When the Gods played dice with mortals

Unable to exist without seeing Lord Balaji, he began to pretend that he was spending time with the Lord by playing a game of dice.
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.

KOCHI: Once upon a time, an ardent Hindu devotee called Bhavaji travelled to Tirumala in Tirupathi on a pilgrimage. He was so fascinated by the deity of Lord Balaji in the temple, he decided to stay there forever. In spite of repeated visits to the temple, he could never get enough of the Lord. In fact, his visits aroused the suspicion of the priests who then prevented him from entering the temple.

Unable to exist without seeing Lord Balaji, he began to pretend that he was spending time with the Lord by playing a game of dice. He would throw the dice and move his pieces and then throw them again imagining that the Lord was playing with him.

One day the Lord, in the form of a man, actually did visit him and they played together. This went on for many days until something happened. While leaving Bhavaji’s room after a night of playing, the Lord left his diamond necklace behind. Bhavaji picked up the necklace and kept it safe, planning to return it the next night.

However, when the priests opened the temple the next morning, they found the deity missing a diamond necklace. Immediately, an alert was sounded and the hunt for the necklace began. Some of them remembered Bhavaji’s frequent visits to the temple and wondered if he had been checking out the place prior to theft.

Sure enough, when they reached his room, they found the necklace. Bhavaji pleaded his innocence but they would not listen to a single word. When he told them the tale of Lord Balaji visiting him every night to play a game, they laughed at him and mocked him. 

Finally, he was thrown into a room filled with sugarcane under the condition that he had to consume all the sugarcane by the next day to prove his innocence. “Ask Lord Balaji to help you!” they said mockingly, as they went away. Sure enough, as an answer to his prayers, an elephant appeared in the locked room and ate up all the sugarcane. As Bhavaji fell on his knees thanking the Lord, the elephant trumpeted. Hearing the sound, the priests came to investigate and were amazed to see an elephant inside the locked and empty room. Meanwhile, the elephant broke free and ran away.

When questioned, Bhavaji had only one word to say — ‘Hathiram.’ When asked who that was and how the elephant entered the prison cell, Bhavaji told them that Lord Rama (an incarnation of Balaji) had come to his rescue in the form of a Hathi (an Elephant). Everyone was amazed at his devotion, and he was appointed the head priest of the temple and hailed as Hathiram Bhavaji or Hathiramji.

This fascinating story led me on a quest to find out more in the temple town of Tirupathi. Once there, I tracked down the Hathiramji Math and there was shown a shrine with a stylized rendering of a rather corpulent man playing a game of dice with Lord Balaji. I was amazed. Here was a shrine with a picture of a game similar to the ones I had been researching for years. I stood there mesmerized, thinking of all that had happened to lead me there. As my eyes moved towards the lamp, I saw something more — a cloth game board laid out as an offering to the Lord. 

The game board was none other than the traditional dice game played on a symmetric cross — the game of Chaupad also known as Pagade, Pachisi, Chaupar, Aksha Kreeda, Dayakattam, Chokkattan, and many other names. Interestingly, the South Indian version of the game is often played with arms that are six squares long and corner squares at the junction of the arms. However, when one looks for etchings of the game on the floors of temples, we see version with eight squares along the arms more popular in the North Indian version — perhaps the influence of Hathiramji and his dice game in Tirupathi. 

(Excerpts from my book ‘Just Play – Life Lessons from Traditional Indian Games’ published by Rupa)

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