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Aadu Puli Aatam: The 'tiger and goat' game in Tamil Nadu's temples

India has a rich culture of traditional games which are forgotten today and run the risk of disappearing into oblivion.

Aadu Puli Aatam: The tiger and goat game in Tamil Nadus temples

'Aadu Puli Aatam' (The Tiger and Goat Game) was also a 1977 film drawing parallels with the ancient Indian game, usually found in temples. 


The Bridge Desk

Updated: 26 July 2022 6:51 AM GMT

When you next visit a temple or monument, particularly in South India, if you can drag your eyes away from the breath-taking workmanship and draw your attention to the floor, you could find something interesting. The floor holds traces of games people have played for decades and even centuries.

Were these games perhaps etched by workmen who were building the temple? Was it their pastime during the afternoon siesta as the sun blazed down? Did the board provide hours of fun in the evenings when the light was too dim to work? No one knows, but it is wonderful to realize that these games that we play today are a legacy of our ancestors.

There is hardly a temple or monument, particularly in Tamil Nadu, where you will walk away without spotting a curious and distinctive triangular shaped board on the floor. This board was used for the game of Aadu Puli Aatam or the tiger and goat game. While there are numerous games to be found, this is by far the most prevalent in the state.

The game of Aadu Puli Aatam is played in numerous variations across India and parts of Southeast Asia.

From a simpler game of one tiger and three goats to more complex ones played with varying numbers of goats and tigers, the game has been a source of fun and interaction for years. Perhaps the most popular and widespread of the versions is the one found across South India, played using three tigers and 15 goats.

The game of Aadu Puli Aatam (Kreeda)

However, no matter what the variations, the essence of the game stays the same. These games and its variations are classified as 'hunt games. In such games, one player's pieces are 'hunting' those of the other. The first player tries to capture and kill the second player's pieces, while the second player tries to avoid getting captured by surrounding or blocking the hunter.

What makes these games distinctive is the unequal size of the opposing forces. The hunter usually has fewer game pieces, while the second player or the hunted has a larger number of game pieces.

How Do You Play?

This is a game played by two people or two teams. One player is the goat (defender) and the other, the tiger (challenger). In the most popular version of the game, the challenger has three tigers, while the defender has 15 goats. The challenger has to kill five goats, while the defender tries to surround the three tigers in such a way that the challenger cannot make a move.

The game begins with the two players taking turns to place their game pieces on the board. After three turns, when all the pieces representing the tiger have been placed on the board, the tiger is free to move. The player representing the goat must wait till all 15 game pieces representing goats have been placed on the board.

The movement of the pieces should be along the lines and one place at a time. Cutting or killing a goat can be done by jumping over it to land on an empty space behind. As the tiger can move first, it is imperative for the player representing the goats to place the game pieces with care. The game involves concentration, skill and strategic thinking.

An etching of the game at the Yeri Katha Ramar temple in Chennai (Kreeda)

Multiple jumps are not allowed, nor is it permitted to jump over two game pieces at a time.

As the tiger can move first, it is imperative for the player representing the goats to place the game pieces with care. The game involves concentration, skill and strategic thinking.

The key aspect that distinguishes hunt games from others is that they are asymmetrical. The two sides neither have the same number of game pieces and moves, nor the same aims. And yet, they are equally balanced.

In this game, one player has three tigers and the other 15 goats. The aim of the tiger is to kill the goats and the aim of the goats to surround the tigers so they cannot move. The tigers kill by jumping over a goat, while a goat cannot jump at all. So, what we have is different aims, different number of game pieces and different types of moves.

A peasant game which offers lessons in life

The game of chess is a game of kings and zamindars. This was almost a training for battle and strategic thinking. Numerous chess boards made in marble, jade and even silver, speak of this royal legacy. Essentially, this reflects the priority for a ruler or leader: the common good.

On the other hand, Aadu Puli Aatam is a peasant game. It was drawn on the ground with a stick or on the floor of a home with a piece of chalk. Seeds, stones or even broken twigs were used as game pieces. Unlike chess, where you can sacrifice a piece to attain a stronger position, you can never do that in Aadu Puli Aatam. The minute you sacrifice a piece, you weaken yourself. That is the essence of the game. This game is for the community and the importance of each and every goat reflects the needs of every individual within the community.

In this community-led model, we find another brilliant lesson-the seemingly weaker goats can become stronger and seem invincible even when confronted with the menace and strength of a tiger. And this becomes possible when the goat plays the perfect strategic game and surround the tiger, thus overcoming the opposition and emerging victorious.

This article contains excerpts from 'Just Play! Life Lessons from Traditional Indian Games' by Vinita Sidhartha published by Rupa Publications. The book talks about many other traditional Indian games like Panch Kone to Solah Seedi, which are forgotten today and run the risk of disappearing into oblivion.

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