Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Maharaja's Passion

Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar | Painted lithograph
Throughout history, there have been kings and queens who have had an odd yen for playing traditional board games. In the West it was gambling with dice or any game that involved a wager but in the East many of the games were enigmatic puzzles and it was in the realm of board games that one king in colonial India became famous as an inventor of board games.

Maharaja His Highness Sir Sri Krishnaraja Wadiyar Bahadur III, ruled Mysuru between 1799 and 1868 C.E.; during this period the kingdom of Mysuru became a rare hothouse of cultural renaissance. He played all popular board games, improved many of them and even invented new ones. He also chronicled board games and had his court scribes and artists prepare elegant manuscripts about them. His passion for the Knight's Magic Tour and its unique solution, has earned him fame.

Murals of portraits and puzzles, Ranga Mahal, Jaganmohana Palace, Mysuru
The king's love for liberal arts and his penchant for traditional board games was given a boost since the administrative control of his kingdom was in the hands of the British East India Company. The time-tested ploy of ruinous mismanagement, which the English Resident charged the king with, saw the reigns of the kingdom with the English and the king was put on pension. Mummadi, with enforced leisure on his hands, did not succumb, as so many other native princes, to carnal pleasures but sought inner peace in the mysterious world of traditional board games.

The Jaganmohana Palace, where the king used to retire, exists to this day as Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery. It is in the many storeys of this Palace that one looks on with awe as entire walls are covered with exquisitely painted murals of board games and puzzles, in the old-Mysuru-tradition of painted pavilions.
A page from the manuscript of Kautuka Nidhi (Sri Tattvanidhi) illustrating the board game of Navagraha Pagaday

The king was also a scholar par excellence, a dramatist of merit, a polyglot at ease with Kannada, Persian, Telugu, Marathi and Tamil, and above all he was a patron of arts. It was also said that the king was a satirist of no mean order and that he had a personal 'court jester' to entertain him and his courtiers. Diaries and official communiqu├ęs from the Resident's office to the Viceroy's Home Office speak of his demeanour as being 'courteous and soft-spoken,' 'erudite yet diffident', a 'knowledgeable conversationalist with a sense of humour' and as a man of fine taste.

The king commissioned scholarly works; he wrote literary masterpieces in elegantly ornate Kannada (State language), about seventy in number. The monumental Sri Tattvanidhi is said to have been compiled by him. This multi-volume compendium of iconographical incantations speaks of the enormous grasp the king had over the realm of 'agama' based ritual and spirituality. Among the many literary works, mention may be made of Chamundika-Nighantu, Saugandhika-Parinaya, Sri Nanjunda Sataka and Navagraha-puja-Manjari.

Yet in the midst of this intellectual endeavour, the king's passion for board games was unbounded as was his passion for horses. His Pachisi innovation with its spiritual implications is remarkable for its ingenuity. Eight of the 24 squares in each arm are inscribed with a pictorial image along with an inscription in Kannada. The inscription instructs the player on whether the counter can jump forwards or backwards along the track. This may appear to be similar to the game of Snakes & Ladders. But there is a surprise to this Pachisi game for there is a subtle Karmic philosophy that is embedded.

In a similar vein is the 12-armed Pachisi, called Navagraha Pagaday that resembles a lotus in bloom. It has 12 x 12 or 144 squares. The game's 12 arms or petals are clustered together around the 12 signs of the zodiac. There are other planetary symbols at the centre giving the game an astrological characteristic.

Mummadi playing Chess with Rama Vilasa Sannidhana | Mysore painting | K.S. Shreehari | 2007
The king's passion was not limited to thinking up enigmatic variations but long hours of play with a few choice confidantes. In a private temple dedicated to the god Venkataramana, on the street close to the Jaganmohana Palace, one can see to this day a relief sculpture of a local but well-known religious balladeer, one Subbaraya Dasa. It was with this Subbaraya Dasa that the king enjoyed many a game. The king would also sit down for a game with his favourite consort, the Maharani Rama Vilasa Sannidhana.

It is believed that there are at least six illustrated board game manuscripts that credit authorship to Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar. There is Chaturanga Sarasarvasva, the Sri Krishnaraja Chaturanga Sudhakara, the Sankhya Shastra, the Kempu Kitabu and two versions of the Chaturanga Chamatkrita Chakramanjari. Another classic, the Chaturanga Chakra is in the library of the Kuvempu Institute of Kannada Studies at the Manasagangotri campus of the University of Mysore.
Incomplete puzzle of knight's magic tour in the form of a Vyali, Mural at Jaganmohana Palace, Mysuru

Mummadi admired mathematical puzzles. They form a recurring theme in many of his works. For instance there is the knight's magic tour which is a classical maths puzzle that has intrigued board game theorists across the world. The aim of this chess-inspired conundrum is to use a single chess-counter, the knight, to 'tour' (more of a symbolic word) each square without 'revisiting' any square twice. But each square also contains a letter. By stopping sequentially on a selection of letters, the knight's magic tour puzzle now assumes the nature of an acrostic, a riddle in which the first, last or other letters can be 'arranged' to form a verse or a set of meaningful words.

The polychrome mural painting of the knight's magic tour can be seen in the top floor of the Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery in Mysuru. Along with these murals many objects exists in this gallery, like a set of brass plates which are inscribed with different grids and configurations for board games or knight's 'tour' diagrammatic drawings with numbers as well as annotations that explain rules in addition to further interpretative remarks. Why would the king go to such lengths if not for letting board game players and enthusiasts across the world into the secrets of anagrams, cryptograms and magic squares that he had devised?

Game of Panchi | Inscribed brass plate | Collection and courtesy: British Museum
It is believed that several sets of these brass plates were made and a complete set of 23 is in the collection of the British Museum in London. The entire collection of board games and other assorted gifts including a miniature version of the Mysuru royal throne in silver were sent by Mummadi to the ruling British sovereign along with a request to end the rule of the British Commissioners; these were usually sent at the opening session of the British Parliament.

Mummadi is also said to have improved the card game of Ganjifa (Chad). In the Kautuka Nidhi (9th book of Sri Tattvanidhi), he describes 13 new variations of Ganjifa card games. These require anywhere between 36 and 360 cards. For example, the 360 cards sets had 18 suits. Each suit having 18 cards was presided over by a particular god or goddess. There  were also a number of additional cards that did not belong to any particular suit. These cards had different role in the game .
A Ganjifa card from the Chamundeshwari Chad

Jeff Hopewell, an acknowledged authority on Ganjifa cards, has written scores of scholarly articles on them. He has organised exhibitions of Ganjifa in Belgium and England. In one of his articles he mentions the 'Chamundeshwari Chad' with 16 suits devised by Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar in which one is headed by Chamundi, the ruling deity of Mysuru. Hopewell describes the set thus: 'There are six court cards depicting the deity on an elephant, in a palanquin, on a chariot, on a horse, seated and standing by a fort with the regal standard fluttering in the wind.'

Yet another example of Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar's invention surfaced in 1982 when it went under the hammer at a London auction house. The auction house described it as a 'double-sided reversible folding game board in rosewood, inlaid with ivory.' It was the Karmic game of Shivasayujya Mukti Ata.

This game revolves around spiritual and philosophical thoughts and is meant for four players. Here, the final winning square is in the centre of the board depicted as the abode of Shiva who is shown in the form of 'Mukhalinga'. The four players have six pieces each whose starting squares are marked within the lotuses at the corners of the board. On the reverse of this game board is the Devisayujya Mukti Ata game dedicated to the goddess Chamundeshwari and even this game is based on the philosophy of Karma.

Mummadi has left an unusually detailed record of his devotion to board games. Sadly many of these records are available not in Mysuru or even in some of the great museums in India but are on display at well known museums in foreign countries. Several others are to be found in the catalogue of auctioneers like Sotheby's and Christie's and in private collections abroad.

The corpus of work on board games by Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar is mindboggling. Yet there is still a vacuum that needs to be filled. Many of his board games and puzzles are worthy of research by board game aficionados and scholars; this would add substantially to one's understanding of this enigmatic ruler. 


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