PUBG and Warcraft can’t teach the life lessons that these traditional Indian board games did
For Sangeeta Rajesh, a bout of illness in 2014 turned out to be providential. She was homebound, playing a board game with her friend Archana Reddy, when a question struck them: why do children today suffer from more anxiety and mental disorders?
“We see many troubling issues in today’s children,” said Rajesh, 42, a remedial therapist. “We wondered why such a change occurred in a generation.”
Putting down some of the ills to the excessive use of technology among children, the friends decided that one antidote could be less technology. They thought back to the traditional games they played when they were young – the games back then “were simple” and “taught ethics”. “Unlike technology, which is a one-way street, they inculcated life lessons,” said Reddy, 38, who owns a school in Hyderabad.
Their concerned musings led to extensive research and travels. Eighteen months later they founded Good Old Games, an online and offline store dedicated to re-popularising traditional games common to South India.
The store currently sells more than 15 games, among them puli-joodam, or puli meka, a two-player game in which 19 pieces sit on a board with crisscrossing lines. One player controls the three tiger pieces, while the other player controls the 16 goat pieces. Fewer in number, the tigers are allowed by the rules of the game to leap over a goat and kill it. For their part, the goats need to avoid leaping tigers, while working as a team to surround them and make them immobile. Through the checks and limitations, the game teaches players teamwork and strategising.
Other products Good Old Games sells include basavanna-ata (a race game for two or four players that is said to resemble the chakra of Lord Vishnu in its shape), daadi (what is called nine men’s morris in the West) and pachisi (a race game that is similar to chaupar and played with cowrie shells).
Before the store’s launch, Rajesh and Reddy did painstaking research. For sourcing rattles, spinning tops, slingshots as well as raw materials such as palm tree shells and leaves, they visited the Chithirai Festival in Madurai that celebrates the coronation of Goddess Meenakshi. In Karaikudi, a municipality in Tamil Nadu, they found pallanguzhi (called ali guli mane in Kannada and kuzhipara in Malayalam), with its intricate patterns and materials. A visit to museums in Delhi gave them insights into board games played by India’s royal families.
Once their research was over, Rajesh and Reddy sought out artisans in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh to recreate the chosen games accurately but aesthetically. At first, things moved slowly, through tedious trial and error. Reddy recalls that eight pallanguzhi boards were created before the artisans got the depth of the pits and their spacing right. As important as the design was the packaging. Rajesh and Reddy wanted all their games to be available in various materials – cloth (silk, wool, velvet, embroidered weaves), wood (rubber and teak) and metal (brass, cast iron and in some cases, copper).
Behind each game are compelling stories. Parama pada sopanam, an older version of Snakes and Ladders, for instance, is symbolic of a man’s quest to reach heaven. The ladders in the game represent virtues that take the player closer to paradise, while the snakes denote vices that take him farther away from it. The hundredth square represents moksha or nirvana.
But the game doesn’t end there. “After you get to hundred, there are 21 squares that have various Dashavataras and other images of gods and goddesses and you can move ahead only on rolling 6 or 12,” explained Rajesh. “This is to signify that spiritual life isn’t easy. Once you cross them, you have to roll 1 to win, which symbolises the last stage of the spiritual journey. In all, it has 140 squares and takes hours to finish.”
Like parama pada sopanam, pallanguzhi too has wrapped in it stories of lost traditions. Pallanguzhi had “five to six variations,” said Rajesh – in Tamil Nadu, it was a rite of passage for girls, and was used to teach them simple and compound interest. In Telangana, it was called vada galla peeta, while in Andhra Pradesh, it was known as vaamana guntalu. “It was an integral part of every household even in Sri Lanka,” said Rajesh.
Tugs of nostalgia
The prices at Good Old Games begin from as low as Rs 100 and go up to Rs 60,000 for the more elaborate designs. The sales come mostly from exhibitions in Hyderabad (usually one every eight months), walk-ins at the store, and the NRI community, especially the US.
Rajesh and Reddy are slowly expanding their product line. A recent addition was krida-patram, ancient playing cards made of cloth that showcase scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In medieval India, they were called ganjifa cards and played in royal courts.
Rajesh says what was fascinating about them was the design. “If you played them in the morning, Rama was the king, while Krishna was the king after dusk,” she said. “There are many reasons attributed to this, but the most popular one is that Rama was preferred in the morning as he was considered the ideal man. In the evening, as things got merrier, Krishna was preferred since he was considered a romantic. The cards were themed: from Hanuman cards to Dashavataras, there was plenty of choice.”
Good Old Games also recently introduced baahubali chadarangam, which are chess sets big enough to fill up a room. With detailed instructions and handy videos on their Facebook page, the co-owners of the store ensure that their patrons understand the premise of the games.
Rajesh admits that nostalgia is a big draw. “Many people buy our products impulsively as they connect to the concept instantly. We don’t know if they use them much, but we are hopeful they do. These are our true inheritance. There are paintings which show Shiva and Parvati playing pachisi, while Mahabharata has Karna and Duryodhana’s wife playing ashta chemma. We hope that with awareness, children today will learn not only about Peppa Pig but also about games their grandparents played.”
All images courtesy Good Old Games.