The treasure in the cups: Pallanguzhi

However, wooden boards of great intricacy and workmanship are also found.
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.

CHENNAI: The game of Pallanguzhi is a fascinating game of distribution. It is known by so many names across India and the world including Vamanaguntalu, Olinda Kaluja, Aliguli Mane, Adu-guni Mane, Chenne Mane, Saat Kooti, Kutki-Boia and many many others.

This game has been played traditionally using seeds, shells or stones on a series of depressions made on the ground by the heel of the palm. However, wooden boards of great intricacy and workmanship are also found.

There are a number of games played on this board, each with varying rules. However, the essence of the game stays the same — the players drop the game pieces in the pits according to the rules and collect treasure based on the outcome of that distribution.

A typical board has two straight rows of seven pits, and optional larger ones for keeping score or storing the captured pieces. In some versions of the game, these larger pits are not limited to storage but are used in play too. There are also boards with five pits instead of seven and versions of four rows instead of two.

The rules vary from the simple to the complex, encouraging players to be quick and to mentally calculate the odds of scoring a big win. The mathematical ability to ensure the game is played successfully is remarkable.

But like many other traditional games, this one is also known in other parts of the world including Africa and South-East Asia. The game is exceedingly popular across Africa, and even today coffee shops in many countries carry such boards where locals play as they sip coffee. It is known across various countries as Mangala, Menkleh, Ayoayo, Awalé, Oware, Wari, to name a few and in the far east by names such as Congkak, Dakon, Sungka, etc.

Although the African version of the game has gained popularity across the world, the range and complexity of the games in India is tremendous.

But like many other games, we ask the question — how did the same game spring up in different parts of the world? While the strategy for game play may vary, the essence of the game is almost the same. The answer that springs to mind is trade routes.

In fact, during my travels, I was fortunate enough to find two rows of seven pits cut into the floor in an old Roman temple in Palmyra, Syria. The history, the ambience and the very ruins dissolved in my mind with the excitement of finding evidence of what was likely to be a game board. Palmyra was an important stop on the silk route — for trade between east and west in the 3rd century.

I would like to imagine travellers from faraway lands, dressed in exotic clothes and speaking strange languages striking profitable deals and then retiring during the afternoon siesta or in the dim light of oil lamps to play a game with new friends from different cultures. It may well be a figment of my imagination, but perhaps it was true and that’s how games spread across the world!

(Excerpts from Vinita Sidhartha’s book, ‘Just Play — Life Lessons from Traditional Games’, published by Rupa Publications)

Vinita Sidhartha

The writer is an author and the founder of Kreeda, an organisation reviving traditional games

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The New Indian Express