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Educational Games: An Enquiry into Ancient Games and their Relevance to Education

Part 1: “Adhikari” or Introduction and Purpose

Games have been an integral part of growing up in a human’s life, be it ancient times or present day. They have been a source of learning from many perspectives, not necessarily in a formal educational setup. There were a variety of games played in India from ancient times, both indoor and outdoor. While outdoor games like Kabaddi have found their way into Asian games, indoor games on the other hand have diminishing popularity and are in the verge of being “extinct” as technology and modern education systems have taken over the learning process to be only of a prescribed form and from a prescribed syllabus. Indoor games like the modern-day snakes and ladders and Ludo have rooted ancient origins from India that have been not only a game play but a device for ethics and cultural learning. These two games have been rebranded by the west, where the education that was purposed in these games have lost its significance.

A very crucial point to note here is that learning is interdisciplinary. Culture and folklore form a very important link in the learning process. The art of storytelling and games are two major tools from our ancient times that educators can look to move towards a more integrative and innovative learning process.

Storytelling has found many mentions in ancient India and has been an integral part of education right from the time of Upanishads. Bhaskaracharya’s Lilavati also integrates stories and fictional characters to introduce concepts of mathematics and problem solving. Games on the other hand have little mentions in the ancient texts and have been limited to a few findings in folklore, like the Jataka Tales or mentions in the tales of Ramayana and Mahabaratha.

There are a number of games that have been a favorite from ancient times and seem to have been played by generations. This paper attempts to investigate five such games to find a crucial link that the games played as recreational play provide educational values in an organized or a casual setting.

The five games are:

  1. Pallanguzhi (Mankala)
  2. Aadu puli aattam (Lambs and Tigers)
  3. Paramapadam (Snakes and Ladders)
  4. Anchankal (Five stones) and
  5. Thayam (Pacchisi or Ludo)

The following pages probes into the five games listed above, their origins and purpose to unravel the learning outcomes that were brought during the time. This investigation will solidify the purpose that ancient Indian games have been a tool not only to game play but also supported learning.

 Part 2: “Vishaya” or Subject: Traditional Indian Games

2.1 Pallankuzhi (Mancala)

2.1.1 History and origins:

Widely played in Tamil Nadu and other southern states of India, the historical origins of this game are still unknown. This game connects to Ramayana (An epic composed around 5th century BCE) where it is stated that Sita played this game in Asoka Vana. Evidences to usage of the term Pallanguzhi is seen in copper plate inscriptions of Pallava Kings dating to 550 CE and evidences of the game is seen in stone carvings / inscriptions in ancient Indian temples like the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram (700 CE) in Tamil Nadu.

Interestingly, this game or similar versions are played across Southeast Asia and certain parts of Africa. The names used to a similar game and regions it is played in, is given in Figure – 1 below.

(Figure 1 – Names of the game Pallankuzhi played across the world)

One of the major arguments to the presence of the game across the locations relates to the conquests of the Cholas in the Southeast Asian islands and also the coastal regions of West Africa and Northern parts of Sri Lanka.

The term “Pallankuzhi” finds its etymological origins in the Tamil language. Research indicates that the original name of the game may have been “Kallankuzhi” which translates to “stones and pits”. Interestingly, names used for similar games in various regions worldwide often have connections to the concept of stones or calculations in some form.

2.1.2 How to play, and materials used:

The game involves two players who take turns picking up seeds or shells from one of the pits and distributing them, one by one, in a clockwise direction. The goal is to capture as many seeds as possible and store them in the player’s own pit. The game ends when the winner has all the seeds used in the game leaving the loser with no or not enough seeds to fill in a pit.

Originally, Pallankuzhi is played using a wooden board with pits carved into it. The game pieces are usually seeds or cowrie shells depending on the geographical location it is played.

2.1.3 Significance and purpose:

Pallankuzhi, while not as commonly played today, is a game that is primarily enjoyed by women for leisure and entertainment. The game also accompanies certain customs and superstitions. The game is to be played during daylight hours only or there are certain auspicious days when it is played. There are mentions of the game being played as a recreational activity for agricultural workers and also coins being used to play the game instead of seeds after a wedding in certain communities (Balambal, 2005).

These customs and traditions associated with the game reflect Pallankuzhi’s cultural significance and its role in fostering social bonds and entertainment in certain communities, particularly in South India.

2.1.4 Application:

The game Pallankuzhi also known as Mancala, is centered on the concept of sowing and harvesting and offers various educational benefits. While it is often viewed as a math-based game that enhances skills like hand-eye coordination, counting and logical thinking, a closer examination of its gameplay reveals to offer a profound exploration of patterns, sequences and combinatorics.

2.2 Aadu Puli Aattam (Lambs and Tigers)

2.2.1 History and origins:

Aadu Puli Attam is said to be a game that has been played for over a thousand years. There are sources that state the game originated from the Himalayas, but other sources claim the game is a native of Southern India. Antiquity is still unknown, the game is widely popular in Nepal as Bhag Chal and is claimed to be the national game of Nepal. Nepalese tradition says that the game was created by Mandodari (consort of Ravana) and Hema (Apsara water nymph) and finds its place in the epic Ramayana (composed around 5th century BCE).

2.2.2 How to play and game variations:

There are two variations of this game that is played across the subcontinent. The first variant played in Southern India has a game board shaped in a triangle with two vertical lines and a rectangle superimposed on it to form 23 intersection points (Fig. 2). This is a two player (team) game where one side (team) controls 3 “tigers” and the other side controls 15 “lambs”.

The various names of the games across the states of south India are – Aadu Puli Aattam (Tamil Nadu), Adu Huli (Karnataka), Puli Meka (Andhra Pradesh).

(Figure 2 – Aadu Puli Aattam game board)

The second variation is called Bagh Chal that is popular in some parts of Northern India and majorly played in Nepal. The game board is a 5×5 dots connected orthogonally. There are also diagonal lines and lines connecting the midpoint of each side (Fig. 3). This continues to be a two player (team) game with 4 tigers as one side and 20 lambs on the other side.

The objective of the game is for the player controlling the tigers to capture as many lambs as possible, while the player with the lambs places / moves his pieces strategically to avoid being captured. The game ends if the player with the tiger captures a minimum of 5 lambs or the lambs successfully restrict all the tigers movement completely.

(Figure 3 – Bagh Chal game board)

2.2.3 Significance and purpose:

This game is primarily enjoyed by men as a form of leisure and recreation. In older households, engraved game boards can be seen in the verandahs indicating that it was once a social activity played with guests during leisure. The tradition of Aadu Puli Aattam is waning in south India due to the rise of tech-based activities and games that have gained popularity over the past decade. In contrast, Bagh Chal continues to maintain its significance and popularity especially with tourists and is still actively played in remote parts of the country.

Aadu Puli Aattam and Bagh Chal are both strategy games that require players to think critically and plan their moves carefully. The asymmetrical nature of the game where one player controls the tiger and the other lambs makes it a game of tactics and cunning. Playing this game develops strategic thinking. Added to this, the game also brings in the symbolism of the age-old struggle of the predator and prey. It reflects the relationship between humans and nature in rural settings and carries cultural significance related to the coexistence of wildlife and humans.

2.2.4 Application:

As a strategy game, it enhances skills like spatial reasoning, logical thinking, and pattern recognition. In finding the best next move the players understand option evaluation and to make a goal-based decision. The predator-prey analogy in this game can stimulate discussions on topics related to ecosystems and food chain.

2.3 Paramapadam (Snakes and Ladders)

2.3.1 History and origins:

The modern-day game of snakes and ladders is known with various different names across the Indian Subcontinent. Mokshpatam in Northern and Western India, Paramapada Sopanam or Vaikuntapali in Southern India. This game is believed to have been invented by Sant Gyandev during the 13th century CE. In the game board that was created to teach Hindu Dharma, ladders represent virtues and snakes represent vices. There are more snakes than ladders to depict the notion that men are easily prone to sins. During the colonial era, the game made its way to England and was renamed as snakes and ladders and modified in accordance to Victorian values.

2.3.2 How to play:

The game board usually consists of 100 squares that are marked by ladders and snakes randomly. If a snake head starts on a square, it usually ends a few rows down. The game pieces can be anything like seeds, coins, shells etc. and the game can be played by more than 2 players.

The game starts when one player rolls the dice and moves according to the number depicted on the dice. If his coin lands on the lower end of a ladder, he moves up and if he lands on the head of the snake, he moves down to its tail. The winner is the one who reaches the 100th square first.

2.3.3 Significance and purpose:

In Vaishnavite tradition, there are 108 sacred places (Divya Desam) in this universe, out of which 105 are in India, one in Nepal and the last two are outside earthly realms. Interestingly the 108th sacred place is called “Paramapadam” or “Sri Vaikuntam” the abode of Lord Vishnu, the sacred deity of the Vaishnavite tradition. The ultimate purpose of every human birth is to reach the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu who resides in Paramapadam. There is an interesting lore to the game of Paramapadam / Vaikuntapali. Playing this game on the auspicious day of “Vaikunta Ekadasi” (and probably winning it) will lead the player to “Paramapadam”. There are 132 squares in this earlier version of Paramapadam instead of 100.

(Figure 4 – Snakes and Ladder or Paramapadam game)

2.3.4 Application:

This game is played by all age groups together. The purpose of this game aims to bring the players to understand the moral values of human life (the effect of good deeds as opposed to bad deeds). Modern day game play can make early learners understand basic arithmetic and be able to follow rules to achieve a goal. Here the goal of the game is to reach the 100th square before any other player in an ethical way. Each player has to go through the board with his strength and luck (chance) only but not by defeating other players.

2.4 Anchankal (Five Stones)

2.4.1 History and origins:

The ancient game of five stone has prehistoric roots with evidence of being discovered in the caves of Kiev and also depictions of this game can be found in ancient Greek pottery. Its global journey remains a mystery, but it has been played with minor variations, adopting different names and materials.

The game is played globally using various materials such as sheep knuckle bones, wooden dice, apricot seeds, pebbles and cloth bags filled with rice. Figure 6 depicts several places around the world where the game is played, and the materials used. This list is not exhaustive but offers a few examples. Interestingly, though the games’ origin remains unknown, each region where the game is played considers it as an ancestral game of that area.

(Figure 5 – Map with names of the game and materials used across the world.
*This is not an exhaustive list)

2.4.2 How to play:

The game is played by two or more players who first decide the order of their turns. It is played sequentially where the player tosses one stone at the air picking up one (or more depending on the level of the game) from the ground while the tossed stone is still airborne. In advanced versions multiple stones are tossed. Failing to catch the stones tossed as per the rules result in forfeiting one’s turn to the next player. The winner is the first player to complete all the games designated levels.

2.4.3 Significance and purpose:

While materials and names differ globally, the method of play and the players are almost similar in every region. It is to be noted that the game is mainly played by children and young women across the globe. The purpose of the game is always to improve the fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination and memory skills of the players. Needless to say, his may be the reason for the game to be widely played by young children.

2.4.4 Application:

The game’s primary focus is on developing essential skills such as fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. However, considering its varying levels and the number of players involved, this game can also serve as a valuable tool in a modern-day classroom for data collection, data analysis and interpretation.

2.5 Chaupar / Pacchisi (Ludo)

2.5.1 History and origins:

The earliest known description of this game originates from the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (1542 CE – 1605 CE) in Agra and in Fetehpur Sikri. Abdul Fazal, a minister in Akbar’s court, remarked that “Chaupar” has been a cherished game in Hindustan for times immemorial”. The name “Chaupar” is derived from the Sanskrit roots “Chatur” meaning four and “Para” meaning cloth referring to the game board made of cloth that has four directions. It can also loosely translate to a crossroad. In Chaupar, three dice are used that are elongated four sided sticks with markings on each side. In contrast, Pacchisi replaces the dice with five cowrie shells, and the value of a throw is determined by the number of “mouths” facing up. Since the maximum points achievable in one throw is 25, the game is called Pacchisi meaning 25 in Hindi. While Chaupar was a game enjoyed by royalty, Pacchisi was often referred to as the “Poor man’s Chaupar”.

This game, played with elongated dice, has reference dating back to the “Rig Veda” (before 100 BCE). In the epic Mahabharata, there are two famous instances of Kings being ruined by gambling through a game of dice.

The modern version of Ludo is a simplified adaptation of Chaupar, employing two standard dice cubes. It is worth noting that this game, which was commercially introduced in the United States in 1860 was “copyrighted” by an individual named John Hamilton in 1869.

(Figure 6 – Credit: Olkinuora – Akbar’s palace at Fatehpur Sikri, A giant “Chaupar” still adorns the courtyard. It is said that female dancers act as game pieces while Emperor Akbar plays the dice).

2.5.2 How to play:

This game involves four players divided into opposing partnerships. Each player controls four pieces, moving them around the game board by rolling the dice in anticlockwise direction. The partnership that successfully navigates its pieces back to the center space is declared the winner. However, this game features twists: players can capture their opponents’ pieces if they land on the same space, sending the captured piece back to the starting point. On a positive note there are designated safe zones where pieces cannot be captured.

2.5.3 Significance and purpose:

This dice game is mentioned as a vice in Atharva Veda, characterized as a tool for gambling. It is notorious for causing loss of entire kingdoms. The stories in the Mahabharata suggest that dice throwing ceased to be mere chance and evolved into science. The man who knew how to throw the dice is a sure winner. In the Jataka Tales, there is an account of a king so skilled in the science of dice that he could predict the outcome while the dice were still in the air. If it wasn’t favorable, he would catch them mid-air and compel the opponent to repeat the throw. While this was a game indeed enjoyed by royalty, historical records primarily mention only men engaging in it.

2.5.4 Application:

Ancient times commonly associated this game with gambling. The game’s essence lies in a profound understanding of probability. Interestingly, modern-day players, while viewing it as a recreational play, have developed such expertise in the numerical aspects and the board’s squares that they can mentally predict the placement of each piece after a throw, often leading to strategic captures. This proficiency underscores the grasp of mental mathematics.

Part 3: “Prayojana” or Purpose

All the games investigated in this paper had one thing in common. The games could be played anywhere and with materials that can be gathered around the house or a village. Except for the game of “Paramapadam”, where the game board is specialized, all other games can be played with a little improvisation of the materials around. The reference of holes found in ancient carvings of temples show that the game of Pallanguzhi was a social game played in a casual setting. The game boards of Pacchisi or Adupuli attam can be easily drawn on the ground and the coins used to play the games can be anything from seeds to stones. Similar concepts run to play the game of 5 stones, here the materials used can be anything from seeds to shells. Probably, this is the reason these games find little mention in texts to solidify the thought the games played are indeed a tool for education.

While the games show the simplicity of the materials used, they also bring home a very important concept or thought. Like the idea of storytelling to education, learning from games also proves to become an effective tool in education in ancient India.

The strategy games of Pacchisi and Aadupuli attam teach an important lesson: understanding the opponent and strategizing to attack or defend a position. The players’ individual skill, memory and strategy rather than chance plays an important role in winning or losing the game. Here the players are not just playing the game they are also learning to strategize and strengthen their memory to be able to predict the next move that will be favorable to their win (V. Balambal, 2005).

Paramapadam is the game where education along with gameplay is clearly defined. The knowledge of vices and virtues is important to attain the ultimate goal of human life. The players have to accept and learn from the obstacles they are led to again through the game of dice (fate). The game of Pacchisi also throws importance on fate, however it is the players’ skill that will lead them to victory or defeat. Here the player has to strategize to overthrow his opponent and win the game. Paramapadam on the other hand is more like a race. The winner here is not the one with competency but the one who has the right chance. However, even this chance or fate has a message in every square the player has landed. (Pattanaik, 2007).

Pallanguzhi teaches a very important concept of sowing and reaping. Resonating the fact that the learning here is about the rewards of conscious cultivation and what we sow may be reaped by the opponent/neighbor if we are not conscious enough to safeguard our property. Here the emphasis is more on the social economic dilemma a human could face when it comes to property. The social equilibrium of an old socialist society gets upended by the game in such a way that one’s wealth goes to another quite easily without violence (Inmathi staff, 2022). Needless to say, it was a game played by workers in the fields as entertainment during their break time. The games underlying pedagogy is to understand the social status of the rich and the poor and how the act of sowing and reaping can make the players understand economics and the present inequalities with respect to wealth accumulation.

The game of five stones though seems to have been the one game in the chosen study that has been played widely across the world, there are almost no references that this game was used as a tool for education in ancient times. However, it is a fact that this game is mostly encouraged to be played by young children to improve hand eye coordination. This leads us to infer that this game may be a pre learning tool for young children before entering to formal education of hunting and archery where concentration and hand eye coordination are very important to master the skill.

 Part 4: “Sambandha” a logical conclusion to the purpose.

Ancient games in India had a unique positioning in society. Outwardly they were just a game play but the underlying concepts of numbers, values, memory skills and economics are all embedded in them. They also are distinct and precise as to who the players are and what learning outcomes the players are expected to gain from it, apart from being a mere game play.

This paper only investigated five games from ancient India. There are many more games that were played that imparted not only entertainment but also educational value. The hidden learnings from the games have been lost in time. New avatars of some of the games destroyed the traditional values and have been rebranded as mere child play and many other games have also lost their identity to time. These indoor games do not find a place in the current world as children growing up need to keep in pace with technology and trends.

This paper is a sincere attempt to discover that the games played in ancient India had educational content and imparted learning either in a formal or informal set up. The games of Paramapadam and Pacchisi were indeed a learning tool in ancient times. While Adupuli Attam and Pallanguzhi had more social economic connections, they also had an underlying understanding of economics in the society where it was played. Only the game of five stones did not reveal the education through it; however with its ancient roots it can be inferred (though without conclusive evidence) that the game was also a learning tool.

 There is numerous research work on the subject of ancient Indian games and how they can be used as a tool for education in modern education setup. The intent of this paper is not an attempt to be one more of the same but as a logical understanding of the five games investigated and trying to apply in modern day education systems, the games can be of immense value. The educators not only can continue to impart the learnings that were intended in ancient times but also modify the games to use them as tools with varied capabilities of understanding numbers, logical reasoning, history and economics and thus provoking interdisciplinary learning.


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Conference on Pedagogy And Educational Heritage

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