Pallankuzhi: An inheritance of love

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 game all laid out and ready to play. I inherited this set from my maternal grandmother

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.

A pallankuzhi cup with the chozhi or cowry shell counters.

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.

My maternal grandmother, Meenakshi R (1920-1980). This photo was taken in September 1975. My brother, Sriraman is standing behind her.

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.

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38 thoughts on “Pallankuzhi: An inheritance of love

    • Yes, it is. I don’t play it too often now. And when I brought out the set to be dusted and then photographed, I remembered how the board never had to be cleaned ! We would play Pallankuzhi every day.

  1. You brought back the memories of childhood, when i used to play with those shells with my Grandma. It was a different game with a board drawn on the floor with chalk.
    Thank You for the post.

    • Thanks, Laxman. Its amazing how many people have played simialr games with their grandmothers. When I was researching for background information on this post, I came across 2-3 blog posts on Pallankuzhi and playing this game with grandmothers.

      Apart from this game, I also played others with shells. I learnt the first few moves of chess on a chalk drawn board on the floor, and different coloured and sized shells as the ‘chess pieces’.

  2. First it was her lamp,
    then a smiling photograph,
    Then some memories
    lightly strewn,
    of a faraway June
    in disciplined paragraphs..
    I will never know her
    the way you did..
    Her words have
    long since stilled
    into the lake that
    sometimes ripples
    with twinkling
    luminous crystals
    of your precious
    memory..
    Games played
    on lazy days
    will serve to
    quell the spurt
    of feelings that
    sometimes hurt..
    and the little
    wooden board
    with cowries
    will comfort
    you and all of us
    who see, a little bit
    of your beloved Paati
    in loved ones taken
    away, by time
    into eternity..

    • Wow, Deepa. That is so eloquently put. Thank you so much. BTW, the Meenakshi with the lamp was my dadi. The Meenakshi here is my nani. Yes, I know, it is was quite confusing to have both my grandmothers named as Meenakshi.

  3. I don’t know about the game but it surely reminded me of my grandmother and the many things she would find time to do with me. Amazing what all the human mind can recall after so many years and result in a smile and a tear or two :-)

    • Isn’t it? I am amazed at the number of people who said that this post brought back memories of grandmothers. I was prompted to write this post after seeing the closeness that my mother and neice share. I think that I am quite jealous of their relationship ;-)

  4. Wow! Somebody thinking to write about Pallankuzhi?? I admire the heights of blogging. Great to revive such age-old games and memories. Beautiful pic of your paati too.

    • Thanks, Nandhini. Actually quite a few people have written about Pallankuzhi and that too its association with their grandmothers. So I have actually not written about anything really new.

  5. After seeing so many of you all writing on this, I want to add the following:

    In the photograph, I am the little boy who is staring at the photographer daring him to click our grandmother’s photo. I would want to add that among us siblings, I have probably played the game the most with my grandmother. During the times I did play with Sudha, it was often the case with me playing big brother i.e trying to bully little sister i.e Sudhagee. Of course our Grandmother would try and bring peace between us.

    Having said that, as rightly mentioned , both of us imbibed this game and the love for it from Patti. Sudha has also mentioned, her extrodinary love and and affection for the three of us. It was without doubt more than her other grandchildren and I am very proud to boast about it. Why it was like that, we never understood at that time because we enjoyed it, but thinking back, it probably has a lot to do with the reciprocal the affection from us. What I mean was, whenever we had holidays, or any free time, the only place we used to head was to our Nana and Nani’s place. Everyting else was later. Our grandparents are also perhaps the reason why we siblings are also quite close to each other though we all stay apart.

    Pallankuzhi also brought in a lot of bonding with our Grandparents. In their 31st year of their Death Anniversary (both of them passed away within 8 days of each other), I would like to add that both she and our grandfather had and have no comparison in giving affection and love till today.

  6. What a lovely memory of a beloved grandmother and of a game. I never played Pallanguzhi with either of my grandmothers as I considered it to be too girlish. Reading your post makes me feel, that may be I should have.

  7. I was just explaining to my son some of the ancient Indian games and Pallanguzhi that I played with my Patti. Happened to stumble onto your article when I was trying to get an article for my son to read. Wonderful article and it brings back memories of times that I spent with my Patti playing the game. Thanks so much. By the way, do you know where I can get a set of more detailed rules of the game?
    Vinodh

    • It’s amazing how many people have played Pallankuzhi with their paatis :-) I have not come across any rules of the game, except for the wikipedia one, which is just about ok. Kreeda Games (the link is given on my site) sell a Pallankuzhi set and many other traditional games. All their games come with detailed instructions, and maybe you could try them.

      Thank you very much for stopping by and visiting, Vinodh.

      • Thank you, madam. Yes, the paatis of yore were of a different breed altogether; despite their conservative upbringing they lived a fuller life showering their love, affection, empathy and time all around.

  8. What a tribute to a family and a lifestyle and a culture a country and a region…Thank you for this post! I stumbled in lookng for more information on game rules for Pramapada soopanam and lingered, enticed ;-)

    • Welcome here, Renuka, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I’m very happy that you liked this post, as it is one of my favourite posts and of course the beautiful, warm memories that it evokes. I hope my blog enticed you enough to visit more often :-)

  9. Hi, this is indeed a very wonderful post… i have a 4 yr old daugther and would love to teach her this game, but i’ve forgotten the way it was played and quiet confused how to explain her with words.. if u know the game can u please post a video post of how it is played.. it would be of so much help to me.. thanks in advance :)

  10. What a memory-evoking post ! Granny is long gone , but i learnt the game when she was playing with my mother….both adults but as competitive as teenagers.
    I still play it with my mom( she is 80 and i am 55 !) we got a new board from Mangalore…..where it is called ” channamane”
    Thank you Sudhagee for this charming post

    • A very warm welcome here, Sheila, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. :-)

      My pallankuzhi board is precious to me and I play it with my niece whenever she is visiting from Pune. Nobody else is willing to play with me. My mother was never interested in this game and my brother refuses to play the game with me now.

      Will you play Pallankuzhi/Channamane when we meet next? :-)

  11. I cannot tell you how much this post means to me as well. Pallankuzhi was and will always be my favourite game. I played with tamarind seeds. I miss my maternal grandmother every single day and all the little inheritances of love – her 9 yard sarees, slippers, walking stick (that she never used) and her broken glass frame – I just cannot type anymore..
    Hugs.

    • Hugs to you too, Kimsitoffeebar. Paati was very special to my brothers and me and we are always surprised how much we remember even after so many years. We have different memories of course – my brothers’ memories are more centred around food, while mine is around play – but all of us have Pallankuzhi in common. My niece, who will inherit the board game from me has heard the stories so many times, she talks of my Paati like she knew her :) That’s the power of memories, I guess.

  12. Pingback: 4 years, 346 posts, 2,65,417 words… | My Favourite Things

  13. Thanks for the article. It was well written and entertaining just like the game palanguzhi. Just curious. Are you sure your paati was born in 1920? She looks older than 55 in the photo attached. (considering the photo is taken in 1975 as mentioned). This might be slightly irrelevant here, but just curious. :P I have a thing for old photos and the memories they bring :)

    • Thanks, Odd_country_girl. Glad you enjoyed the article. My grandmother was a sickly woman and had grayed completely by the time she was 30. She was in and out of hospitals and heavy medication took its toll on the way she looked. She was less than 60 when she passed away.

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