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Chathurangam and Chess

Historians the world over agree that India is the country of origin of chess. "Chathurangam" which was popular in Kerala, is probably the one closest to international chess. The two prominent sects, Namboothiris and Muslims, who had played pivotal roles in shaping the region's cult, culture and customs, were also ardent lovers of Chathurangam. They patronised it for hundreds of years. The Namboothiris, who had earned the respect of the rulers, and their Muslim counterparts, had abundant intellectual acumen and leisure needed for this game of the intelligentsia. There were experts with proven abilities in both the communities till the late 1950s. And this fraternity of game helped to develop their mutual understanding and harmony. During the second half of the century when the native version, Chathurangam, gave way to international chess, the Namboothiris allowed their supremacy to slip, but the Muslims continued their reign.

Chathurangam - History
The literature of a given time will naturally have reflections of various factors relating to the life-style of the period. Two old vernacular poetries, "Payyannur Paattu" (AD 13th Century) and "Chandrolsavam" (16th Century) mention Chathurangam. Legend has it that Chathurangam was instrumental in the creation of the famous poetic work "Krishnagaattha" by Cherusseri Namboodiri - a scholar who decorated the royal assembly of Raja Udayavarman of Kolathunaadu (1466 - 1471). The works of poets like Punam Namboodiri, Kunchan Nambiar, etc., and the heroic songs of "Vadakkan Paattu" (ballads of North Malabar) written during the 14th to 17th centuries carry mention of Chathurangam.

Historian M P Sankunni Nair has recorded that Rev. Fr. Arnos who came to Kerala for missionary work (AD 1681 - 1732), learned Sanskrit and Chathurangam from Namboothiris. Chathurangam columns marked on the floor of house at Velur (Thrissur District) where Arnos "Paathiri" lived his last days can be seen even now as evidence of his love towards the game. Rev. Fr. Poulinose, while referring to the old educational system in Kerala, points out the special role of Chathurangam in the development of one's mental faculty.

Namboothiris in Chathurangam
In Kerala, Namboothiris occupied a place of pride in the renowned centres of learning like Kodungallur, Koodallur, Payyur, etc. They also enjoyed a high degree of royal favours in the power centres. It was mainly Namboothiris and upper caste people who were acquiring knowledge in Sanskrit, Logic, Literature, "Saasthrams" (sciences), etc. Chathurangam tests one's mental faculty; it also boosts up the self-esteem of the victor. Hence, it was the favourite recreation of Namboothiris, according to "Katthakali Rangam" written by K P S Menon. Famous historian, K P Padmanabha Menon has also acknowledged the Namboothiris' love for the game and their expertise too.

Famous temples, Manas or Illams of rich Namboothiri landlords were adorned with permanent arenas for Chathurangam. Many famous temples in Kerala have permanent structures of granite floorings with 64 squares carved on it for playing Chathurangam. These in-built boards were regularly used by the Namboothiris who assembled in large numbers in these temples for festivals and feasts, and occasionally by small groups of travellers who chanced to stay overnight in the premises.

Till the late 1950s, famous Namboothiri landlords like Varikkaasseri, Pana, Poomulli, etc. used to invite leading Chathurangam players, provide them all hospitalities for days together for playing exhibition matches and giving tips to up-and-coming talents.

Kallanikkaatt Neelakandhan Namboodiri (1851 - 1923), Maakkara Govindan Namboodiri (? - 1957) and Azhakapra Narayanan Namboodiri (1897 - 1974) were best Chathurangam players during their respective periods. Malayala Manorama newspaper published towards the end of the 20th century, carried the name of one Kallampillil Vishnu Namboodiri (1865 - 1939, Kottayam), Vaazhakunnam Narayanan Namboodiri (1907 - 1977), Kaapra Namboodiri, Kallanikkaatt Maheswaran Namboodiri, all had the benefit of "tips" from Azhakapra and were in the second slot. When Chathurangam vanished, Vaazhakunnam (he was past 60 at that time) switched over to chess and was a strong player though he did not play in any tournament. He was too crazy about the game that he used to walk about 5 km up and down at that old age just to play couple of good games.

Till Chathurangam gave away to international chess, Azhakapra Narayanan Namboodiri was undoubtedly the number "one" player.

Transition to Chess
The Arabs, who were the trade links between India and the West, took the game of Chathurangam to other parts of the world, and the game gained enviable growth and popularity. The various countries followed different rules though the main theme remained the same. The first successful attempt to unify the rules was the formation of FIDE (World Chess Federation) in the year 1924. But in India, the old native version was popular until the 1950s though the rules and techniques had wide variations in different parts of the country. From the year 1960, the newly formed chess associations, and to some extent government agencies, started to patronise and popularise the international chess, and the native version Chathurangam lost its identity.

Chathurangam vis--vis Chess
Which is more entertaining - Chathurangam or Chess? Which is more difficult to learn? Which needs more intellectual acumen? There are many points to compare and contrast these two versions of the game. While Chathurangam is like sword fight, chess is like war with sophisticated armaments. Chathurangam was confined to a small geographical area of the country and had no backing of any literature to promote its theoretical know how. But chess with a well-knit organisational set up throughout the world (a World Federation with more than 150 member-countries to promote and regulate the game) has a vast treasure of literature on it. There are thousands of books and periodicals published regularly, exclusively on chess, which help one to learn not only the ever-expanding theories and infinite possibilities of it, but also to enjoy the skill, beauty and charm of the game and appreciate it even in solitude.

Namboothiris and Chess
The Namboothiris enjoyed an overwhelming superiority in Chathurangam, the earlier form of chess. Naturally one would expect their expertise in chess also. But, on the contrary, the performance of Namboothiris has been quite dismal. Many reasons can be attributed to this. Till 1975, there were no Malayalam books dealing with the rules and theory of chess. Due to various socio-economic changes, those Namboothiris who were to follow chess books in English turned to more serious vocations. A few other promising youngsters after one or two successful outings, left the field for good and settled elsewhere. 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. In the 1980s there was a phenomenal growth of chess literature in Malayalam. Even though the enterprising players still depended on English books to learn chess theory, those who could not follow English, naturally had to solace in these new Malayalam chess books. This was the scenario at the beginning of 1990s.


1. C V Vasudeva Bhattathiri:
Born in 1923 in a village near Pandalam, he is a lawyer, scholar, Sanskrit teacher, poet and critic, and author of many Malayalam and Sanskrit books. With his son, Vidhubhooshan Lal, he co-authored a chess book titled "Chess" in 1977 (NBS Publication). Though he did not enter competitive chess, his is an important name to be remembered.

2. Kummini Raman Namboodiri:
Native of Kavalappara (b.1934) in Palakkad District, he is an expert in both Chathurangam and chess. He started playing Chathurangam at very young age. He was one among the few who could successfully employ his prowess in both Chathurangam and chess competitions. District champion of both Palakkad and Thrissur, he has defeated many famous players, scored an upset victory over the Russian Grandmaster, Averback in a simultaneous display on March 8, 1975 at Ernakulam. His book, "Chess - Thaathwika Praarambhangal" (Preliminary Theories of Chess) (NBS, 1981) is considered to be the best Malayalam book to learn chess theory. He is now happily living in his village farm house.

3. P V N Nambudiripad (Pothuva Mana):
Has a Masters degree in Malayalam, and retired as a high school teacher in the State Government. While a student (b. 1937) he evinced keen interest in chess and was guided properly by relatives. During the 1960s, he played chess without much theoretical background. Once he came to know about the chess theories and books, he put his heart and soul in it to acquire considerable knowledge. He won Kerala State-level chess tournament for teachers held at Kottayam in 1976. He represented his district in the State championship. Disheartened with paucity of chess books in Malayalam, he switched from playing to promoting chess literature in the regional language. From 1978 onwards, "Mathrubhoomi" weekly and other periodicals published his articles on chess. As an organiser and official in tournaments, he gained close friendship with many leading players and owing to their encouragement, a compilation of his chess articles entitled "Chessinte Lokam" (World of Chess) was published by "Mathrubhoomi" in 1989. His latest book is "Chess Enna Budhivinodam" (Chess, the Brain Game) (D C Books, Kottayam, 1999). Both the books deal with chess without technical verbosity.

4. Thozhuvanoor Family

4.1. T P Narayanan:
Belongs to Thozhuvanoor Mana of Vanneri in central Kerala. Employed in LIC of India, Coimbatore Divisional Office, and settled there since 1962. A reputed chess organiser, coach and official, he is one among the early (since 1986) FIDE International Arbiters in the country. He has served Tamil Nadu Chess Association in the capacity of Joint Secretary, Treasurer and General Secretary. He was in the screening committee for International arbiter title.  Earlier, he had played in Kerala State championship held in Calicut in 1962 and upset the defending champion in the first round to steal a splendid coverage in the media. Once a Coimbatore District Champion, he had played in Tamil Nadu State championship also. Then he changed to the more suited organising field; worked as organising secretary, Chief Arbiter/ Arbiter in many Grandmaster/ International Master tournaments and National Championships. He was the coach-cum-manager of Indian Junior Team consisting of Viswanathan Anand and Anupama Abhayankar for the world Junior Chess Championship held in Baguio City in Philippines in July-August 1987 in which Anand won the World Junior Championship and earned his first Grandmaster norm. As coach, he was instrumental for developing many leading chess players including International Masters, S Saravanan and P Mithrakanth. In addition to few articles on chess published in various tournament souvenirs, he has contributed special reports for leading English dailies and agencies (PTI and UNI) covering major tournaments. He is blessed with a daughter and two sons who were successful campaigners as Junior/sub-junior players in Tamil Nadu, as shown below:

4.2. T.N Nilina (w/o Dr: Jayadevan, Karuthedath Mana):
Played in Tamil Nadu State Junior/Sub-junior Girl's and Women's Chess Championships representing Coimbatore District. Winner of Coimbatore Inter-school (girls) and Inter-collegiate (women) Chess Championships for many years.

4.3. T N Krishnan:
Tamil Nadu State Junior Champion. Represented Tamil Nadu State in many National Sub-junior/Junior Championships. Left the field to concentrate on studies.

4.4. T N Murali:
Tamil Nadu State Sub-junior (U-14) Champion. Represented Tamil Nadu State in many Sub-junior National Championships. Represented Bharathiar University.

Both the brothers had received NIS Sports Talent Scholarships.

5. Dr: K Vamanan Namboothiri (Vairasseri Periya Mana):
A Professor of English in a private college, he was the Kottayam District Junior Champion in 1974. Won second place in Kerala State Junior Championship. Represented Kerala in National Junior Championship. Palakkad District Senior Champion and played State Junior Championship. A number of articles on chess written by him were published in various periodicals.

6. K Neelakandhan (Kaplingattu Mana):
The lone Namboothiri player with FIDE rating. A senior officer in State Bank of India. Sheer hard work made him rich in theoretical knowledge on chess. Played in many State and National level tournaments and scored many a remarkable victory. Often official responsibilities came in the way of pursuit of chess.

7. T M Sankaran Nambudiripad (Thamarasseri Mekkattu Mana):
Known as T M S Nambudiripad he is popular among chess players in Kerala. He is an officer in Kerala State Electricity Board, posted near Mala. Has experience in playing National level tournaments. Ceased to be an active player to take up coaching of young talents. His systematic coaching produced State Sub-junior champions like T J Suresh Kumar and E P Nirmal. Suresh Kumar came into limelight in National Junior Championship to make his coach proud. Nambudiripad is very strong in theory.

8. Subrahmanian Namboodiri:
Born in 1929, he is a native of Kannur. From Chathurangam, he switched to chess to steal the show in many local tournaments. He is a Sanskrit scholar and retired teacher.

9. P K Namboodiri:
Kannur District champion in the year 1973. A known figure among Kerala chess players during the 1970s.

It is worthwhile making at least a passing reference about the following people.

1. T S Namboodiri (Trikkadeeri Mana) who, along with K V B Menon, convened a meeting at Perinthalmanna in 1960 to form the North Kerala Chess Association, which had a rebirth as Calicut Chess Club and took a lead in co-ordinating the activities with their counterparts at Kottayam. In fact, this became the nucleus for All Kerala Chess Association.

2. M K S Potty, The Trivandrum District champion and coach is another name worth mentioning with State-level standard of play.

| Article No:22.3 | Last update of this article:20th October 2000 |
Articles prepared by:
1. P V N Nambudiripad, Pothuva Mana, Kanjiramattom, 682315, Ernakulam District ( Phone : 0484-746092 )
2. T P Narayanan, Thozhuvanoor, 66,Robertson Road, R S Puram, Coimbatore, 641002, Tamil Nadu ( Phone : 0422-437765 )

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