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Must-Know Traditional Indian Board Games

Delve into the enchanting realm of traditional Indian board games where each move teaches you a thing or two about strategy

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28 Dec '23
7 min read


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Since ancient times, games have been played in India for recreation and mental and physical fitness. This applies to both indoor and outdoor, especially board games which always offer both leisure and intellectual stimulation.  

In fact,  the roots of most games that we played in our childhood (think Ludo, Snakes and Ladder, Checkers) delve deep into the rich tapestry of ancient Indian culture. From the strategic depth of Ashta Chamma to the simplicity of Lau Kata Kati and the morality quotient of Moksha Patam, these games offer glimpses into bygone eras. 

Let’s explore the captivating world of ancient Indian board games, where strategy meets storytelling and history comes alive with every move.

Ashta Chamma 

Ever wonder about the strategies kings used to win wars? From their war rooms, they strategized and conquered. Ashta Chamma, an ancient Indian board game, is conceptualized around observation, chance, and strategy, known for unlocking your inner strategist. One of the oldest Indian board games, its name had been mentioned in epics like the Mahabharata. 

It's like Ludo's granddaddy, played on a 5x5 board with cowrie shells (keeping it old-school!) Race your pawns to the centre, where victory awaits. Decide which piece to move, honing your skills in strategy and counting. No dice here, just pure shell power!

This game presents a captivating fusion of a 'fully observable' framework, ensuring complete transparency in every move, coupled with an element of unpredictability introduced by the roll of distinct dice. Its distinguishing factor lies in the strategic choices players face, requiring thoughtful crafting of their path following unexpected twists from the dice. 

It continues to be played in specific regions of India even today. Meanwhile, you can even pick it up on major portals like Flipkart and Amazon and niche ones like ancientliving.in. 

Lau Kata Kati

This ancient Indian game resembles Checkers but has its own twist. It's a strategic showdown played on a butterfly-shaped board, hailing from lower Bengal

How do you play this? Picture this: you and a friend each have nine colourful pieces, and you’re ready to outmanoeuvre each other on a quirky hourglass-shaped board with lines connecting triangular spaces. Randomly decide who goes first and take turns moving your pieces along the marked lines to empty spaces nearby.

But here's where the action happens – when your piece is next to your opponent's, you can swoop in and capture it by hopping over onto the empty spot beyond. When you get the chance to capture you do it. Plus, if you snag an enemy piece, keep the momentum going; look for more captures from your new spot.

Even though Lau Kata Kati seems straightforward, it’s a game of many layers. Getting the hang of sly moves, thinking ahead, and seizing every chance to capture can be a bit of a puzzle. It’s a rewarding brain workout for the savvy game masters out there! You can frequently spot in online marketplaces nowadays.

Pallanguzhi

Pallanguzhi, originally hailing from the Cholas era in India, was a pastime activity around Chola temples and gained popularity among Tamilians, particularly among women. This classic game reportedly got a shout-out in the Ramayana. Speaking of traditions, it's a go-to game for the ladies during Shivratri and Vaikuntha Ekadasi festivals, especially when they're doing the all-nighter jagran.

Now about the game. The two-player game features a traditional flat board, sometimes crafted in a foldable wooden design for easy portability. Rows of small wells or cups, numbering fourteen, make up the game board. Seeds, small pebbles, or cowrie shells are used as counters, filling the cups.



Players take turns placing the shells in the cups, with capturing options available to the opponent based on game variations. The aim is to capture the most shells, culminating when a player collects all the shells to secure victory. Once a common backyard sight in South Indian family homes, Pallanguzhi has deep cultural significance.

Pallanguzhi isn't just a game; it's a treasure trove of learning experiences for kids:

  1. Math Skills Boost: Counting, number recognition, and practicing addition and subtraction come alive with Pallanguzhi's counters.
  2. Strategic Play: This game sharpens critical thinking by requiring strategic planning and foresight to make informed decisions.
  3. Social & Emotional Learning: Face-to-face gameplay develops social skills, concentration, patience, and a deeper appreciation for traditional entertainment and cultural heritage.

Pachisi 

Pachisi, named after ‘pachis’ (twenty-five in Hindi and Urdu), has ancient roots, possibly from around 4th century BCE India. The Mahabharata mentions a similar game called "Pasha." It had a journey - known as "Chaupar" during the Mughal times and evolved with different rules. Picture this: 16th-century pachisi courts in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri had a life-sized version in the Mughal era where Akbar's courtesans moved as pieces based on the emperor and his noblemen's plays. That’s the oldest surviving evidence. 

Pachisi utilizes five cowrie shells as dice, valuing a throw of twenty-five the highest. While conventionally played on a cross-shaped cloth, it's adaptable to various surfaces, even a drawn or engraved floor. In this classic game, two teams of four players face off, with each player starting with four tokens placed in the charkoni. Players take turns rolling the cowrie shells to determine their moves. The highest roller kicks off the game, and the fun begins! Each player navigates their tokens along specific paths, aiming to circle the board and reach the charkoni. The first team to bring back all their tokens wins! It’s a game won and lost by partnerships. 

Collections featuring Pachisi boards and tokens from different eras in Indian history can be explored at the National Museum in New Delhi, as well as at the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Moksha Patam

Did you know that your beloved childhood game, Snakes and Ladders, had its roots in an ancient Indian game called Moksha Patam? This game held deep spiritual significance in Indian culture. It was used by religious leaders to impart moral lessons to kids - climbing ladders represented goodness while sliding down snakes symbolized vices. The exact origins and inventor of the game remain uncertain, but historical references suggest its existence as far back as the 2nd century BC.

The board had ladders leading to squares representing virtues like faith, reliability, and knowledge (12, 51, 76, respectively), helping players tread the path to Moksha or nirvana, represented by the hundredth square. Conversely, squares with snakes represented vices, such as disobedience, vulgarity, and anger (41, 49, 84, respectively).

Originally, the game had more snakes than ladders, emphasising the prevalence of vices. When the game travelled to England during the colonial period, its moral and religious elements were stripped away. The number of ladders and snakes was equalized, giving birth to the Snakes and Ladders game we know today!

Navakankari 

Navakankari, known as Nine Men’s Morris or Mills in the Western world, goes by different regional names such as Saalu Mane Ata or Jodpi Ata or Char-Par in Kannada, Navkakri in Gujarati, and Daadi in Telugu. It's a strategic alignment game played by two opponents, with each player possessing nine pawns.

With a history dating back nearly 2000 years, this game features a grid board consisting of three squares. The primary objective is to align three pieces either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Players take turns strategically placing and manoeuvring their pieces to outwit their adversary while developing their tactical approach. Today, you can find a contemporary version online, featuring a scroll made of vibrant Indian fabric adorned with coloured glass pebbles.

Category : Entertainment


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Written by Madhuwanti Saha

Writer, daydreamer, procrastinator