A board meeting with history

Updated: Jun 01, 2019, 07:44 IST | Debjani Paul

What's a Backgammon board doing in Borivali and what was the idea behind snakes and ladders? The first conference on ancient and medieval board games has all the answers

A board meeting with history
The Backgammon board etched into the floor of Mandapeshwar Cave #1 in Borivali West, which dates back to 520-550 AD, when backgammon was very popular in India. Pic/Sojwal Sali

Whoever said history is boring and not all fun and games, probably didn't play enough board games as a kid. "When people speak of heritage, they usually refer to monuments or statues. Nobody thinks of games as part of our culture, yet it's the most fun part of history," says Raamesh Gowri Raghavan.

Chenne Mane
Chenne Mane

He ought to know; as an associate at the India Study Centre (INSTUCEN), Raamesh has spent the last two years hunting down ancient board games played across the ages in India. "Most of the best games across the world originated in India centuries ago," says the scholar, who has tried his hand at over 100 such games once played by cavemen and emperors. These will be featured at the first-ever conference in the country on India's gaming heritage this weekend. Participants will get to try their luck at these games during a two-hour play session at the end of each day, courtesy Bandra-based Sophie Ahmed, who owns the largest board game collection in the country, and will open some of it to the public at the National Conference on Ancient & Medieval Indian Games.

Ancient snakes and ladders games were used to teach moral values and the consequence of actions
Ancient snakes and ladders games were used to teach moral values and the consequence of actions

Sacred games
Not many know that snakes and ladders originated in India. Originally, it was invented by Jain monks as a way to teach moral values and the consequence of actions. Virtues would lead players higher in the game, while vices would be their downfall," says Raamesh, adding that a mammoth 361-tile version of the game board will be on display at the conference, on which the researchers will play an abridged match. "The entire game would take too long to finish. By my estimation, it would take two weeks. It was played during the long winters in Himachal Pradesh."

Enthusiasts try Tiger and Goat, which palace soldiers would play to stay sharp through the night while on duty
Enthusiasts try Tiger and Goat, which palace soldiers would play to stay sharp through the night while on duty

Social context
The two-day event that begins today will also highlight research by 19 experts speaking about the role board games played in India's ancient history and their social context, such as, why some were played solely by women or men. Raamesh remembers games of Chenne Mane from his childhood in South India. The game's name translates to "good house" and was played by women to hone their arithmetic skills. "Tamilian women are sharper at counting than the men, and I'm sure it has to do with this game," he says, adding, "But we look down upon such games and consider them as gimmicks not to be used to teach something like mathematics. And then we wonder why our kids don't like math."

Raamesh Gowri
Raamesh Gowri

Ludo, chess and even backgammon are believed to have been invented in India. There is even a backgammon board etched into the floor of Mandapeshwar Cave 1 in Borivali West, which dates back to 520-550 AD. But Raamesh's personal favourite is Tiger and Goat. In ancient days, palace guards would play this game of strategy through the night to keep their senses keen while on duty.

Experts like Raamesh are thrilled that board games are now making a comeback, with several cafes dedicated to them springing up in the city. "Games remain just as relevant today as ever, and are not only an important tool to develop social skills, but can also be used to teach soft skills," says Raamesh. "Other cultures are extremely proud of their game heritage; South Africa has a national board game called Mo­r­abaraba, and China and Japan bo­th hold national championships for ga­mes like Chinese Chess and Go. If we fo­rget our games, we will lose an important part of our identity and soul."

On June 1-2, 8 am to 5 pm
At Prabodhankar Thakre Sports Complex, Shahaji Raje Road, Vile Parle East.
Call Rs 1,000 (adults); Rs 500 (students)

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