They’re not just fun, but they also help develop logic and life skills. A look at some traditional games that have been played for centuries and survive even today

Did you know our traditional games are not just for entertainment? They are packed with logic and strategies for living.

The game of dice (Thaayam) is played on Deepavali eve, prompting us to reflect on how chance plays a key role in our lives. Paramapadam, played during Vaikunta Ekadasi, with its unexpected ascent up ladders and descent via snakes reminds us that we can’t take salvation for granted. Nalangu games at weddings in Tamil Nadu help break the ice between the bride and the groom, while Paattuku-Paattu was originally played between the bride and the groom’s families enabling them to bond with one another…

The seven/nine/eleven stones game has taught generations of kids, logic, strategy, spatial perception and eye-hand coordination; Paandi helps improve balance and muscular control, while tongue-twister games teach children the nuances of language, subtly underlining the fine line between sense and nonsense.

Rites of passage

For long, folk games were central to our social and cultural lives. “They influenced our world view and served as rites of passage, underlining the individual’s transition through the various stages of life,” says Prof. M. D. Muthukumaraswamy, founder-director of the Chennai-based National Folklore Support Centre (NFSC) that works for the promotion of Indian folklore research and education. There is a reason why folk games evolved in every community across the globe from the African tribes’ Ubuntu game to Karnataka’s Jenu Kurubar community’s challenging chikki-chikki game, where children have to seek and identify their friends from their hiding places from the tunes they blow from a pipe rolled from leaves. They can be traced back to the time of the ancient Greeks too where Apollo played a game with the Gods on Mount Olympus.

Of course, folk games have an element of fun and are, therefore, a form of entertainment. But they hold a deeper significance too. “They shape the world view of players. They contribute to a child’s development improving abilities such as decision making, increasing self and sexual knowledge, understanding of art, hierarchy, power, etc. Folk games teach us language and its nuances, and all the skills required to grow up in a particular culture,” says Prof. Muthukumaraswamy, who spoke recently on 'The Art and Joy of Folk Games' at The Leela Galleria, at the behest of the Apparao Galleries. NFSC has worked with the Gond tribe of Madhya Pradesh, the Kondh community of Orissa, the Narikuravas of Tamil Nadu, the Jenu Kurubar of Karnataka, the communities living along the river Nila in Kerala, and communities in Seraikella in Jharkhand.

Games of skill and chance

Folk games are also generally tied to a context, broadly falling under the labels of ‘skill’ and ‘chance’. Games of chance were played during festivities, while games of skill were associated with the cycle of life of an individual. “For instance, games of chance such as Paramapadam and Thaayam (dice) encouraged people to reflect on life, while games of skill such as wedding or puberty games encouraged self-awareness, and facilitated the crossing over of the individual to a different stage of life,” explains Prof. Muthukumaraswamy.

Folk games have an ancient past. The Elephanta Cave panel showing Lord Siva playing dice with his consort Parvati dates back to the 6th Century or earlier, indicating that it was popular even then or much earlier. “Siva is seen losing the game of dice every time, the idea underlined here being that the materiality of Siva is overpowered by the cosmic energy of Parvati”, said Prof. Muthukumaraswamy. Unfortunately, today, there is a huge disconnect between people and folk games. Very few traditional games have survived. The Paatukku Paatu game survives thanks to the popularity of film music. Most of us dismiss folk games as naïve and nonsensical vestiges of an earlier era. However, the reasons why they were played are timeless and relevant even today. We might profit by understanding that whatever era we are in we need our folk games. Because they teach us — both children and adults — the game of life.