A Game of Chess

and the Ambalapuzha Paal payasam..

We have so many legends about the gods and their interesting ways of reminding people about their existence, to the common man. One such interesting tale is this legend from Ambalapuzha. I was reminded of this as I was reading a recent issue of the Guruvayoor Bhaktapriya magazine and saw the old story recounted once again, by my very own school teacher, Dr C K Chandrashekaran Nair. Of course he is a great writer and I cannot retell the story in English in the same lucid fashion, but I will try. I did call him after so many decades and had a quick chat about the times and the travails of life and was glad to see that he was still active in the teaching profession. I later recalled many a day and his class, as well his book Cheenavala (Chinese nets).

For this story we go to a place called Ambalapuzha (loosely translated as ‘the river by the temple’ or vice versa). I have been there and I have had the famous sweet prasadam or food offering distributed to the devotees after the afternoon Pooja ceremonies. I have wondered many a time why food is so paramount in all such matters, and as I traveled round the world, I concluded that an offer of free food always brings people flocking! It is valid for any desi event, if food is not included, the attendance reduces. It is pretty much the same with respect to temples, I suppose. But let me not digress, many a great temple serves the best payasam, like the Edicha Payasam at Guruvayoor, the Aravana Payasam at Sabarimala, the Nei payasam at Chottanikkara and so on…

Ambalapuzha is a place not far from Aleppey or Alapuzha and was in the old times, ruled by the Devanarayanan Namboothiris, when the area was termed Chembakassery. Many a story about the Thamburans of this family has been retold by Kottarathil Sankunni in his Aithihyamaala, but this is not among them. Many of Ambalapuzha stories involve the interesting and harmonious relations between the various castes and religions, the institution of a church and so on. With many backwaters in the region, boats were a principal mode of travel and boat races were also common. During the time when the Portuguese were in power in South Malabar, the rajas had a good relationship with them too. The king had large tracts of rice cultivating land, where paddy was produced (this was termed kandukrishi) and such land was also subleased under tenancy rights with 50% deposited at the Ambalapuzha granaries. Art was promoted and as we discussed before, Kathakali, Ottam thullal etc were such forms that flourished. And as time went, they had many an issue with the Travancore kings who rose to the fore and eventually became annexed to their Southerly domains.

The temple of course was a wealthy and important one and allied with the grand temple at Guruvayoor, even being known as the Guruvayoor of South Kerala. The offering and prasadam from this temple, the Paal payasam, slightly pinkish in color due to the matta rice, is unparalleled in taste. And well, this story is about the origins of that payasam. So with due thanks to Dr CKC Nair, my teacher, let me start.

We go to a time simply defined as ‘Long long ago’, a time when the Chembakassery Rajas were doing very well. It was not a period when books were written and devoured, so rich people settled to listening and watching orally narrated stories or dance drama forms. Namboothiri’s were also fond of and adept at playing Chaturanga or a form of the modern chess. One such Devanarayana of Chembakassery was really good at it and considered himself a master of the game. As a wealthy king and the lord of Kerala’s rice cultivation areas of Kuttanad, he carried a certain arrogance as well. If we wished, he could trouble kings by cutting of the rice supply to their armies. The only challenge came from Palghat, a little up North, but they were connected to the coast only through the gap in the ghats and movement of goods was not too easy. Anyway let’s leave all that and get back to chess.

If anybody knew how to play Chess really well, he would be favored by the king who would then spend all his vigor at defeating this new player. It could be just anybody, so long as they knew how to play and so there was a steady procession of players, old and young, from near and afar. Even a defeated player was rewarded by the king for his efforts and it was a virtual impossibility for somebody to draw or defeat this king. Alas! Viswanathan Anand was not born then, but then again, the next player who came was one such. It is time to meet him.

It was a sultry day, as days in Ambalapuzha can be in the summer. The water in the fields, the water in the backwaters, and the water in copious quantities in the air, made it a very humid day indeed. The rich were seen fanning themselves with the palm leaf contraption. The richer people were being fanned by their orderlies and farming out mouthful of abuse about the mosquitoes and the other insects happily flying around and feasting. Others were intent at masticating betel leaves with Cunnam and areca nut after their heavy lunch and steadily sending out streams of red spit to the cow dung coated ground across the porch with deadly accuracy or with a loud splat into the brass spittoon beside them.

The Chembakassery raja was impatient, he had finished his lunch, he had finished all the unpleasant business of discussing with people governing his lands, in the morning session. His ministers and brothers had been ordered to take care of important issues. So the day was over and now it was time, his time, to be spent in more relaxing activities. But his mind was tense, like a coiled up spring. It needed more exercise to relax, and to relax his mind, nothing better than a game of chess with a good adversary. He could call up his commerce minister, but a few quick counter plays and some masterly moves later, his adversary would be check mated leaving the king insatiated and weary.

Is there nobody in this land who could beat him? Was the level of intellect so low? The king despaired as he continued to chew a new wad of betel leaves, pausing for a moment to admire and enjoy the taste of the tender leaves. These were from the vines snaking up the coconut tree across the courtyard, and had been planted there by his youngest wife. As a Namboothiri only the eldest could marry and he was the eldest of his family, and well, the eldest could have many a wife. This wife was a lovable girl and one who liked nature. Soon the courtyard was full of flowering plants and shrubs. Ah! What a pleasure it was to chew a bunch of tender betel leaves with the right amount of lime (chunnam) and the areca nut brought over from North Malabar. His thoughts strayed to the Guruvayoor temple and its overlord the Zamorin of Calicut and wondered about the revenues and relationship between the Zamorin and Guruvayoor, comparing it with his own Sree Krishna temple at Ambalapuzha. His temple was built better but could it very be Guruvayoor? Perhaps so, some day, perhaps not! Devanarayanan sighed.

The humid afternoon soon lulled him into an uneasy slumber, and it was noise of conversation from the far away main gate that woke him up with a start. He looked up to see a young man clad in Nair attire being escorted into the courtyard. With sleepy eyes, he took in the stranger. The handsome lad wore a dhoti, but tied up tightly between the legs to enable quick movement as for travel and a fight and had his hair tied up on top of his head. It looked like he was from the North….. Malabar perhaps, Devanarayanan wondered. In his hand the man carried a broadsword and on his shoulder was a six footer bow and a quiver carrying some arrows on his back.

The King asked him what he wanted in the Kovilakom or the palace, expecting to hear a request for employment. But the youth replied that he was on an ‘akambadi’ mission escorting a person of importance from the North to a nearby kingdom. He had finished his mission, delivering the person safely to his destination.

Now many a reader will wonder why people need escorts – well , in the medieval days, only Nairs were allowed to carry arms and they had the responsibility of maintaining law and order for the kings they worked for. A kings importance lay in how many Nair militia he commanded and such Nairs earned their keep either from the king in the days of war as a salary or from escort duties for traders, such as trade convoys from nearby Tamil Nadu or Northerly Coorg areas. Later when the foreigners came, they escorted them too, till they became foe. Nairs had the license to kill in those days and kill they did, robbers and others who chose to threaten their convoy. So our friend the Nair lad had just finished one such mission and had some free time before the arduous trek back north and had just dropped in to sort of, say, Hello.

Not exactly, what he said was that he had heard from some others that the King was a great chess player and as he himself enjoyed a game or two when he found time, dropped in to see if he could try his hand at it and perhaps earn a gold fanam (the currency of those days) or two..

The king was overjoyed, for at last there was somebody to play with, a stranger. If not anything, he would have his own strategy and moves. That he could beat him was sure, but how quickly could he outsmart him? What moves would the stranger use? How would he counter them? A tingling surge passed through him, and his mind perked up in heightened anticipation. He ordered for the playing kit to be readied in the special room. Like a small arena, it had a table in the center with two chairs; the marble table had the playing board, inlaid in it. Behind the players were a few rows for spectators and before long they were filled with family and officers of the palace. The walls being made of teak wood and a small cross draft between the doors kept the room cool though not entirely unpleasant. The lighting was dim, with the oil lamps burning in the corners.

What could happen?

Will the king win in 4 moves as he had done playing the famous Varikkasseri Namboothiri two years back?

Or would he do even better?

Is that possible?

Does this Nair boy really know how to play? He must, otherwise he would not have taken the pains to come.

One person squeaked – Will he prove to be the first person to beat the king? Others admonished him – don’t be silly – Such a thing is not possible, you know that. The speaker agreed saying it was just a wanton thought.

The Nair boy lay down his arms, neatly by his side, but in easy reach. The sword first, the bow next, finally the arrows. He kneeled down raised his hands in obeisance to some unknown almighty and then sat on the chair. With a small smile he cast his eyes on the table, taking the scene in, and then looked around with the same bemused smile, nodding at the onlookers. He could not but help seeing the smart young girl in one corner, which was the favorite wife of the king. Usually women are not allowed to partake in such events, but Tatri (for Savitri), that was her name, was one who was outspoken and one who always had her way.

Tatri was perturbed as she caught his gaze. The eyes were different from those she saw every day. They were the wisest she had ever seen, the calmest. It was like ones who oversaw the world, those one saw in the heads of the oldest and most learned sanyasis. They were not the reddish, darting eyes of a fighter or a traveler. The skin of the person was what she noticed next, it was not the leathery skin one saw on a weather-beaten Nair fighter, even if anointed by rejuvenating oils. Who was this? She let her troubling thoughts die, after all there were many bodyguards for her husband here, so there was nothing to worry.

Devanarayanan Namboothiri walked in, a young but heavyset man, with a little paunch from all the good life. His skin glistened, for he had a good massage and oil bath every day. His eyes were bright in anticipation now and his mind reaching out to conquer. He sat down and hunched over the table, moving forwards. The Nair lad did the same. As the players sat down, and as was the norm laid by the king, the room quickly shushed and hushed into pin drop silence. The 64 squares beckoned. Another game was about to begin.

There are some who are interested in details. Were they playing chess as the game we know today? Not really, but pretty close. The game of Chaturangam was played and patronized mainly by Namboothiris in Kerala. With their intellectual acumen, they mastered the game. In fact many temples had areas with 64 squares marked out where the game was played and many Namboothiri Illams had specific rooms to play exhibition matches. Chaturanga means having four limbs or parts and was used to describe Indian armies from the Vedic times, where a platoon had four parts comprising the elephants, chariots, cavalry and infantry. Like in Chess, the pieces were called raja(king), mantri, gaja, ashva, ratha(rook) and pedathi (pawn) etc. One difference was that the King was allowed one knight move and another was that castling was not allowed. Counselors could move only one square diagonally and the elephant two squares diagonally. The elephant could jump the intervening square. Pawns could not start with a double step.

Going back to its origins – As yet another legend running in parallel to this goes, ancient India had a
lot of gambling issues, with people gambling over games of dice, and we know for example the story of the Pandavas and how they ruined their life gambling over games of dice. It was already an addition and one sane king decided to rid his country of it. That was King Balahit. One day this exasperated King summoned Sissa, a Brahmin reputed for great analytical skills and requested him to create a game which would require pure mental skill. The intention was to create an equally addictive game which requires skill rather than luck. As the story goes, the King requested that this new game should also have the ability to enhance the mental qualities of prudence, foresight, valor, judgment, endurance, analytical and reasoning ability. And that was how Sissa invented this wonderful game called Chaturanga. It was played on an ancient board named "Vastu Pusrusha Mandala", which was the mythical board of 8x8 squares used by ancient architects to design the plan of the cities. The board symbolically representing the universe was redefined the by the Indian players under the secular name of "ashtapada".

The starting sloka was recited. The ivory boxes with vankaru and chenkaru pieces were brought in. For one fleeting movement the king did not fail to notice something untoward, that being the fact that this young lad was completely unnerved, in fact not even awed by the sight of such things as the ivory box and the splendidly carved pieces or the marble table. In fact he did not even touch or pick a piece and admire it as most people did in the past. It was like he played such games all the time, the scene had no effect on him, why? But such was the king’s confidence that the thought passed by as quickly as it came.

The armies were quickly assembled and lay in wait. Waiting for the orders from the two strategists hunched over the table, peering at them.

The king grandly asked the visitor to start. The Nair lad made his move. The king made the next and the game progressed not more than a few moves before the King realized that had lost the game. He was baffled. How could he have been so easily outwitted? His famous fort of defense was broken by a masterful move! The king’s face said it all. His countenance had dropped and beads of sweat sprang upon his brow. But he could not face his opponent as yet, for it was a shameful situation.

Tatri, watching the game was shocked at the abrupt conclusion and the masterly move by the Nair lad, it was a sheer stroke of genius, a move neither she nor any other in the room had ever seen before, and it had shattered the king’s defense. Still she just could not believe what was going on, and she looked at the lad, he had not changed his expression an ounce, it was still serene and soft, not a bit of joy over beating the best Chaturanaga player in the region. Why was that?

The Nair boy must have been lucky, perhaps a fluke. But the king thought again, you cannot play Chaturanga that way, was he prepared by somebody who knew the Kings favorite moves and ploys? The king decided to challenge the lad again. He asked if his opponent would mind playing another game.

Of course, sir, why not! As you wish! That was all the lad said and the game started again. That game lasted hardly a few moves before the king was defeated again. With that the lad said nothing, exulted not at all, but just got up, gathered his quiver first, slung it across his shoulder, then the six footer bow, but checking the string just once, carefully with his fingers before placing it over his left shoulder. Finally he bent down again to pick up the sword and leave, when the weary and vanquished king uttered his first words.

Why the hurry to leave, Son? Why don’t you rest for a while, be my guest in the palace today? You see, I have never lost to anybody in this game and this is the first time, so you have to accept a proper reward before going. You will agree that I am a wealthy king and so feel free to ask for any reward befitting your grand performance, and don’t worry at all about the size of the reward!

The lad replied that all he wanted to do was meet the king and if possible play a game with the master, and that it was not his intention to win anything or take away a reward.

The king would not accept that lame excuse, he insisted that the boy accept a big reward. As you can imagine a little bit of his prestige was at stake. The boy again refused, and this verbal wrangling went on for a few rounds. Finally the boy acquiesced and said “Since you insist - As you are the master of Kuttanad, I would like to request you for some paddy which I can carry for my return travel. That should not be a problem for you as well”.

Devanarayanan was taken aback, some paddy? How much? he asked.

The lad replied ‘well, all this is related to our game of chess and as you know, our Chaturanga board has 64 squares, so I need some paddy calculated using that as a basis, is that Ok?’

The king replied ‘right, so what is your calculation?’

The lad said – Let’s use the following progression - one grain of paddy for the first square, two for the second, four for the third, eight for the fourth i.e. double the number of grains of the number in the previous square. Just use this calculation for the next 58 squares and you will come up with the measure I need. That’s all.

The king was peeved, what a silly little demand from a king as powerful and rich as he? A few grains of paddy?? He asked ‘why such a simple demand, why don’t you ask for a few cart loads and be done with it instead? Are you making fun of me or my status?’ The king, was by now a little irritated.

Bowing low, the Nair lad remarked “no my lord, I have no intention of belittling you, if my demand is not to your liking, so be it, let’s forget it and I will be gone’.

Finally the king said – ‘as you wish’ and ordered his courtiers to bring a few bushels (Para is actually the measure in Kerala) of paddy. The lad, listening to the orders interjected “No my king, please do not do that, let’s first calculate and then get the paddy brought in, so that there is no confusion’.

Soon the palace grounds were filled up with curious onlookers and officers, all trying to figure out what was going on. The king ordered his ministers to make the necessary calculations in a manner satisfying the winner and send him off before the situation took another turn. And the ministers and those clever with calculations brought their tools and started to count.

The fifth square required 16, the sixth 32 grains, seventh 64, eighth needing 128 .

For the sake of convenience let us assume that one Nazhi (the smallest rice measure in Kerala) requires 128 grains. In reality it is more, but let’s go on….

So the ninth square requires 2 nazhi’s, the tenth 4 nazhi’s… and so on.

By the fortieth square the amount had exceeded what the king had in his granary.

The king was by now sweating heavily, and his ministers shaking with fear.

Tatri was perplexed. This was becoming unbelievable, who is this boy?

The measuring took a new turn, not measures of rice, but measures of land as it was reaching no end in terms of grains. Remember they did not have calculators then, nor paper to write out these voluminous figures. If they did they would have got the figure 18,445,744,073,709,551,515. This much of rice would have taken the whole world, hundreds of years, to produce!!

By the 60th square all tillable land of the kingdom had already been counted.

Darkness crept into the eyes of the King; he could not stand anymore, and sank into his chair, helped by his assistants. The lad was still standing, waiting only to take his sword as well as the promised reward and leave, with not an ounce of arrogance on his face, but just a serene smile.

Tatri knew who the lad was, in a flash. Realization dawned upon her..

The king in deep despair wailed ‘Krishna…my lord, help me’ and raised his eyes to look at the boy. It was then and only then that Devanarayanan realized who the lad was, it was none other than the Lord Krishna himself, in front of him, on this mission. He prostrated himself on his feet begging forgiveness for his arrogance.

Lord Krishna smiled and said. Don’t worry, take an amount of what is now ‘my land’, as my tenant. Be faithful, keep everybody happy and make sure that you give me Paal payasam (milk porridge) every day after lunch, without fail. Saying that the boy vanished…

And that readers, is one of the legends behind the daily offering of Paal payasam in Ambalapuzha. If you have not tasted it, do so, it will be a revelation, for such is the taste. At least it was, I know.


1. Interestingly there is one person from the Chembakassery family who won fame in chess - An example is Puthumana Narayanan Namboodiri of Ambalapuzha who won the Kerala State Junior Chess Championship in Thiruvananthapuram in 1973, gave up chess and settled in USA.

2. The same legend is attached to the man credited with inventing Chaturanga - Legend goes on to say that King Balahit asked Sissa what reward he expected in return for inventing this great game. Sissa replied he wanted one grain of wheat on 1st square, 2 grains on 2nd square, 4 grains on 3rd square and so on until the 64th square. Balahit laughed initially at the small amount but when he calculated it carefully, he realized it was 18,445,744,073,709,551,515 grains, an impossible demand to satisfy!! So that was how Sissa baffled the king and his court with an Astapada board, and without any pieces.

3. Alternative story for the palpayasam – Quoted from Hindubooks  Once, the Champakasseri Thampuran had borrowed some paddy from a Brahmin vassal from a place named Thalavady (Kuttanad). For some reasons, the Thampuran could not repay the same for a long time. One day when the ruler came to the temple for darshan the Brahmin accosted him and demanded his paddy immediately. The Thampuran asked his Minister to clear off the debt and left the place. The poor minister was in a quandary. There was no sufficient stock of paddy to clear the debt. Somehow he managed to collect the required quantity from nearby houses and measured out the paddy in the Anakottil on the East Side of the temple to the satisfaction of the Brahmin. But the minister asked the Brahmin to remove the entire paddy before the midday puja as otherwise it could cause inconvenience to the rituals to be conducted on the occasion. He also made it clear that if the Brahmin failed to remove the paddy within the stipulated time it would be confiscated by the temple. The poor Brahmin ran hither and thither but could not get a single porter to remove the paddy. The clever minister had seen to it that porters were not available. In the meantime the sanctum sanctorum was closed for the midday puja. The Brahmin stood perplexed and helpless. When the Srikoil was opened he wrote a will donating the entire paddy to the deity. He also stated that daily Palpayasam should be prepared and after offering it to the deity at' midday puja the same should -be distributed to the poor people. This is the famous Ambalapuzha Palpayasam, the taste of which is indeed unique.

4. The original Ashtapada board was used to play a different game. It became closer to chess only after the 5th Century AD. Those interested in the details of how these games are played may refer to the book Board and table games from many civilizations By R. C. Bell or Sports and games of medieval cultures By Sally E. D. Wilkins. This developed to the modern Chess via Shatranj. Ashtapada had dice or cowrie shells to decide the move counts, so involved a certain amount of luck. So perhaps the Sissa story was some imaginative thinking at best.

Chaturanga board pic by MonRoi Support
Temple pic – Indianetzone

Today is Vishu & Puthandu – so happy Vishu and Puthandu Vazhtukkal to all readers


harimohan said…
dear maddy
xlnt read
you weaved into a nice tale
i forwarded it to some of my friends too
Kadambari said…
Wishing you the same. :)
This should be a nice story to relate to the kids.
Maddy said…
thanks hari
glad you liked it
enjoy your days in Brunei
Maddy said…
thanks kadambari...
Children who have studied som progressions and a fair bit of math will enjoy it
Mooly said…
Thanks Maddy - an excellent telling. I found your post while reading for my computer science degree, where the legend was referenced to help understand exponential growth. I hope you don't mind me posting a link to this on my study blog? http://moolymoo.blogspot.co.uk/