Here's why Mumbai University professors are saving ancient Indian sacred games from extinction

Updated: May 05, 2019, 08:21 IST | Anju Maskeri

A team of professors is gathering evidence of antiquated Indian games, as found on temple walls and floors

Here's why Mumbai University professors are saving ancient Indian sacred games from extinction
Raamesh Gowri Raghavan and his team have recreated a few ancient board games in the Kalina campus. All Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

Among his colleagues, Raamesh Gowri Raghavan, course coordinator and principal faculty at Centre for Extra Mural Studies, University of Mumbai, is known for his dry, deadpan humour. So, when he talks about being afflicted by a disease called kheliya, it's hard to take him seriously. Though, there's a grain of truth in the joke.

"They say, 'Jab peliya hota hai, tab sab kuch peela dikhta hai' (When you have jaundice, everything appears yellow). Similarly, when you have kheliya, you begin to spot games (khel) in the most unexpected places," says Raghavan. This is why his team has chosen to call their project, Kheliya. Launched last year, it's a crowdsourced effort to gather evidence of ancient Indian board games and save them from extinction.

Chaupar was found in Ellora and Nashik. This game is associated with the founding myth of the Ellora complex, in which Shiva cheated while playing the game with Parvati. When Parvati retired to Ellora in anger, Shiva had to come to appease her
Chaupar was found in Ellora and Nashik. This game is associated with the founding myth of the Ellora complex, in which Shiva cheated while playing the game with Parvati. When Parvati retired to Ellora in anger, Shiva had to come to appease her

In the last three years, Raghavan and his colleagues, Dnyaneshwari Kamath and Mugdha Karnik, have collected invaluable proof of antiquated board games on walls, lofts and floors of temples and monuments across the country. The pictures are currently stocked in their laptops, but will soon find their way to a website the team is working on. There was a time, when they, too, like most people, had walked past these carvings without noticing them. "We had the epiphany during an archeological excursion to Siddheshwar, a hamlet in Latur district, in 2017, when one of our students discovered a game etched on the wall in one of the temples," says Raghavan.

The game was Nine Men's Morris, an abstract strategy game that supposedly dates back to the Roman Empire. In India, it is known as Navkankar. "The game was brought to India from the Mediterranean, two millennia ago. People have sent us images from Hampi, Nashik and Ellora," says Raghavan, while showing us the slew of images that could easily pass off as parts of a chipped wall to an unsuspecting viewer.

The two games found in Mahabalipuram are Ashtapada (64 squares) and Goats and Tigers
The two games found in Mahabalipuram are Ashtapada (64 squares) and Goats and Tigers

How the game rolls is: each player is given nine coins each of two different colors. The aim is to get three coins in a row on the board, which contains concentric squares with 24 intersections, where the pieces can be placed. Given its sustained popularity over the years, the team was able to identify the game despite the faded contours. "That's not always the case though. Many a times, we find them while fumbling in the dark for clues," says Kamath. Sometimes, they stumble upon leads serendipitously, which happened in the case of Udat Pagda, a game found in a Nashik temple. "We thought this was a forgotten game until we found references to it in a book called Sachitra Marathi Khelanche Pustak (1905) by AB Deodhar. It is a children's game," says Kamath.

Dnyaneshwari Kamath, researcher
Dnyaneshwari Kamath, researcher

The reason for an organised effort was to ensure that the etchings are not only pulled out of obscurity, but are also saved from permanent destruction. "Many a times, temple authorities, in the name of modernisation, cover the flooring and walls with marble and granite. In the process, we have lost innumerable carvings. You can't stop somebody from 'renovating' the temple," she says. According to her, temples served as a village's socialising point, so people would come there to interact.

"Therefore, games, too, went beyond mere entertainment and contained elements of our culture and linguistics." Since the shoutout, the team has received an overwhelming response. Images shot on cell phones show traces of Backgammon, a game found in the temples of Nashik and Mandapeshwar. "It is said to have been invented in India and spread to the Middle East and Europe. Funnily, it is still played there, but not in India anymore," says Raghavan.

At the department, the team has recreated Nine Men's Morris, along with a host of other ancient Indian board games, including Goats and Tigers, a two-player game, in which one player gets three tigers and the other controls a flock of 16 goats. The tigers have to 'hunt' the goats, while the goats attempt to block the tigers' movements. "The best part about these games is that you don't need any elaborate paraphernalia to recreate them. You can use ordinary things around you. For instance, we have used bottle caps as pieces in Goats and Tigers," says Kamath. These games were put to use last year when the team organised an event in association with India Study Centre Trust, in which they went back in time to recreate about a dozen games. The success of the show has propelled the team to launch the first Ancient Indian Board Game Conference next month. One of the speakers, D Raja Reddy, a neurosurgeon, who has been surveying the forts of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, will present a paper on the evidence of 'fighting' games played at the entrance by the guards. "They were games of strategy that were meant to keep you alert. They would play them through the night," says Raghavan.

For him, the most intriguing part of ancient Indian games is how they are designed to never end. "It's like Pachisi. Just when you think your piece has circumnavigated the board, and is near the home column, an opponent will duly send you back to where you started."

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