Heritagetched in stone 

Kreeda’s Vinita Sidhartha and art historian KT Gandhirajan documented some traditional games under Krishna’s butterball. You can now play some of them at the Chess Olympiad venue 

Published: 01st August 2022 04:29 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st August 2022 04:29 AM   |  A+A-

Vinita and Gandhirajan at the Butterball. (Photo | Express)

Vinita and Gandhirajan at the Butterball. (Photo | Express)

Express News Service

CHENNAI:  They say the universe conspires events that occur in your life — those that your heart desires and the ones you haven’t even considered. This is true in the case of Vinita Sidhartha and KT Gandhirajan. The founder of Kreeda, Vinita has been documenting traditional games of India for several years now. But despite wanting to visit this ancient city as part of her quest, she never got around to Mahabalipuram to document the games played there.

This changed two weeks ago when Gandhirajan, an art historian, informed her of finding several patterns under Krishna’s butterball. “We spent an entire day near the butterball, figuring out the patterns and the rules of playing the games,” says Vinita.

For Gandhirajan, the butterball was never an attraction in the 50-plus times he has visited the heritage site. But after going around the city on a hot day, he decided to rest under the shade of the butterball. “That’s when I noticed some patterns of games such as daayakattam and aadu puli aatam. I noticed more than six different patterns; I didn’t know a few of the games. I called on Vinita as she is interested in documenting such games,” he shares.

Thus, this project brought to their notice several traditional games played in the erstwhile fishing village, which was of great trade importance. 

Games they found
They found four daayakattam boards and two varieties of the game — the cross board and the one with nine square daayams, shares Vinita. Some had six squares on each arm and some had eight. “They are two different versions. Typically, if you go down south and talk to people about the game, they say they play with six squares on each arm and a corner square. These had no corner square. In the north, there is chau padh which is a different version where you play with eight squares on each arm. I have seen those in temples of Tamil Nadu as well. But, interestingly, both these versions exist side by side here,” explains Vinita. They also saw two versions of aadu puli aatam, and a number of it, 20 boards, as per Gandhirajan. 

Apart from this, there were several other games like dadhi and solah seedi. When Gandhirajan noticed these first, patterns such as concentric squares, squares with two triangles on them, perplexed him. The latter, Vinita explains, is solah seedi. “Solah seedi is a battlefield game where two groups attack each other. What’s interesting is that in most temples in Tamil Nadu you will see four triangular extensions. But from my research, this game is popular with two triangular extensions in many parts of India. And I have never seen one like this anywhere else in Tamil Nadu wherever I have gone, so far. This was the first time I saw one with two triangular extensions in Tamil Nadu, next to the butterball, carved beautifully and clearly,” she elucidates.

Gandhirajan also spotted some games here that he had witnessed during his excavations. “Two years back I found Tamil Brahmi ezhuthu in a place near Madurai. At the end of the stone slabs, I found two patterns of games — aadu puli aatam and one with three concentric squares. I found them here too,” he shares.

Games they played
While the period of these games to have be drawn in Mahabalipuram is yet to be deciphered, Gandhirajan has many a hypothesis to share based on literature. He believes that these could have been drawn even before the Pallavas came here. “Mahabalipuram was popular even before the Pallavas. Evidence of human existence 2,000-3,000 years earlier has been found along the Old Mahabalipuram Road. We don’t know who carved the patterns here but it could be possible only after the iron age; looking at the sharp edges, it cannot be made with stones, they would have needed iron tools,” he explains.

It is believed that several of the traditional games of south India has travelled to South East Asian countries. With Mahabalipuram having been a trade hub, there is a possibility that the traders who waited for travelled based on the wind patterns, played these games when they stayed here. There is also a possibility that games were carved before the making of the Mahabalipuram city. The patterns are in variable depths; some are damaged too. 

The butterball has many stories mythological, geological and scientific. But the duo found two patterns which they couldn’t photograph as they were right under the rock. “One game is just four inches away from the bottom of the rock. There is no chance it could have been drawn when the rock was already there. That is a mystery for us. One option is the rock could have come here after the pattern was made. Another is that the rock might have moved at some point; which is possible if there was an occurrence of earthquakes,” he says, adding that there are other stories like a Britisher trying to move the stone with the help of elephants in the early 1900s, which may have caused the rock to move. 

But a question that puzzles Gandhirajan is why were the games carved permanently in stone. “These games do not need a permanent board. You can draw them on any surface and play with a few pebbles. So I think, for them to draw something like this in a public space might denote that they were motivated because of a reason, say like a tournament. This is my hypothesis. It could have been a place where tournaments were held as we found more than 20 game boards,” he says.

In view of the 44th Chess Olympiad, Vinita thought it to be interesting to set these games up at the venue of the tournament to show that not just chess, India is home to several strategy-oriented traditional games. “There will be four base games — Paanch kon or Nakshatra vilayaattu, aadu puli aatam, dadhi (a complex three-in-a-row game) and solah seedi (called vettai in some parts of Tamil Nadu). We will do a rotation of games like daayakattam, pallanguzhi.

We also plan to have a board of kattam vilayattu. This is also a game of alignments like knots and crosses. But this requires four game pieces in a row instead of three. After you place your pieces you can keep moving until you get four game pieces in a row. We may modify these games based on people’s interests. The plan is to have these games till the end of the Olympiad,” says Vinita, hoping that one day we will have a tournament of aadu puli aatam. Now, wouldn’t that be wonderful?


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