Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Little Red Seeds, A Little Red in the Face, and the Well-Read Wiki Reader

By Supriya Savkoor

Before I launch into our topic of the week, a little throat clearing.

I’ve been just the teeniest bit embarrassed about my post from a couple of weeks ago, the one where I researched my ancestors through antiquity then shared it with all of you in a loosely packaged, thesis-length blog post. (Remember the part about my Australoid tribal ancestors from pre-historic times? Groan. Yes, I really did cover that, though I probably owe you some money if you made it that far. At least a couple friends thought so, though none of them passed my pop quiz.)

The reason for my over-enthusiasm about the whole topic was that I’d always thought of myself as just a boring purebred, growing up listening to friends recount what percentage blood they had that was Dutch, Cherokee, Spanish, Irish, Czech, you name it. I remember asking my dad after school one day if there was even the slightest possibility we might have a slightly more exotic lineage than just plain old Konkani. No, he said a little too quickly. Probably seeing the dejection on my face, he added, “we might be a little tiny bit Portuguese. But no. Probably not even that.” After all, how long could he pull that one off?

So when recently one of our topics was word migrations, I thought tracing the origin of my Saraswat roots might give me just a little something to write about, a paragraph or two, if that. By the time I finished my Internet search, unraveling those many disparate but apparently connected threads to my roots, I had one large, messy heap of cross-cultural factoids that left me in awe of my genetic forebears, who, if not mixed blood, at least crossed paths with Aryans, Dravidians, Sumerians, Ethiopians, Arabs, Persians, and who knows what other great, ancient people. If only Wiki and Google had been around when I was a kid, right?

And here’s the other thing: during that brief period of intense research and wonder, I learned another little tidbit about my ancestory that relates to this week’s topic on inventions. (You see, I was not digressing! Not this time.)

Years ago, my mother in-law had brought us a little game from India called gudfale (pronounced “good-fullee,” with a short U sound). She’d bought it from a roadside vendor when she was a kid, “paid only four annas” for it, or about the Indian equivalent of a quarter. I’d visited India so many times as a kid, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t come across the game yet, so I kept pressing her with questions about it. I think that’s when she herself made the realization that while it had been a common pastime in the region on India’s western coast, known as the Konkan Coast, where she grew up, she too hadn’t seen the game elsewhere in the country.

You can probably tell from the photo why it was love at first sight for me. Carved out of a single slab of rich, dark wood, it contains two rows of little cup-like openings. The game itself is pretty simple. Two players distribute an equal number of shiny red seeds in each of the openings, then take turns moving a pile on their side of the board to each consecutive cup around the board until the reach an empty cup. Once they get to that empty spot, they skip it and collect whatever seeds lie in the next cup holding seeds. They keep going, round and round, until one player runs out of seeds. Whoever wins the most, wins the game.

Believe me, it’s much simpler than it sounds. But it wasn’t the play that fascinated me as much as the simple beauty of the wood itself, not to mention those bright, shiny red seeds that I’d sort of remembered as tamarind or pomegranate. I really can’t remember what fruit she’d said they came from, really, only that their glossy rich color appeared naturally. I remember this because I found it so hard to believe those seeds weren’t painted. Now I know she was right. Thanks again, Wiki.)

But be forewarned: I have my next thesis topic. The reason my mother in-law only found gudfale on India’s western coast and not the rest of India is probably because of the significant influx of Ethiopians known as Siddhis who’d emigrated there between the 16th and 19th centuries. Siddhi is a term of respect that came from either “sayyid” or “saydi” meaning master. The Siddhis likely brought mancala, which they called gebeta, to India with them. Perhaps you’ve heard of the African game “mancala”? Same thing. Be prepared to ooh and aah when you take a look at this picture from Africa.

It’s a sculpture of two Lobi children from Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, or Ghana playing mancala, but scholars believe the game originated in Ethiopia itself back in the 6th or 7th century. Here's proof from Aksum, Ethiopia, in one of the earliest known archaeological findings.

Since then the game has spread all over the world – the Middle East, Europe, other parts of Asia, even farther south on the Indian coast. And it goes by many names. But isn’t it a wonder that the Ethiopians could have brought it directly with them to this thin mostly rural strip in India where it’s still played centuries later?

And the game continues to move through cultures and generations. 

Coincidentally, in just the past few weeks, my nine-year-old daughter started learning how to play mancala at school. Her elementary school web site includes hot links to the history of the game, strategies for playing, and all kinds of interesting pictures such as this one taken in a Sri Lankan hotel lobby.

And my daughter? She prefers the following version:


  1. Enjoyed reading about this and I need to do some research and adaptation, my niece would enjoy this...once we figure it out!

  2. Supriya, you do realize, of course, that for most of us, being Konkani is far more exotic than Dutch, Cherokee, Spanish, Irish or Czech. :) I suppose it was only a matter of time that this ancient game (or the African version, anyway) made it to the Internet.