This is a game that we Indians have romanced with for thousands of years. The best amongst us, including Lord Sri Krishna himself has indulged in it, and has warned of it’s dangers, as the battle of Mahabharata was fought over it. It became a taboo, a pass-time that we looked down upon, and later a game (pacheesi) that was indulged in on important social events like marriage, diwali and child birth celebrations.
However, at its core, the game has deep philosophical implications. Various religious traditions have borrowed and contributed to the essence of this game, though most people know only of Mahabharata.
Let us start by refreshing our memories on one such story of Nala-Damayanti in brief…
The most beautiful Damyanti hears of the handsome and virtuous Nala from a goose. They fall in-love (over goose-mail, the ancient gmail!) and decide to get married. Four Gods ask Nala to be their messenger to Damayanti, as they want Damayanti to select one of them for her husband. Nala accepts. The four Gods assume figures just like Nala himself and all stand in-front of Damayanti, asking her to choose. Damayanti, successfully identifies Nala, through his imperfections.
There are different versions as to why Nala & Damayanti have to undergo twelve years of hard-ship, but they are banished from their kingdom, by Nala’s brother Kuruva after loosing a game of Chaupar. Years later, Nala again plays with his brother Kuruva, after learning the supreme skill of controlling the dice from the King whom he served in disguise. This time Nala wins back his lost kingdom and they live as King and Queen for many years…
Nalacharitham Attakatha, written by Unnayivaryar, is the structured story of Nala and Damayanti, played in the more dramatic and action-filled style of Kathakali. The story is divided into four parts so as to be played in four days.
The Sufi stories, influenced by the story of Nala and Damayanti, tell of “aql”, “husn” and “junoon” being opponents in each of us, and our control over them being critical in successfully negotiating life.