I had been in my first school for just about 10 days or so, when my teacher sent a note home for my mother to meet her. My mother was so worried about the note that she was at my school the next day
at the crack of dawn much before the appointed time.
She needn’t have worried. My teacher had only called to rave about my excellent motor skills, my excellent hand-to-eye coordination, and the fact that I could do some simple addition as well as some mental maths. All this at the age of 5 years, 6 months, and some days ! I was apparently way ahead of the rest of my class. Was I some budding genius, she asked my mother hopefully? My mother, after the first reaction of relief, immediately squashed my teacher’s hopes. No, her daughter was no budding genius. She was just a little girl with an inordinate amount of interest in playing Pallankuzhi with her grandmother, which had led to the development of these skills. What is Pallankuzhi, my puzzled teacher asked?
Pallankuzhi is a traditional game (usually for 2 people) played in southern India, especially in Tamil Nadu. It is played on a rectangular wooden board, which has 14 cups (or kuzhi as it is known in Tamil) and 146 counters in the form of seeds, shells or small stones. Each cup, except the middle cups on the sides of the board are filled with 12 counters each; the remaining two cups have only 1 counter placed in them (see the photograph above). The basic aim of the game is for the players to capture as many counters as possible.
The starting player lifts the counters from any of cups on his/her side of the board, and then places one counter in each cup in a clockwise direction. Once the counters in hand are over, the player takes the counters from the next cup and continues placing them in this way. If the last counter falls into a cup with an empty cup beyond, the counters in the cup beyond the empty cup are captured by the player. If the last counter falls into a cup with two or more empty cups beyond, the player’s turn is over. The next player continues play in the same way, and the round is over when no more counters remain to be played. Depending on how one has understood this explanation, the game is either simple or convoluted. But what this explanation does not give is the mathematics involved in predicting where the players counters would end, and which cup’s counters to pick and play. Playing the game helped me develop skills that I wasn’t even aware off.
I don’t know what my mother said, but I like to imagine this is what she must have said. I could never have and still can’t explain how the game is played. If it had not been for Wikipedia, I would not have been able to put up the above description of the game. In my opinion, the best way to know about the game is to play it. That is largely because of how I learnt the game from Meenakshi R, my maternal paati (grandmother in Tamil), and fell in love with its intricacies.
Paati introduced me to pallankuzhi and many other traditional games when I was about 4 years old. Looking back, I don’t think she ever taught me any game; we would just play and she would tell stories and somewhere along the way, the rules, strategies, tricks, and cheat codes (oh yes, even traditional games have their cheat codes) of the games were understood and imbibed. Since Pallankuzhi was our favourite game, this is what we would play, and we could play this for hours together. I don’t ever recall her saying no to a round of any game, even when she was not well. Sometimes, my brother Sriraman would join us and paati would let the two of us play Pallankuzhi, while she watched the game from the sidelines.
About 3 months before Paati died, I asked her to get me a Pallankuzhi set of my own, as our family was moving to another city. I still remember what she said then, “Why do you need a new one, my dear? This set and all the love that comes with it is just for you.” And that’s how, I came to inherit my Paati’s Pallankuzhi set when she died on 3 March 1980. I realised much later that I inherited her love for traditional games as well.
Today is her 31st death anniversary, and this post is a tribute to her and the wonderful games that we played and the beautiful times that we shared. I think she will be very happy to know that her great-granddaughter, and my niece, is equally fond of the game and will inherit this game, and all the love that comes with it, one day.
My Pallankuzhi set is not just a game, it is an inheritance of love.