Tradtional board games: From Kochi to Iraq

In the 90s two anthropologists from the museum made their way to Kochi to collect and codify social and cultural items of the fast dwindling community of Pardesi Jews.  

If he had his way Dr. Irving L. Finkel, curator, British Museum, would love to spend more time in the city. For it were anthropological data of the Pardesi Jews of Cochin, sent to the museum by the head of the community, the late Sattoo Koder in the 90s that provided him with the crucial jigsaw piece to fit in his search on the origin and history of traditional board games.

Kochi is not new to Irving and nor is Kerala or India. Early last year he undertook a project of constructing the biblical Noah’s Ark as instructed in an antediluvian tablet, found in the excavations in Babylonia, after it landed at the museum in London. He deciphered the cuneiform script, at which he is an expert, astounded at the detailed instructions it had about the construction of the boat that weathered the Flood. Following that he undertook its construction and tested it for seaworthiness successfully in the littoral waters of Alappuzha. He penned the fascinating story in The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood.

In much the same way Irving decoded the instructions of the Royal Game of Ur found in a grave in the 1920 excavations in Iraq. An inscription that found its way to the museum had the rules of the game. “It was a very popular game for two and was played all over West Asia,” This important relic and its decoded knowledge lay with Irving, until something “truly amazing happened.”

In the 90s two anthropologists from the museum made their way to Kochi to collect and codify social and cultural items of the fast dwindling community of Pardesi Jews. They returned with extremely invaluable shared material that included objects of daily use. In that was a wooden board game, which Irving says “is to all intent and purposes the same as the Royal Game of Ur.” It has 20 squares, two wings and a centre aisle. It was played using a dice.”

Irving believes that whatever be the origin of the population of Jews in Kerala they ultimately came to India from Babylonia and that all displaced populations most importantly carry cultural items with them.

This game, he says, has survived into modern times. When he first saw it, Irving remembers being surcharged with an immediacy to find a person to recognise the game. He called up his sister Deborah Lionarons, who lives in Jerusalem, requesting her to go to the northern Kibbutz which has the settlements of the Cochini Jews. “I typed out a questionnaire and asked her to go door to door with a picture of the game and ask anybody and everybody if they could identify the picture and if they knew the rules of the game?”

As luck would have it a 70-year-old woman, Ruby Daniel recognised the game, identified it as Aasha, which she used to play back home with her aunts. Ruby was a school teacher in her early 20s when she left Cochin in 1951. She wrote out the instructions of the game and said it was played on the floor or by drawing it on a piece of paper.

The one sent by Sattoo Koder to the museum, “a lovely object”, is a wooden one with tiny legs, says Irving.

When the matter came to him, he found the rules to be similar to the ones on the 2nd century tablet. Amazed at this rather romantic turnaround of cultural shifting and its curious fallout Irving says, “When the game was found in the excavations in Iraq, I was certain that this was not native but had come from Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus valley. I believe it began there, moved to Iraq and went all over the West Asiatic world.” The game then morphed into other board games that exist today, like Backgammon.

Chess too followed a similar trajectory of dispersion, according to Irving. It originated in India, and “that is an important truth.” So excited and charged is the philologist that he is all set to pen this tale of Aasha and the royal game of Ur into a book.

As an Assyirologist and philologist - one who deals with ancient civilisations of Sumeria, Mesopotamia and Babylonia- Irving says, “I am not supposed to be interested in India but strangely, I am.”

Games people play:

Twenty years ago Irving organised a group of enthusiastic students to survey villages in India on the traditional games that people played. The published findings, he says are only the tip of the ice berg.

Chaupat, a traditional game of India morphed into Ludo in England in the 19th century.

The popular Snakes and Ladders, he says was “an elevated Indian game with moral and spiritual instructions -justice, wickedness, cruelty, love…and such- written in each square. Landing on a virtuous square meant moving up, while on an evil one, meant slipping down. “It was instructive and was not only for children,” he says.

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 4:38:17 PM |

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