In the age of Playstation and IPL entertainment, Deepa H. Ramakrishnan goes back to an ancient game of dice

It is a game of luck and some say if your intentions are true, your mind will be reflected on the dice you roll. Called dhaayam, dhaaya kattai or even dhaaya pass, it is an ancient board game that was once hugely popular with Chennaiites. It still is, with the older generation in the city.

“This is the game that Duryodana and Shakuni are said to have played in the Mahabharatha. My sister-in-law and I would play the game during Vaikunta Ekadasi to stay awake,” says 76-year-old Hemavathi Narayanakrishnan.

A piece of chalk or charcoal is used to draw squares and stones or large seeds are used as coins. One can spend hours playing the game, say old timers. In a simple game, there are two people and each of them has six coins to play with. The coins can be moved only on getting a ‘one' on rolling the dice.

Like in chess, the player can seize his rival's coin but there are safe spots (‘malai') where it cannot be harmed. The coins are moved along the periphery and the one who manages to get all his coins in the centre is declared the winner.

Though youngsters like M. Saiswetha, P.V. Sangeetha, K. Natarajan, K. Subashree and V. Balakrishnan prefer computer games to ‘dhaaya pass', they find time for a game with the elderly ladies. “It gets a little noisy with the kids arguing over the rules of the game. They cheat quite a bit,” says Mythili Dhananjayan, who plays at home occasionally.

The game may have lost its popularity over the decades, but women and men in slums and fishing hamlets love it for its simplicity and continue to play the game.

“It doesn't require much space and is a welcome break from watching television. We play after finishing the day's work and it helps to keep our mind alert. You lose if you do not pay close attention,” says M. Kamala, a resident of Nettukuppam, who plays the game almost every evening.

V. Balambal, retired professor of history, University of Madras, who penned a book on the traditional games of Tamil Nadu, says the game was originally known as ‘chathurangam'.

“In Sangam literature, there is a reference to ‘kattai pottu aadum aattam'. It is called ‘pachasi' in north India. At the Fatehpur Sikri palace in Agra, there is a painting of ‘dhaayakattam' in the courtyard. It is said that Emperor Akbar used girls in the place of coins and they would move along the squares with each roll of the dice,” says Dr. Balambal.

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Deepa H. RamakrishnanJune 28, 2012

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