A recent visit to the phenomenal 12th century Amrutheshvara temple near Shimoga in Karnataka introduced me to sacred games— ancient innocent, fun, time-pass activities, not violence-filled convoluted storylines.
As we sat down on the stone benches after our round of the temple, we discovered strange-looking designs carved next to us. Considering we were a party of eight, we occupied quite a few benches, and each of us could see some carvings on our seats.
At first we thought they were random markings, but on closer examination, all of them turned out to be board games! Some of these we were vaguely familiar with, others not. Well, board games were popular in ancient India, with many of them, from chess to snakes and ladder having originated here. In fact, temple friezes often depict people absorbed in playing such games.
But this was the first time we had seen games put out for general edification in a public place. We got to wondering if these were really as ancient as the temple, or later-day graffiti. And considering that the temple was 800 years old, that was a lot of time for graffiti-workers to do their job.
But it would not have been easy to carve these elaborate games on the stone benches on the sly. So it seemed to us that it must have been an officially-sanctioned exercise, and one probably carried out before the stones were set in their places.
So did the temple-builders plan these games for the visitors? Seems likely. After all, visits to temples were a major outing for many; in fact, maybe the only outing for some.
Naturally, one got goggling on the subject after the visit. I discovered quite a few references to such games. Historian Chithra Madhavan and Vinita Sidhartha, founder of Kreeda say that such games are quite common in temples in South India, even being found in the Srirangam temple which is believed to be 2000 years old. They opine that it was not just for the devotees visiting the temples, but also to provide for the entertainment of those who worked in and around the temple—from maybe the pujaris, to the dancers, musicians and others involved in various aspects of running the temple.
Such carvings have also been found in forts. There are a few groups, including Kreeda which are involved in research on this subject. Researchers R.G. Singh, Dharmendra and Dr Dileep KCR Gowda, have documented 500 spaces with games across Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.Recently, a pair of researchers, Sojwal Sali and Rishi Rane, found 41 ancient carvings of board games of different sizes on rocks near Hinjawadi in Pune district of Maharasthra. These are on some hills, close to a temple, and the speculation is that they were used by pilgrims, travelers and traders who plied the route. This discovery is a treasure trove on games played in ancient times, and also the fact that one of these is huge–six feet long and six feet wide—sets it apart.
It is not difficult to imagine an idyllic scene of a beautiful temple a thousand years ago, where in the midst of a buzz of activities, one can see groups of people playing their favourite game, with a few spectators standing around each group.
Were those more innocent times, when there was no betting on the outcomes? No loaded dice or fixed games? Well probably human nature was not very different, but one can hope they kept the temple games more sacred!