Many modern games, not just in India but throughout the world, may have originally been invented by the Harappan people.
By Archana Garodia Gupta and Shruti Garodia
(This is part of the series Make History Fun Again, where the writers introduce historical facts, events and personalities in a fun way for parents to start a conversation with their kids.)
As ancient humans started settling down permanently in one place, growing food and keeping tame animals, the first great civilisations came up starting around 3,300 BC, in the Middle East, Egypt, India and China.
The largest and most crowded of all of these was the Harappan civilisation, with a population of millions and spanning an area of one million square kilometers.
A sophisticated and wealthy society, these ancient Indians were very advanced for their time, with a writing system, planned, uniform cities (like today’s gated communities!), covered city-wide drainage, indoor plumbing and even trash chutes! Everyone wore jewellery and dressed up, and women wore makeup like lipstick and kajal. There was plenty of free time for entertainment and fun.
Though we are speaking of 5,000 years ago, our Harappan ancestors invented many things that we still use today, from jewellery to tools and implements, to games and toys. In fact, many modern games, not just in India but throughout the world, may have originally been invented by the Harappan people. So, the next time your child plays something mentioned below, imagine a little ancient Indian boy or girl doing the same thing!
Don’t these dice look like they could have been made just yesterday? The only difference between them and modern dice is that the ‘1’ is placed opposite ‘2’, ‘3’ opposite the ‘4’ and so on, while modern dice always sum up to 7 on opposite sides. These cubical dice marked with 1 to 6 dots have been found all over the Harappan civilisation. Interestingly, most of the dice found don’t show much wear and tear, so were probably thrown on soft surfaces like cloth. They were probably used for board games and also gambling!
The Harappans just loved their toys and games, which they often made from baked terracotta, as they were expert potters. Hundreds of baked terracotta toys and figurines have been found scattered across the civilisation.
They made sophisticated toy carts with rotating wheels that could be pulled along, spinning tops, rattles and whistles, toy animals whose heads could be bobbled with strings, and, amazingly, small clay monkeys that could be made to climb a rope!
These terracotta figurines also give us glimpses into how the Harappans lived, toy dogs with collars show us that people kept pet dogs, while the profusion of ox-carts show us how people travelled.
Pitthu, or ‘Seven Stones’ is a beloved street game still played all across India and Pakistan. Played by two teams of children, each team tries to strike down a tower of seven stones with a ball and quickly rebuild it, while the other team tries to get them out.
This common street game has probably come to us Harappan times! Many sets of of clay discs resembling pithu slabs have been found alongside clay marbles.
We all know chess was invented in India…the first time it is mentioned in a text is around the 6th century AD as ‘chaturanga’. However, chess, or a game like it may actually have first come from the Harappans! A grid board and terracotta pieces found in Lothal closely resemble a chess set.
The first known use of buttons was from the Harappan civilisation. Decorative buttons made from seashells have been found in Mohenjo-daro (buttonholes were invented only in the 13th century AD).
The Harappans were fixated with extremely accurate measurements and uniformity, not seen in India since their time! Throughout the entire, massive civilisation, all bricks were standardised in a 1:2:4 ratio, with two sizes—smaller ones for houses (7x14x28 cm) and heftier ones for city walls (10x20x40 cm).
In keeping with this penchant for measurments, an ivory ruler has been found in Lothal, finely calibrated to 1/16th of an inch.
Even though the Harappan civilisation gradually faded away and was long-forgotten, many of their basic, day to day utensils are startlingly similar to what is still used in those regions today!
They cooked their food in U-shaped chulhas, still widely used in villages across North India. They used familiar-looking mill-stones to grind grains and spices.
They even had belans (rolling pins) and flat tavas just like ours, and were likely making fresh, hot chapattis 5,000 years ago!
(For more fun journeys through India’s history, check out the newly released two-volume set, The History of India for Children Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, published by Hachette India, which is now available online and in bookstores across the country.)