A game of dice - dayakattai

Excuse my attempts at Tamil here but i shall try to make it sound as authentic as Iyer athu tamil.

Strategy, fun and one of the few things that really brings an iyer house hold together is the amazing game of dice. Its one of the most entertaining games i have ever played, with as much noise thrown in as linguistical enhancements to one of the ancient dialects of tamil. Yes, its entertainment for the next two hours from when the family gathers to play this deadly game of strategy, slaughter, war and victory.

Post brunch, after a filling 'sapadu'(meal) at 10.30 am, the family gathers together, mainly the men folk, the kids stricktly above the age of 4 (i guess) and of course our very famous pati(post madi business and puja) while thatha, the man of the house continues to snore in his easy chair hoping for silence. Yeah, so much for a peace in the house. haha

The number of people in the game mounts up to a good number like 12 odd people and trust me there is room for all as long as we end up in an even figure. To get this count right few strong attempts are made on the daughter in laws of the house to please join in to at least roll the brass sticks if not think strategy.

There is someone assigned to every position, two adults to think of strategy with pati in the lead, one uncle to play shakuni and invariably get those unattainable daayams (number one on the brass sticks) no matter how much you bid against it. The kids of course, being all equal get to roll the dice and hope to meet the expectations of all the adults around them. There are other beliefs too that surround this traditional game. Its normally played by the women of the house hold after the father-in-law has left and interestingly wiped off before he returns. Interestingly, the women folk take to this game more often where they send all the kids to schools, hubbys to work and sit back and play after all the house hold activities are over. My house, was a slightly diluted affair to the orthodox brahmin culture. The main players were MEN.

Daayam, or the count of 'one' on the ancient brass sticks, is your ticket to enter the game. This of course is hard to get. Its a mind set that takes a toll if the game has already begun and you still have not put your daayam, to open your innings and hence participate. It can be highly frustrating for you might just never get it till about half the game is over, your team has quite learnt to live without you but you are the irritant the other team is cashing on keeping their coins bravely on the "ambalam" or passage since they are so sure you will not be able to kill them.

The concepts pretty simple. Both teams have 6 coins each - traditionally represented by almonds, kishmish, "paaku", ground nut or the like. We move to stones, buttons, and plastic "ludo" coins when we cant lay hands on the appropriate "kaay". Kaay as they are typically called since they are the raw fruit yet to ripen which will happen only when the coin exits the board after covering the long journey back home through the "kattam" - the board.

Lots could happen along the way home, for one, your kaay can simply get killed when the opponent numbering 6 people by now, aggressively looking down into the game making calculations in not just the massacre of your single "kaay", but killing a few other less fortunate "kaays" that found themselves on the "ambalam" in the course of the game. That apart the calculations end in protecting their own kaays when they safely move them to a "malai" or home along the way. Interestingly when the opponent occupies a malai, there is no room for your coin, in short its called "malai manga".

By now the perssure is mounting furiously, while the opponent gets excess points or"pandyam" by putting - eer aaru, muu anji, iru panandu, iru daayam, naalu - translates to two sixes, three fives, two twelves, two ones and one four. Now this is a phenomenal "pandyam" where you can move any kaay anywhere, and kill any one you wish and still move your kaay to a home on the way if you got lucky. Pati is behind you with strategy that never met your eyes and when you see at least three of the opponents "kaays" go back in, to start the round again, well its a loud uproar piercing the air drowning thatha's snore into the din.

But well now, they will come back, the horror of massacre hits first, then the anger, the then aggression and the opponent comes back double, killing with a bigger blow, shooting as many kaays of your way back home as they possibly can. By now, even the most bored daughter in law sits up to view the game, the kattam, half wiped out by the deft hands that just flew across moving the coins so swift, that you dont even know what just went by. Every thing settles, the game goes on, one verses one coin - now in the ripe stage of "pazham". Killing a pazham is another thrill altogether.

The pain that the opponent need to go through to take the kaay across the kattam to bring it home without having it killed and elevating it to a pazham is a joy for anybody but him. Once the pazham has reached the ripe stage and has come home, there is the last lap.

Its a murderous position called "dokkai" where its the last step to "ripe fruit", and yet it can be killed. This hurts, being killed at this stage really hurts, and its over whelming joy for the opponent who by now are raising themselves very sure that its the end of the game. getting that single daayam, can take a minute or a century, but every one, just everyone waits for it. Its the defining moment or victory or failure, the anticipation is so high that tiffin and caapi can seriously wait.

finally the last roll of the dice, and "dddddddaaaaaaaaaaaayyyaaaaaaaaaaammmm". Six guys jump up, cant belive their eyes, jump around in ecstasy while 6 others sit silent looking into each others faces. The winning team of course takes the final pazham and consume it literally - and what a fine fruit that was!!!

The joy of having that particular kishmish/ almond/groundnut is different. It tastes as good as any fruit of victory will. Nobody even considers that the kishmish has been rolling along the floor for the last one hour, No, its the most delicious fruit one could have. This is crowned with the victory dance, the grand finale - i think its only at my house - where the team gathers, old and young, tall and short, male and female, hopping on the floor holding each others shoulders!!! And what a dance that was! you dont need to be intoxicated for this, just the trill of winning dayakattai is more than enough to send you on the high!

Great ancient game. Truely worth while.


JC Joshi said...

I visited Chennai, when it was called Madras, during an ‘educational’ tour of South India in the year ’60. My younger sister’s family of four members left Delhi in the early Seventies and stayed at Chennai for over three decades. The family thus became fully conversant with the language and customs etc.

I revisited Chennai only in the year ’93, in connection with settlement of my daughter’s marriage, and once again in ’95, to attend my niece's marriage to an Iyer boy - the particular young couple is now in the USA for the lst 8-9 years.

Her elder brother worked in a bank’s Adyar branch for a few years before he left Chennai, for Mumbai, Delhi, Chandigarh, and now Mauritius, with his Parsi wife.

The family was quite happily settled there in a rented house near Ayyappa temple, where I too passed a few days to be woken up by the beating of the temple drums.

The parents, after their retirement, have since returned to stay close to Delhi, in Noida, to be near their relatives in their old age, although they would have loved to stay at Chennai itself.

As if a part of the ‘National Integration Programme’, my eldest daughter married a Malyalee boy born and brought up in Madras, about twelve years ago. Her in-laws continue to stay at Chennai, after retirement from Coimbatore. And whenever my daughter, along with the grand daughter, visited India she was sure to visit Madras, from Korea earlier, and also now expectd shortly from Toronto, Canada where they are staying for the last three years.

With the above background, I have cited perhaps some continued age old relationship of our family with the Southern region of the country. Thus I thank God for giving me an opportunity, particularly that of tasting a grand variety of food preparations/ snacks, besides an opportunity to see divergent views of our world, first hand, through many eyes, without having to go to ‘foreign’ places in the West myself. TV has of course helped in taking to the various parts of the world...

The game and the happiness derived from it helped me to recall similar games that we too participated in and enjoyed in our childhood, sans any care, and how similarly perhaps God might also be enjoying the game He plays with us humans!

Anonymous said...

Neat Article Kavi keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Brings back memories of sweet victories and bitter defeats. many a poetry have come out of this game, one I remember is:
"anjee moone yette, [opponent's name] thale le kuttu"
translates to 5+3 is eight, a knock on the opponent's head.
[Usually said when you roll a 5 and a 3 and it gets the opponent's kaay killed!].
And with Bollywood becoming so part of our lives, one of the victory songs we adopted is "Maar dala"[Devdas].
Great article!!

JC Joshi said...

Hi again!
I would like to give a part of the communication I recently had with a young girl in Alaska, studying while she works, to show the typical 'thought plane' of a woman in the West... We had many regular conversations/ e-mails on the Net regarding India and Spirituality some four years ago... The word, USA however has a different communication for us Indians...

"Yes, I do still have access to this old email. They won't take it away
from me until I graduate, and that will not be for two years more, I
think. I am tired of going to school, however. I am not tired of
learning, I am just bored of sitting still all day and listening to
instructors. I can't wait to be completely on my own in the world, to
learn as I choose.


JC Joshi said...

While tendering my apologies to Ms Mala (?), I would like to present the following.

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet."

--From Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Also, there is an expression, “Old wine in new bottle,” that perhaps could be said to aptly fit the description of human beings, with the ancient ‘Hindu’ belief in mind that each human body houses a soul or a spirit, or ‘the light within’.

There is a saying in Hindi too, which literally translates as, “One who is devoid of sight is named Nainsukh!” (Nainsukh = the one who enjoys sound faculty of vision!)

Thus whatever name is given to a child, after its birth, is like the label pasted on a bottle, or in fact its a pseudonym, and it might not help in determining the maturity of the ‘spirit’ within. However, the ancient ‘Hindus’ appear to have gone deeper into the phenomenon and suggested names according to ‘Rashis’, based on the 'lunar calendar' (that is based on the ‘mysterious’ moon’s cycle) that purportedly helped the Pundits to predict generally the likely behaviour of the individuals pertaining to a particular Rashi, out of the specified 12 in number.

In view of the above, the ‘wise’ ancients advised acquisition of in-depth knowledge (for which one life time - or a ‘life sentence’ on the earth considered as a ‘prison’, from which one’s spirit naturally seeks escape - was reportedly insufficient, and therefore ‘surrender in the Creator’ was reportedly the best policy!

Obviously, ‘non availability of time’ (naturally) precludes the ‘modern’ man to go into the depth of such a trivial matter, when one has got many other pressing matters on hand, such as, naming of a street or an airport after the name of some historical local hero in place of a foreign ruler's representive, and so on!

kavitha said...

hi mr.joshi,

mala is my sister, just to let you know.


JC Joshi said...

(Received on the internet) For enjoyment of two sisters, one a student of Art History and another an 'expert' in various (south) indian languages,
the following are actual answers given on history tests and in Sunday
school quizzes by children between fifth and 6th grade ages. They were
collected over a period of three years by two teachers. Read carefully for
grammar, misplaced modifiers, enough misinformation to satisfy anyone and,
of course, spelling!
"Ancient Egypt was old. It was inhabited by gypsies and mummies who all
wrote in hydraulics. They lived in the Sarah Dessert. The climate of the
Sarah is such that all the inhabitants have to live elsewhere.

Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea where they made unleavened
bread, which is bread made without any ingredients. Moses went up on Mount
Cyanide to get the ten commandos. He died before he ever reached Canada
but the commandos made it.

Solomon had three hundred wives and seven hundred porcupines. He was
actual hysterical figure as well as being in the bible.

The Greeks were a highly sculptured people, and without them we wouldn't
have history. The Greeks also had myths. A myth is a young female moth.

Socrates was a famous old Greek teacher who went around giving people
advice. They killed him. He later died from an overdose of wedlock which
is apparently poisonous. After his death, his career suffered a dramatic

In the first Olympic games, Greeks ran races, jumped, hurled biscuits, and
threw the java.

Julius Caesar extinguished himself on the battlefields of Gaul. The Ides
of March murdered him because they thought he was going to be made king.
Dying, he gasped out: "Same to you, Brutus."

Joan of Arc was burnt to a steak and was canonized by Bernard Shaw for
reasons I don't really understand. The English and French still have

Queen Elizabeth was the "Virgin Queen," As a queen she was a success. When
she exposed herself before her troops they all shouted "hurrah!" and that
was the end of the fighting for a long while.

It was an age of great inventions and discoveries. Gutenberg invented
removable type and the Bible. Another important invention was the
circulation of blood.

Sir Walter Raleigh is a historical figure because he invented cigarettes
and started smoking.

Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100 foot clipper which was
very dangerous to all his men.

The greatest writer of the Renaissance was William Shakespeare. He was
born in the year 1564, supposedly on his birthday. He never made much money and
is famous only because of his plays. He wrote tragedies, comedies, and
hysterectomies, all in Islamic pentameter.

Romeo and Juliet are an example of a heroic couple. They lived in Italy.
Romeo's last wish was to be laid by Juliet but her father was having none
of that that I'm sure. You know how Italian fathers are.

Writing at the same time as Shakespeare was Miguel Cervantes. He wrote
Donkey Hote. The next great author was John Milton. Milton wrote Paradise
Lost. Since then no one ever found it.

Delegates from the original 13 states formed the Contented Congress.
Thomas Jefferson, a Virgin, and Benjamin Franklin were two singers of the
Declaration of Independence. Franklin discovered electricity by rubbing
two cats backward and also declared, "A horse divided against itself cannot
stand." Franklin died in 1790 and is still dead.

Abraham Lincoln became America's greatest Precedent. Lincoln's mother died
in infancy, and he was born in a log cabin which he built with his own
hands. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves by signing the Emasculation
On the night of April 14, 1865, Lincoln went to the theater and got shot
in his seat by one of the actors in a moving picture show. They believe the
assinator was John Wilkes Booth, a supposing insane actor. This ruined
Booth's career.

Johan Bach wrote a great many musical compositions and had a large number
of children. In between he practiced on an old spinster which he kept up
in his attic. Bach died from 1750 to the present. Bach was the most famous
composer in the world and so was Handle. Handle was half German, half
Italian, and half English. He was very large.

Beethoven wrote music even though he was deaf. He was so deaf that he
wrote loud music and became the father of rock and roll. He took long walks in
the forest even when everyone was calling for him. Beethoven expired in
1827 and later died for this.

The nineteenth century was a time of a great many thoughts and inventions.
People stopped reproducing by hand and started reproducing by machine. The
invention of the steamboat caused a network of rivers to spring up.

Louis Pasteur discovered a cure for rabbits but I don't know why.

Charles Darwin was a naturalist. He sort of said God's days were not just
24 hours but without watches who knew anyhow? I don't get it.

Madman Curie discovered radio. She was the first woman to do what she did.
Other women have become scientists since her but they didn't get to find
radios because they were already taken.

Karl Marx was one of the Marx Brothers. The other three were in the
movies. Karl made speeches and started revolutions. Someone in the family had to
have a job, I guess."

PS. I love to communicate with 'Nature', and find children/ inferior life forms/ non living objects, and so on as the best media to reach God!

Revathi said...

can u add this to wiki. there is already one for pallangkuzhi!!

Ramya said...

Every thing is okay. But can anybody confirm is this the same dayakottai, the pandavas played in Mahabharata. Or was that some other game.
Please confirm on urgent basis as pralayam is on the way.

Srividhya said...


It was so nostalgic to read ur post. I have spent many a happy summer during my childhood, playing this game for long long hours. It was such a lovely time pass. I wish I could lay my hands upon a daayakattai now.. :( Just the feel of holding the brass and rolling it.. sigh.. nothing to beat it.

Srividhya said...


It was so nostalgic to read ur post. I have spent many a happy summer during my childhood, playing this game for long long hours. It was such a lovely time pass. I wish I could lay my hands upon a daayakattai now.. :( Just the feel of holding the brass and rolling it.. sigh.. nothing to beat it.

Ninetanks said...

Hey!! Wonderful article. Really loooved reading it. I used to play this with cousins when we were kids and used to visit our Patti's house in Chennai ( though we played by a slightly different set of rules!!). But was recently very nostalgic and got a set of 'Adult Size' daaya kattai made in SS ( the advantage of working in a mech engg field I guess). The few times i've played with them was really really fun!! Am hoping to get my children to indulge as well once they're old enough. Thanks for a really nostalgic trip down memory lane. :)


Ninetanks said...

Looved the article. :)

Anonymous said...

Where can we buy the board online?. Is there a video on how to play, any tutorial? Any picture of board? The info on web is very minimal