Traditional Indian Games Impart Intellectual and Spiritual Learnings

presenting Indic treasures in a modern format

Rohan J, a London-based digital media professional understands the importance of “presenting Indic treasures in a modern format”. Being away from India and travelling extensively made Rohan realise how “incredibly valuable India’s indigenous heritage and knowledge systems are.” His passion to curate cosmopolitan yet culturally rooted Indic narratives led him to establish a cultural initiative – Ishva.

In this interview with CSP, Rohan speaks of reviving as well as creating a market for traditional Indian games through Ishva and presenting it in a format that can be shared, owned and celebrated by the Instagram generation.

What is the story behind the inception of Ishva?

Ishva, is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘offering’ or ‘gift’. At its very core, Ishva is a cultural initiative that aims to showcase, what we call ‘worthy’ Indian treasures, through a modern, elevated aesthetic.

The idea of Ishva came about after years of travel, study and reflection. Being an expat professional in London’s media & advertising landscape, I found myself at the intersection of cosmopolitan culture and cultural narratives. The idea of ‘India’ or ‘Indian’ in the UK and Europe is not only outdated but also co-opted, in a way that tends to downplay India’s unique civilizational legacy. For example, whilst on the one hand, the ‘cows, caste, curry,’ (and more recently slums) invader-centric stereotyping of India continues in mainstream media; on the other hand, terms like ‘South Asian’, ‘from the Indian Subcontinent’, ‘Brown culture’ are often used to mask the good bits that India has to offer, albeit unknowingly.

It is this cultural deficit that I’m trying to address with Ishva. Basically, how can India, as an ancient civilisation and a modern-day nation with a large economy, fulfil its soft power potential.

You have shared quite a few ancient Indian games on your online portal. What do Indian traditional games have to offer in terms of entertainment and learning?

The great thing about traditional Indian games is that they’re so easy to set up and play, yet impart a lot of strategic, intellectual and spiritual learning.

One of the most commonly played games today is Ludo, which finds its origins in the Indian game of Chaupar. It is one of the best games to hone your strategic and managerial skills with its many complex rules and endgame possibilities. The game is known to have been played in the Indus Valley in 2,300 BCE as is attested by the oblong dice that have been recovered from its sites. Literally translating into ‘’that which is composed of four boards,’ the game of Chaupar is also one of the most important and evidently sited episodes from Mahabharata. It was indeed a game-changer for the fates of the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

Continuing since ancient times, Chaupar was played across India. It was known as Thayakattam in Tamil Nadu and Pagade in Karnataka. In North India, it was commonly referred to as Pachisi or “the poor man’s Chaupar”. This partly, because cowries (the playing pieces in Pachisi) were used as currency by the poorer Indian classes and partly because Chaupar is a more complex game and therefore regarded as more aristocratic.

Pachisi later gave rise to many other games like Ludo, Parcheesi, Sorry!, Aggravation or Trouble. Ludo, in fact, is a highly simplified version of Pachisi. Interestingly, On August 29, 1891, Alfred Collier applied for a patent in England, claiming that a board game, which he named Royal Ludo, was actually his invention. The patent was approved a few months later, and granted him full commercial rights and barred others from replicating the game. Since then, ‘Collier Ludo boards’ were sold across the world with the patent number inscribed on them.

Then we have games like Pallanguzhi, which is as old as the civilisation itself and, has traveled from South India to different parts of the world. In Indonesia, it is known as Congkak and Sungka in the Philippines.  Sungka, itself comes from the Sanskrit word Sankya which means numbers. The game also went to Madagascar where it was known as Mancala. This simply shows how universally entertaining and educational a game of counting cowrie shells can be!

(MokshaPatnam from Nagpur, 1800. Courtesy: Royal Asiatic Society)

My personal favourite is Moksha Patam whose simplified version is a worldwide classic – Snakes & Ladders. Surprisingly, or not, the British took the game from India to England and changed it according to Victorian values. But Moksha Patam has a deep spiritual significance in the Indian ethos. In the original game, the ladder squares depicted virtues like faith, generosity, knowledge and ascetism. The snakes represented anger, disobedience, theft and so on. The final goal leads to Moksha, hence Moksha Patam or the path to Moksha – how beautiful!

Unfortunately, games such as MokshaPatam or Pachisi have now been reduced to a mere game of dice where winning is the sole purpose. This serves as an example of how Indian inventions have been appropriated and sold back to us and is a reminder for us to claim what has truly been ours.

What were the inspirations and the process behind reviving ancient games?

We did a series on ancient Indian board games as part of our ‘India Indoors’ project. Not only did it seem like a fun idea but also very relevant as most of us are confined to our homes due to the lockdowns. I also happened to come across one of the most enduring motifs of Indian art that depicts Shiva and Parvati playing a game of dice.

(Relief of Shiva and Parvati playing a game of dice from tenth-century Madhya Pradesh, Rani Durgavati Museum, Jabalpur. Courtesy: Digital South Asian Library)

I realized that reading about the board game culture can illuminate lost traditions, highlight alternative ways to understand religious and cultural traditions and, above all, provide us with a route to unravel the complex cultural past. Like all other topics we cover every week, understanding our games involved a lot of painstaking research, skimming through entire books, reading obscure blogs, looking for authentic and verified images, reaching out to boardgame manufacturers and enthusiasts.

Throughout this phase, I have been truly inspired by the awesome work being done by the people at ‘Kreeda Kaushalya‘ which is an annual tradition board games expo organised by Ramsons Kala Pratishtana (RKP) based in Mysuru. Their blog especially is a great source for anyone wanting to know more about ancient games. The book ‘Traditional Board Games of India’ authored by the trio Sri. R.G. Singh, Sri. H.S. Dharmendra and Dr. C.R. Dileep Kumar, after their extensive ‘study-and-discussion’ tours, was another source that helped me discover traditional games.  The end result was totally worth it.

Beyond research and spreading awareness, how can Indian cultural heritage be marketed as an essential aspect of the knowledge economy?

Putting my marketing hat on, I think packaging really is key. By packaging, I mean not only how a product looks, but how its story is told and more importantly, who tells the story. A lot of Indic wisdom is just there waiting to be unlocked, but it needs to be packaged for modern sensibilities, and the execution needs to be flawless. Be it games, literature, art forms or anything for that matter, the holders of traditional knowledge must work with creative minds to convert culture into marketable products for conscious consumption.

Mahabharata and Ramayana are epics that need to be part of the school curriculum, just as Iliad and Odyssey are taught in the West as important markers of western civilisation. However, the knowledge needs to be imparted in a way that connects with the value-systems of today’s generation and engages them in a fun way.

Understanding these ‘trends,’ we launched Ishva on Instagram first as the platform offers access and caters to an incredible array of creative influencers. And the response to Ishva so far has been phenomenal.

How can India’s creative industries be fostered and make a mark for themselves across the globe?

It wasn’t until as recently as 1997, that the UK government actually attempted to define and assess the impact of creative industries on the British economy. And when it did, the concept of ‘intellectual property’ was seen as central to fostering the creative economy.

In the Indian context, this means creating an ecosystem for cultural brands to harness indigenous knowledge systems and generate an intellectual property that can create tangible products of culture. I personally think that there is still some vague altruism about cultural IP. While India missed a big opportunity with Yoga and intellectual property rights, the U.S. Patent Office has already granted numerous patents for yoga-related products. Similarly, almost everyone today has a LudoKing app on their phone, but most people don’t know about its ancient Indian origins!

In other words, culture and commerce need to be integrated if India’s creative economy has any chance of fostering wealth creation. Ishva is also fast becoming a unique retail platform/event space that brings together authentic India-only brands under a single trade setting – one that is cosmopolitan, culturally rooted and undeniably Indian. I received a lot of messages from people thanking Ishva for reviving these awesome ‘grandma’ games,’ and asking how they could learn more and where they could buy these games. A movement has begun!

Being an expat yourself, how do you see the role of the diaspora community in promoting Indian brands and in-turn strengthening the country’s cultural identity?

Firstly, the Indian diaspora, including businesses and brands, need to reflect on whether ‘South Asian’ is a useful label to fall under. It might seem trivial, but for India’s creative economy to even begin to take shape across global markets, it needs to maintain and nurture a distinct national identity abroad. The Japanese and South Korean diaspora have managed to do this really well – you’ll rarely, if ever, see them identify as ‘East Asian’! And this outlook has translated into a tangible demand for lifestyle and retail needs as well – both countries have mastered the art of cultural retail, evidenced by the many delightful specialty Japanese and Korean shops seen dotted around in central London.

Indians in the diaspora need to support a similar view and demand / buy from culturally rooted, India-only brands as much as possible. We need to be a bit more demanding of our lifestyle and cultural needs! While several groups are promoting Indian culture, through concerts, talks and festival gatherings, there is a lot more to be done. Moreover, the diaspora also has a very important role in promoting the view that India is no longer an exotic, third-world, low-income country relying on foreign aid, but a vibrant democracy and a top-five economy with immense soft power potential. We’re on a completely different trajectory to our South Asian neighbours!

That said, the Nehru Centre in London shares a vision committed to promoting a unique Indian culture and with the recent appointment of Amish Tripathi as the Director, I am very hopeful that there will be a focused effort to maximize India’s soft power potential in various ways possible. Ishva would love to be involved with such efforts.

More information on Indian games can be read from Ishva’s portal.

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