132 steps to Vaikuntha

I was introduced to board games as a child by my maternal paati (grandmother in Tamil), Meenakshi R. She loved them and could spend the whole day playing different games with her grandchildren or whoever was free and willing. I wasn’t always free, but I was always willing :-)

We played games like pallankuzhi (a traditional game played with shells and cowries), ludo, snakes and ladders, etc. If I ever got bored playing the same games, she would quickly improvise games on the floor with some pieces of chalk, some string, and other odds and ends that would magically appear from her cupboard. The games were never just games—they were also stories, anecdotes, strategies, wins and losses, all delivered while playing.

Paati died when I was 8, and after her death, playing board games was never the same again—none of my family members or friends could match her enthusiasm and delight for the games. Besides, with school and other growing up activities, playing board games took a back seat.

I resumed my love affair with board games some years back after a chance visit to The Design Store in Bangalore. Tucked away amongst all their furniture and furnishings and knickknacks, was a shelf displaying traditional games from Kreeda. One of the games was Parama Pada Sopanam. Intrigued by the name, I opened the display pack.

Top: The "boxed" game. Bottom: The box opens to reveal a little cloth pouch containing little wooden counters, two elongated metal dies, and an information booklet (not in picture)

The contents of the box were no less intriguing. There was a rolled up cloth which opened into the board game, the Parama Pada Sopanam; a maroon pouch, which revealed 4 brightly coloured, wooden counters; and two long metal dies or the dhayakattai with notches to indicate the number. There was also a pamphlet accompanying the whole package. According to the pamphlet, Parama Pada Sopanam means “Steps [Sopanam] to the Highest Place [Parama Pada]“. The traditional version of the popular and contemporary game Snakes and Ladders, Parama Pada Sopanam is believed to be symbolic of our attempt to reach God with the ladders representing the virtues, and the snakes representing the vices.

With such an interesting introduction to the game, I needed no further encouragement to buy one for myself.

The cloth "board" game

It was a buy that my Paati would have thoroughly approved of and had she been alive would probably have bought one set for me and one for herself as well ! I played my first game of Parama Pada Sopanam with the niece (who was about 8 or 9 at that time).

Karkodaga, representing jealousy, is the longest/largest snake in the game

The cloth game board is large and divided into 132 squares. Each snake or vice has been named after a demon or rakshasa from Hindu mythology. The snakes (vices) are—Ravana (lust), Hiranyaksha (power), Narakasura (cruelness), Bakasura (greed), Duryodhana (ambition), Kumbhakarna(laziness), Karkodaga (jealousy), Sishupala (over-confidence), Dhakshaka (anger), Mahabali (pride), Surapadman (vengefulness), Hiranyakashipu (arrogance), and Mahisasura (wickedness). Strictly speaking, Duryodhana and Sishupala are not demons, but their vices have earned them the dubious distinction of being one, at least for this game. I was quite surprised to find that Ravana, arguably the best known “villain” from Hindu mythology, was just a teeny-weeny snake here in the game—in fact, he is the smallest snake. And Karkodaga, who ranks pretty low down on my “demon-meter” was the largest/longest snake here.

The Dhayakatti. The notches indicate the number.

Unlike the snakes, the ladders do not have names. Instead, they have attributes representing honesty, concentration, hard work, courtesy, helpfulness, determination, dedication, compassion, wisdom and contentment. Wisdom and determination are the longest ladders.

The dies or the dhayakattai are fascinating. About 2 inches long and made of metal, they make a lovely tinkling sound when rolled and thrown to play a move. One side of each die is blank and represents “0″, but put together they have a value of “12″. The game can only be started when a player throws the die with a value of “1″. The game ends when the a player reaches the 132nd square first.

The sheer sensory experience of the game made it a big hit with both of the niece and me. For the niece, there was the added bonus of getting to hear the stories about the “characters” in Parama Pada Sopanam, which is believed to have originated in India.

Traditionally, Parama Pada Sopanam is played on the night of Vaikuntha Ekadashi (the 11th day after the new moon in the Tamil month of Margazhi). Many Hindus believe that the door to Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Vishnu, will be wide open to welcome the devout and the faithful. Hindus also believe that dying on Vaikuntha Ekadashi will take them directly to the abode of Vishnu, liberating them from the cycle of rebirth. On this day, the devout stay up all night fasting and praying and playing the game helps them pass the time till dawn, when the fast is broken.

You don’t have to pray and fast and stay awake all night to play Parama Pada Sopanam. You just have to believe in the joy of playing the game. As far as I am aware, Kreeda is the only organisation which makes this game (and many more traditional Indian games) and retails it through various shops all over the country (details on where these can be obtained are given here).

It is Vaikuntha Ekadashi the day after tomorrow. Will you be climbing up the 132 steps to Vaikuntha? :-)

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8 thoughts on “132 steps to Vaikuntha

  1. Sudha: one of your finest pieces….and how every intriguing this game of 132 steps…..I shall sincerely try and source it for Ashi. Thanks so much for this wealth of info on our culture that you keep sharing with us.

    • Thank you so much, Jayanti. I enjoyed writing this post. You must buy this game—its rules are very unlike that of Snakes and Ladders. The game just goes on and on. I once played it with the niece and my father for over 4 hours !

  2. Splendid description and enough of detail to chew upon. Add to it, your perfect explanation, neither rambling nor tedious, makes this such a delight. I feel like getting this game right away and playing it with the kids.
    Thank you, Sudha, for rekindling some fond memories..of long summer afternoons with cousins in faraway Akola..
    Loved the post…

  3. Oh I remember this game and we had it in the family — don’t know which of my cousins does or wonder if it has been thrown away :( Loved the way you have described the whole thing, something one would just take for granted as a game. Snakes and ladders are no match to this wonderful game which teaches one the good and bad values in life.

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