Get your fix of traditional Indian games in Mumbai
For a truly 'retro' game session, rattle cowries and chase goats, the way ancient India did
If you've always wished to do something on the weekend in Mumbai that doesn't involve loud music, expensive brunches and binging, then how about trying your luck at some games? We aren't talking about just any game, but ones that our great-grandmothers and the Mughal emperors played.
Next weekend, the Centre of Extra-Mural Studies at the Mumbai University's Kalina campus is organising an "ancient games weekend", held in association with INSTUCEN Trust. The centre's faculty and students, have gone back in time to recreate about a dozen games that were popularly played across the subcontinent. With tweaks and regional variations, these games were known by different names in various parts of the country.
The event is helmed by Raamesh Gowri Raghavan, a researcher with INSTUCEN, and two students at the department — architect Dr Radha A Sinha and Dnyaneshwari Kamath, after they saw a tremendous interest among the public. To help our readers get a feel of the event, we headed to the Kalina campus on a weekday for a sneak peek. We are accompanied by two friends to try our hands at three games by rolling dices and ensnaring tigers. We realised that these centuries-old games are highly addictive and will bring out the competitive side in you. So, consider this as a statutory warning.
Raghavan suggests we start with Ashta Chamma, as it's called in Telugu. The version we play is called Navara-Navari, which translates to 'husband-wife' or 'groom-bride'. "The game is based on the Ramayana. It could refer to Ram and Sita's wedding, or when Ram had to rescue her from Ravan's hands in Lanka and bring her back home — essentially a man fetching a woman," says Raghavan.
The four-player game looks hardly intimidating, with its small board and chess coins in pairs. The ladies, in the form of chess queens, wait it out at the centre of the board, while their male-kings, stand outside the board. Dr Sinha says that originally the game was etched on temple floors and courtyards, where people could gather and play a few rounds.
I am pitted against Dr Sinha, and two student volunteers from the centre. Your moves are decided by cowries, and, for the longest time into the game, I am ill-fated to have the lowest score. While other grooms race around the board, mine moves at a disappointing speed. To make things worse, he gets knocked out by a competing groom, who settles in the same square as my piece. Had my groom been in one of the four "forts" on the board, he'd have been safe.
Still, the game is far from over. Once the couples are paired up, they need to hurry back to the groom's place, moving together. Raghavan tells us that there is a catch — on the way back, your cowries need to earn you even turns. So, if your couple gets four, they can move two squares, one for each piece. "As a couple, they can't be struck down by single pieces," he says. Call it the power of love or strength in numbers.
Raghavan adds that ancient variations of the game dealt with caste politics. I wouldn't mind a bit of gender role reversals, though. Let Sita rescue Ram for a change?
The other game I try out, came with a lot of nostalgia value. Having spent summer holidays in Tamil Nadu, it was common to see young girls sitting together and playing Pallanguzhi with tamarind seeds. I never understood the game, until a demo session was offered by student, Yogini Aatreya.
The game has a wooden board shaped like a muffin mould in two rows. A two-player game, each row represents your house. Each cup is like a room, comprising five cowries. To win, you need to empty the rooms and claim your opponent's house entirely. You do so by picking shells from one cup and distributing them in the others. You keep emptying and distributing, until you reach a hollow cup. When you do, you can claim the adjacent cups cowries, in both your row and your opponent's.
It's seemingly simple, but the game relies on probability. The game is easily portable — something you can take to the park nearby or to your friend's place and aimlessly while away time. But where do you get one of these? The one I played with belongs to Aatreya's family, sourced from Bengaluru. There are e-commerce platforms that retail these too, but I think your local carpenter might get a kick out of fashioning one for you.
I got my friends, Apurupa Vatsalya and Bhavin Bhatt, to team up against the more expert student players for Wagh Bakri (Tiger and Goat), as it's known here, and one that was widely played in parts of Europe too. Dr Sinha says that the team found a Wagh Bakri template carved on the floor of a temple near Osmanabad. "Oddly enough, the stone had been transferred to the wall, probably during repairs," she says. Still, they got the template copied on a granite stone. There are some beautiful textile ones made by the students and faculty, too. You may want one of those, at this rate.
Vatsalya and Bhatt play on vinyl copy. Wagh Bakri is an intense, absorbing strategy game, in which one player assumes the role of the tiger, and the other, the goat. The goats need to trap the tigers. Else, the tigers will jump over undefended goats, and kill them. If a tiger has his fill of five goats, he wins. If the goats are able to successfully trap all three tigers, then the meek are indeed mighty. The game is a lot like chess, and can go on for hours. Raghavan tells me that several ancient games are so, as people played till dusk brought their games to a halt. "They would set the game aside carefully, and resume it the next day," he says.
When: June 16-17, 8 am- 6 pm
Registration: On the spot. Rs 50 for individuals; Rs 200 (team of six) per game
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