The elephant in the game

She taught me the truly unique game of Kalanay Belanay from Mangalore a game that she played as a child.
The elephant in the game

CHENNAI : The thing that’s strange about games is they turn up in the most unlikely places. I remember many years ago doing an event for a women’s club. It was at somebody’s home — a very plush, beautiful home with polished marble floors. After my presentation, a few people came up to me to talk. One of them told me that she had a game for me that I would never have heard of before.

Honestly, I dismissed the idea. By then, I had done 10 years of research, and I was thinking that it was unlikely that a lady who had lived for the most part in an urban area could have a game that I did not know. But she did. She taught me the truly unique game of Kalanay Belanay from Mangalore a game that she played as a child.

It taught me that there are incredible memories locked in people’s minds and if we could tap into them, we would learn so much about our traditional games — not just the games but also how they were played and where they were played. Sometimes this is as important to our understanding of games as the games themselves.

Although on the surface the board looks a bit like the Pallanguzhi or the Vamanaguntalu with seven circles on each side, the game is very different. The circles are also numbered. It is played with a set of seven cowry shells that are used as dice. Each player has twenty-eight game pieces with them. Based on the throw of the cowries, the game pieces are placed on one of the circles based on a set of rules. After having placed the pieces on their side of the board, players remove the pieces from the opponent’s side.

It’s a fun game with lot of excitement on the throw of the dice. The cheers and groans based on the number that falls add to the drama in the game. While on the surface it is just a dice game, it carries within it an understanding of probability and numbers.

The thing that caught my fancy in this game is the name itself. Since cowry shells are brown on top and white on the underside, the game Kalanay Belaney, literally refers to the two contrasting colours.

The name means “Black Elephant; White Elephant” — a creative response to the upper curve of the cowry that seems to look like the back of an elephant. Most traditional games have simple or obvious names and don’t show a lot of creativity. The name is definitely catchy and its creativity makes it stand out among traditional games.

I also love the way the same board is used and adapted for a different game. That’s what makes our traditional games so special. Sometimes the same board was used to play different games and we don’t quite know what game was actually played at a particular place or time. That’s why memories are so important.

If you have interesting memories to share or know of other such games, do reach out as I would love to hear from you.

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The New Indian Express