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From board to phone, India’s ancient games are being reinvented as apps

Dice games are seeing a revival, thanks to collectors and the internet

Dice games are seeing a revival, thanks to collectors and the internet   | Photo Credit: M.A. SRIRAM

The dice rolls and the players, wooden pegs in hand, contemplate a square, green cloth chequered with grids. Black snakes squiggle all over it and there’s Sanskrit script in places. At first glance it looks like an ornate Snakes and Ladders, but it’s no ordinary board game. This is Gyan Chaupar, where the stakes are high: the game is not just about winning or losing. Every roll of the dice could mean the difference between heaven and hell, vice and virtue.

If you land on cell 24, called kusangati (bad company), you will spiral down to cell 8, mithya (falsehood). But if you land on cell 54, bhakti (devotion), you head straight to Vaikuntha, Vishnu’s abode. This is how players make their nail-biting way out of the Karmic cycle. The Indian board game of Gyan Chaupar, from which Snakes and Ladders is believed to have been born, can be traced back to 5 BC. Instead of 100 squares, it has anything from 72 to 300.

The board can be made either of cloth or paper, and contains hyper-textual references from Buddhist and Hindu teachings.

A version of Gyan Chaupar

A version of Gyan Chaupar   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

I get all this trivia from Souvik Mukherjee, assistant professor of English Literature at Kolkata’s Presidency University, and author of Video Games and Storytelling: Reading Games and Playing Books. Mukherjee has collected variants of Gyan Chaupar from around the country, and also has several other ancient board games from all over the world. Once almost forgotten, these games might, thanks to collectors — and apps — well be seeing a revival now.

Digital rebirth

Kolkata-based entrepreneur Aman Gopal Sureka traced down a Gyan Chaupar board in London. He has now developed an app based on the game called Buddhi Yoga. So far, the game has been downloaded 1,000 times, says Sureka. Other games such as the Tibetan Game of Liberation have seen a digital rebirth. Said to have been created by the Tibetan Buddhist theologist Sakya Pandita (Kunga Gyeltsen) in the 13th century, it too follows the salvation narrative of Gyan Chaupar. Baagh Bakri (Tiger Goat), also with an app version, is a strategic, two-player game involving four tigers and 20 goats that must outsmart each other.

Mukherjee has an old calendar in his collection that features the game Golok Dham. This Bengali game finds passing references in Bengali literature, like Abanindranath Tagore’s Putur Boi, and Ramakrishna Kathamrita, on the teachings of the 19th century mystic. Here, each square presents not one but three possibilities: you can regress, advance or accelerate. It has geographical locations, both real and imaginary. Kolkata, Varanasi, Gaya and Baikunth, Bhramlok and Shivlok — to which players are taken with each dice throw.

Games vs gadgets

In Bengaluru, Sreeranjini runs Kavade, an organisation trying to revive traditional games. She notices a growing interest in old board games, especially in towns and cities. “There has been such an overpowering influence of gadgets on all of us that people are looking at alternatives,” she says. The Kavade store has Chaupar, referred to as Pagade here; while Ali Guli Mane, a game played on a wooden board with cups and shells, is also popular. And in Mysore, Ramsons Kala Pratishtana designs and makes most of these board games, including collector’s editions. Chennai’s Kreeda not only recreates old games like guli-danda, marbles and Pallanguzhi, it dreams up new ones too — a recent one being a set of playing cards called Memories of Madras, each card featuring a Madras heritage building.

Ganjifa cards.

Ganjifa cards.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Talking of playing cards, Ganjifa cards or Dashavatar cards were once hugely popular. Brought to Indian by the Mughals, these circular, hand-painted cards changed from the Persian Ganjifa to Indian Dashavatar cards. Made across the country, in West Bengal’s Bishnupur town, Raghurajpur village in Odisha, Sawantawadi near Goa, and also in Chattishgarh, the game is played with 10 suites of cards, each suite named after an avatar of Vishnu. Today, they are largely sold as objects of art. An app anyone?

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2020 6:42:33 PM |

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