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.
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.
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).
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.
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? :-)