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Thursday, August 6, 2015

The National Game of India

Author: Dr. Wayne Saunders

I’m told you can still buy cloth boards and wooden pieces in local bazaars for what has been called the “national game of India.” What you can’t buy, apparently, is popularity for a game that, once played by emperors and commoners alike, is now found mainly in rural villages, antique shops, and big books on the paraphernalia of India Past.

Irving Finkel’s recent anthropological survey of board games in India reveals plenty of localized names for the game and its family of variants, though the most popular is chaupar, referring to the “four arms,” or extensions, of spaces that make up the cross-shaped track of the board. We Anglo-Americans call the same family pachisi, Hindi for “twenty-five,” referring to the largest throw one can make from the cowry shells that often serve as its dice. Indians who don’t remember the glory of the game may know its British successor, ludo (from the Latin for play), which has supplanted the original among the young as if it had never existed. When I asked my friend Kishor Gordhandas in Mumbai to find me a commercially-produced version of chaupar, he sent me a copy of American Parcheesi.

Why should we care? Well, I care, and I’m not even Indian. I don’t like the fact that all the places on earth are starting to look like each other. I want for India what is India’s, what came from its people however many centuries ago. And I want to preserve a game that can stand tall among the best we have today—anywhere. (And which is certainly better than ludo.)

Nothing is simple, however. Although chaupar came to maturity in India, it may have sprouted from seeds planted in other places. The idea of (1) racing a team of pieces along a track, (2) landing on opponents’ pieces to send them back, (3) obtaining temporary protection for one’s pieces by doubling them up, and (4) gaining advantages from spaces with special markings, were common to a number of games played in the Near East over five thousand years ago.

The Egyptian game of senet, in fact, may have been the ancestor of the backgammon family of games, which share the first three characteristics mentioned above. And chaupar may have derived from a form of backgammon. It has been called the “backgammon of India,” and some have proposed that its board is really two backgammon boards laid across each other to allow four to play. Both games (if we consider the chaupar varieties that employ two or three long dice) depend on throws of dice that must be taken as discrete clusters of pips: a 1 and a 5 can’t be reassembled into a 2 and a 4. Eighth-century statues at Ellora that were once believed to show Shiva and his consort Parvati playing chaupar are now thought to show them playing backgammon. Indian backgammon was once filled with the symbols of Brahmanic ritual, but succumbed in the tenth and eleventh centuries to the more devotional bhakti movements—and chaupar.

But if there was a time when India did not have chaupar, it afterwards compensated by creating a mythical past for it. Just as Indians came mistakenly to believe the Ellora statues were of chaupar—the rules to a Rabari set I recently acquired from Kachch in Gujarat perpetuate the idea—so they were also told in picture and verse that the famous high-stakes dice game in the Mahabharata was really chaupar. Wrong again. And what of the popular story that Emperor Akbar in the late 1500s played the game with slave girls as pieces, on a huge courtyard board that can still be seen in Fatehpur Sikri? Well, the board certainly exists; but it was probably added long after Akbar was gone, and possibly as an ornament to cover up a drainage system!

Chaupar doesn’t need gods and emperors to make it into a national game: it earned the title by being cherished and played for possibly a thousand years or more, and at every level of society. British ludo, German Mensch ärgere Dich nicht, and American Parcheesi, all very popular in their home countries, are played mainly as “family games,” with children almost always among the players. Their parent game chaupar, however, has almost always been portrayed in art and literature as an adult’s game, whether among members of a harem, or in a group of male gamblers, or between a husband and his bride, or even—a thousand years after the Ellora statues—honoring Shiva and Parvati. Children are satisfied with a game that has a good story, like snakes and ladders, whereas adults need strategic depth (or else luck and rupees) to stay interested. Thus early devotees found beauty and maturity in chaupar. When the Mughals picked it up (for Akbar loved the game and experimented with it endlessly), it was because they saw, especially in the three-dice variants, a challenge of strategy and character. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was discovered among all the classes as an outlet for intelligence and risk and the entrepreneurial spirit. The game has grown up with India.

And I? I count all these approaches tenable, as I watch my nephew, his last piece fifty-five spaces from home, throw his cowries five mouths up twice in a row, each time for a score of twenty-five plus a bonus of one and an extra throw, then three mouths up for a score of three and the game. There may be no justice in life, but as long as there is such drama as this, I shall honor a country that can invent it and respect a nation that can remember.

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Note: Dr. Wayne Saunders wrote this article for us (Ramsons Kala Pratishtana) in 2008. We were supposed to carry it in our newsletter which never materialised. I am posting this article here because I do not want this article to go waste.

1 comment:

Luis Lobato de Faria said...

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