snakes and Ladders with them, not the modern version but the original Indian version.
Shoba Narayan is looking to buy a Gyan Chaupar board. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jan 25 2013. 06 51 PM IST
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