Once a popular game in Delhi’s villages, Chaupad has nearly vanished from the city

The old almirah has not been opened too many times since her father passed away five years ago. It was her father’s almirah. It still contains things he used everyday. His hookah, the chimta to pick the hot coals used in the hookah…. Aruna is peering through them, may be it is also somewhere there — his Chaupad, the game he used to play with fellow villagers at Khampur, off West Patel Nagar in Delhi.

“It’s been five years; somebody might have thrown it away. Being made of cloth, Chaupads easily get dirty,” she tells me before giving up. Her old mother walks up to the neighbour’s door, to ask if they have the game. “Their mother usually keeps old things,” Aruna says. Minutes later, her mother returns empty-handed, says with a smile, “She asked me, ‘Who plays Chaupad these days?’”

Good question: Who plays Chaupad these days? Once a popular pastime among the men of Delhi’s villages, it is nowhere to be found now, the game, the players, the sight of playing. Looks like the generation that passed away some years ago took away this tradition with it. Village after village, I rove about Delhi but fail to meet anyone who tells me: yes, we still play the game; yes, this is the Chaupad we play. Most people you chat with seem to be of the impression that it is there, somewhere…somebody must be still playing it, but look around and you perceive the reality — it is just not there.

“I know how to play Chaupad but I don’t have anyone to play with,” says Aruna’s neighbour and Khampur senior resident Balbir Singh Chauhan. He names some friends with whom he used to play Chaupad…Ranbir, Brijpal, they are all dead. “There used to be a time when we would all meet at the village baithak every morning and play Chaupad. Usually, four people would play it but it would go up to eight if there were more people willing to play the same game. Then there would be a lot of people surrounding us, watching us play, suggesting which chaal (move) to make next,” relates Chauhan. Unlike today’s kids, “means of entertainment were few then. Kids used to fly kites, play games like bol tora, kai danka and the seniors would play Chaupad.” Chauhan learnt it from the elders. Does he still have a Chaupad? “May be, somewhere in the house,” he replies.

Nostalgic about the times gone by, Chauhan offers to create a glimpse of Chaupad. “There is a square in the middle from where four patches go out in all directions. Each patch has three lanes on which the gotis (coins) move. The gotis come in four colours — red, green, blue and yellow; four of each colour, like in Ludo.” Making a fist of eight cowries, he continues, “There is a board against which you throw the cowries. If all eight come out upturned, you have done the best.”

Chauhan states, “Chaupad is one of the oldest games of India. During Akbar’s time, it used to be played with women instead of gotis. They used to move as per the cowries on huge floors that had the square design of a Chaupad.” A 17th Century artistic depiction of Shiva playing Chaupad with Parvati is well known. Chauhan then adds with a laugh, “Today, forget Chaupad, even getting cowries is becoming difficult.” The ones he had in his fist were taken out of an old dupatta to help him demonstrate the game to me.

My next stop is Shadipur village from where I head to Khirki village, then to Hauz Rani, to Mandawali to Jaitpur to Khanpur and to Begumpur finally. Begumpur because a recent book, “Delhi’s Historic Villages”, has a photograph of old men playing Chaupad at a village square. My last hopes too get dashed. While some residents of Begumpur just ignore the question, some others try to help saying, “I have not seen it for some years now, may be some people still play it.” A resident, Sant Singh, suggests, “Go near the Masjid, may be you will meet someone who knows about it.”

At the Begumpur masjid, I meet Ramesh Sharma, in his 70s, a retired airman. Sharma knows about Chaupad, played it in childhood. “The old people who used to play here passed away about two-three years ago,” he says. Sharma plays cards with his peers. Today too, he is waiting for them at the steps of the masjid. “We will play cards till about lunch time. We do it everyday,” he says.

Players may have vanished but has the game disappeared from the market? Chauhan suggests I go to Nai Sarak in old Delhi. “Don’t ask young shopkeepers, look for old ones, they would tell you where to buy a Chaupad from,” he advises. I do ditto but return empty-handed. Like Aruna’s mother, I am also asked, “Who plays Chaupad these days?”

A bit of Internet search leads me to Desi Toys, a board games company run by Soham and Swapna Wagh in Thane West, Maharashtra. With a phone call, I find Swapna (in her 30s) nostalgic about playing Chaupad in her childhood spent in Latur, the reason why she thought of reviving it for today’s children. “It is the same game in which Yudishthir lost Draupadi. Now that the TV series Mahabharata is on, children do know about the game. So generating an interest in them is not difficult but the game has to be available,” she says. Her Chaupads are available on flipkart and snapdeal.

Swapna says consumer response has been getting better. And she knows why, “Some old games can be played on the Internet but the thrill of playing it live, seeing your opponent lose, just can’t be matched by a virtual game.” And there I could trace Balbir Singh Chauhan’s enthusiasm when he tried recreating Chaupad for me with cowries taken from an old dupatta.

(The National Museum on Janpath has a display of Chaupad and its other version, Gyan Chaupar)