India has a rich culture of traditional games. The games reflect the cultural, economic and social variations of this large country. Archaeologists have discovered elements of play including boards, coins and dice dating back a few thousand years. But one does not have to go back so far to discover the impact and importance of play in our society.
A few decades ago, before the advent and spread of television, play was a natural way to pass time in many homes. Everybody played – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and children. With the joint family being the norm, there were many participants and games were exciting and interesting.
Through playing, people learned to interact with each other. They learned to count, to accept defeat and more than anything else, to relax.
But play was by no means confined to the common people. Indian mythology makes references to many stories of play.
Stories are told of how Lord Krishna played with his friends, of how Yudhishtra played a game of dice and lost his kingdom in the Mahabharata, of how Sita when kidnapped by Ravana in the Ramayana played a game of solitaire with seeds from the trees. Kreeda carries the game - Sita’s Game - as a version of Pallanguzhi.
We hear folk tales where Akbar, the great Mughal Emperor, sat on a raised platform and threw the dice while he played a game of Chaupad on a life-sized board. Instead of coins, beautiful women from his court, moved from space to space.
Unfortunately, over time, the pressures of modern life and the advent of television have resulted in many games being lost forever. The impulse to play, particularly among adults, slowly died.
Today, we are rediscovering the value of playing. Psychologists and educationists are beginning to appreciate the role of play in the learning process. Play is often associated with laughter, and the importance of laughter in reducing stress has become an important element in our lives.
Research done by Kreeda also supports the role of play in building relationships across generations. When people play together, they share an experience that is fun and often memorable.
Many of the games which are now popular in the west were originally from India. Snakes and Ladders is just a variation of Moksha Patam or Parama Padam. It was used to teach children about values and religion. The virtues allowed one to ascend higher while the vices reduced a player to lower levels.
The morality of the game appealed to the Victorians who took it back to England with them and renamed the virtues and vices according to Victorian ideals. Over time, the game lost its moral overtones.
Chaturanga, the predecessor of Chess, was played and developed in India in the seventh century. Simulating the act of war, the game developed analytical thinking and concentration. Carrom, a cousin of billiards and snooker required mental agility, deft fingers and quick reflexes.
Kho-kho and Kabbadi are old games which gained popularity after the mutiny of 1857. At the time, many believed that people would be called upon to fight for freedom and in that context physical fitness and stamina became critical. Both these games were encouraged as they greatly helped develop the body. The skills of crouching, running short sprints, quick changes in direction that kho-kho entailed were considered important training for war.
Kabaddi is the child of wrestling. Also known as Hamama, it was believed to have been played by Lord Krishna and his friends. The interest in the game arises from a natural instinct for attack and defence. Needing the twin strengths of a good physique and a keen intelligence, the game has spread to France and is played by the French Army, Navy and Police.While some of these games have retained popularity and are often played at a competitive level, there are many folk games which seem to have faded into oblivion.
In the fast paced world of the 21st century, are traditional games relevant? By the nature of their origin, these games were inexpensive and environment friendly. Most of them were played using easily available material. Though some of these games are still played, most of them have faded into oblivion in the blitzkrieg of computer games and other modern forms of entertainment.
Only a few games have retained popularity and are played at a competitive level.
During Kreeda's research in the urban areas, senior citizens in Tamil Nadu shared their nostalgic experiences of playing games such as Aadu Puli Aatam in childhood haunts; veterans in Andhra Pradesh fondly expanded on Ashtaa Chemma, a version of Ludo played with cowrie shells. Games like Pallanguzhi, Aadu Puli Aattam and others are a part of the knowledge that still lies with the itinerant vendors peddling tomatoes, onions or litchis; the dhobis ironing clothes on a wheeled cart; and the proprietors of chai shops.
We have only done a little research on the games, there is much more to be done. We look forward to rediscovering a lot more about traditional games and, through them, our past.