'ARt & soul
Of dice and men

Since the Harappan times, dice have been crafted with skill in an astonishing range of materials, says B.N. Goswamy

An assortment of gotis of chausar made from different materials
An assortment of gotis of chausar made from different materials

THERE are dice and dice; and of course, there are men and men. But men seem to change when they hold dice in their hands. Or else, as some believe, the history of India — at least a great epic of ours — might have turned out differently, considering how much came to hinge on that one fateful game of dice that was played in the Mahabharata. One knows the story well: the eldest of the Pandava brothers, Yudhishthira, sitting down to play a game of chaupar with Duryodhana, the Kaurava prince, and then losing everything to him: his kingdom, all his worldly possessions, himself and his brothers, even Draupadi, their consort. All through the sleight of hand of Shakuni, Duryodhana’s uncle, who threw the dice on his nephew’s behalf, but knew how to manipulate them.

Dyuta, gambling in other words, is the vice that sacred texts warn everyone against, and dice figure in nearly all those gambling games. And yet gods and heroes keep playing in our myths. There are references in the Bhagavata Purana to them — the fury that Balarama unleashed upon some kings over a dishonest game, for instance — the prince Nala loses his kingdom in a game of dice in the celebrated story of Nala and Damayanti; Parvati jokingly accuses Shiva of cheating as the divine couple settle down to play a game of dice; Krishna and Rukmini pit their wits against each other over a dice game on the Diwali night. And so on. There are dice everywhere in India, it appears — made, one might add, of an astonishing range of materials: terracotta, ivory, glass, marble, wood, bone, metal, for instance; and they go as far back as the Harappan times, if the evidence of archaeology were to be trusted.

The little objects, stick-like or cube-form or cylindrical in shape, are associated most often however with the game of chaupar, known by its different names like chausar, paasa, pachisi. And myths and stories apart, there are all those absorbing historical references to the game that is often spoken of, at least by western writers, as the "national board game of India". Abul Fazl, untiring chronicler at the court of Akbar, described it in detail, but opened his account by saying: "From times of old, the people of Hindustan have been fond of this game." The emperor himself apparently grew fond of it, and at Fatehpur Sikri the guides point out the enormous courtyard which served once as the cruciform chaupar board on which, according to tradition, maidens from the Imperial harem, dressed in different colours, used to be stationed and moved like gotis following the throw of dice. Chaupar or pachisi boards are ordinarily made of cloth, with four arms, embroidered or otherwise, attached to the sides of a central square. But here, at the Imperial court, everything was different, and grander in scale. And here, it was undoubtedly a game of great skill: wits were matched; wagers were laid; and the opponents could be wily and cunning. The Emperor himself apart, according to Abu’l Fazl, formerly "many grandees took part in this game: there were often as many as 200 players, and no one was allowed to go home before he had finished 16 games, which in some cases lasted three months; if any of them lost patience and got restless, he had to drink a cup of wine...."

The Mughal chronicler’s account of the game, as played at the court is long, and gets to be very technical, for he goes into elaborate details of dice and rules and moves many of which had their own names. Thus, "if the throws of two players are the same as the throw of the preceding players, His Majesty counts them as qayim, or standing`85. If the four pieces of an opponent are pukhta, and yet he loses his bet, the other payers are entitled to double the amount of the bet." And so on. This is not the place to talk about the intricacies of the game, or to go into the rules of chaupar or pachisi, but surely there must have been variations of all these moves, or at least of the terms used, for the game was played everywhere, and by people of all ranks and extractions. One sees, citing the evidence of paintings alone, a raja like Jagat Singh of Mewar playing chaupar with a royal opponent; Bishan Singh of Guler seated with an ‘adversary’ over a game of chaupar, contemplating his next move; the gifted and innovative ruler of Mysore, Krishnaraj Wodeyar, at play, using a new board of his own invention. One also reads of hardcore players among common people who would keep the cloth board rolled up in their pagris, for spreading it out at a moment’s notice. In the midst of all this, however, there are things one notices. Some exquisite chaupar boards, made of velvet and silk and zari, have survived, as have the gotis — pawns one can call them perhaps — which appear to have been crafted with great skill and affection. And whenever one sees a chaupar board rendered in painting, the painter takes extraordinary care in rendering it with accuracy, bringing in all 24 squares on each arm of the board, leaving the large central or twenty-fifth square — hence, incidentally, the name pachisi, after which the American board game, Parcheesi, was named — prominently bare. In the paintings, one can also see who is winning, and who is on the losing side, judging from the coins, or cowries, that lie piled up in front of the players. The saint-poet Kabir, in his inimitable manner, however, saw no loser in the game of love that a devotee can play with God.

Tana mana dhana baaji laage ho

Chaupar khel peev se re

To son baaji laagi

haari to piya ki bhayee re

jeeti to piya more ho....

(Body, Mind, Wealth are all at stake

To play the game of dice with my love

I have staked my all

My love wins me if I lose

If I win, he becomes mine....)