The write up below was first prepared for readers in Singapore, specifically for the Chinese Peranakan community. No changes have been made, however, as the language is English, after all.





Partha Desikan


I found a reference to Chongkak in Heather Ong’s piece entitled ‘Chongkak, anyone?’ in the issue of The Peranakan , July-September 1999. Some members of the youth group of the association had gathered together on July 17 that year at Chilli Padi, the Nonya family restaurant, on a nostalgic trip to rediscover traditional Peranakan Games. Heather recalled in her write-up the pervasive aroma of laksa, mee siam, bubor cha-cha and Nonya kueh, and also her impression at the time that though there were old and young Peranakans present, many participants seemed quite unfamiliar with the method of playing the old board game, Chongkak. Things must have improved substantially since, as we find Chongkak taking pride of place in a 2006 brochure of Shangrila’s Rasa Sentosa resort. The management talk about their Peranakan Cultural Night, during which ‘guests will be introduced to assorted Peranakan delights such as Cherki game, Chongkak and Nonya beadworks while being entertained with cultural songs and dance performances.’ The Peranakan love of card games, especially of Cherki, is well known. The reference to Chongkak in the brochure, marking its definite arrival again in the urban scene, is bound to warm the hearts of old-timers.

In an account of a visit to Pulau Ubin in 2001, a student of Raffles’ Girls School, Singapore, wrote,

‘I happened to find a funny board that looked like an egg tray in my aunt’s room, after lunch. My aunt told me that it was a Chongkak board. She said that Chongkak is played between 2 persons only and the boards come in many shapes such as that of dragons’ heads and fishes. While the board usually has one row of seven holes, each along each side, and one hole at either end, this may vary. The two rows of holes are called kampongs or villages and the larger holes at both ends of the board are called rumah or home. At the start of the game, each of the holes in the kampongs has 6, 7, 8 or 9 seeds placed in it.

Picture of a Chongkak board taken from Kampong Days, a book compiled by The National Archives, Singapore


 Sample Image

 Fig: 1

The way the game is played is simple.

1. Take all the seeds in any one of your holes and distribute the seeds one at each hole, continuously.

2. The game continues until one player collects all his seeds in the rumah.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to play the game today as I couldn’t find anyone to play with me. My cousins were out running errands for my aunt and my aunt was busy.’

That is probably one of the neatest and shortest descriptions of how Chongkak has to be played! Let us compare it with the description of how a board game called Mancala is played in one African community, as studied for a project on Ancient Africa in Urbana Middle school in Urbana, Illinois, U.S.A.

There are apparently hundreds of different variations to basic Mancala. The student mentions the names of just a few: Ti, Kpo, Wari, Azigo, Igisoro and Omweso.  The variations do indeed represent the diversity of Africa. At least one version of Mancala is played in nearly every African country. The type of Mancala board varies. Rich men of leisure may play on carved ivory boards covered with gold, and other players could be using just a few holes on the ground with pebbles as playing pieces. The game must have first evolved thus, thousands of years back in Africa, with holes in the mud made on demand or rock cut holes for relative permanency and weatherproofing!

Here are the student’s words, though with my formatting: ‘The word, Mancala means ‘to transfer’ in Arabic. That is exactly what you do; you transfer, or move, playing pieces from one bin to another.’

 Sample Image

 Fig: 2

How to Play:

Players: Two

What you need: Mancala board, 48 playing pieces

Setting up:

· The board is placed between you and your opponent. Each of you takes 24 playing pieces and puts four pieces in each of the six bins on your side of the board.

· The two larger bins at each end of the board are called kalahas. These are left empty at the start of the game.

· In Mancala, the location of the pieces on the board determines if you can move them or not, not the color of the piece. Throughout the game, you can move any of the pieces from your side of the board. You may not move the pieces on your opponent’s side of the board.

Object of the Game:  To be the player with the most pieces in your kalaha.

How the Game is played:

· If you are the first player to go, scoop up all the pieces from any bin on your side of the board.

· Now, moving to the right, drop one piece into each bin that you come to.

· If you come to your kalaha (the one on the right), drop a playing piece into this bin.

· If you have more pieces left after you drop one in the kalaha, continue to put your remaining pieces into the bins on your opponent’s side.

· If you come to your opponent’s kalaha, (this will happen later in the game) skip over it.

· If your last piece lands in your kalaha, you get to go again. Otherwise, it’s your opponent’s turn.


· If the last piece that you drop goes into an empty bin on your side of the board, you get to capture any of your opponent’s playing pieces in the bin directly across from yours.

· When you capture these pieces you take all of them and put them in your kalaha.

· When you capture, you put the piece that you captured within your kalaha along with the pieces you captured.

· After you make a capture, it is your opponent’s turn.

How the game ends:

· The game ends when all six bins on your or your opponent’s bins are empty. The player with pieces still in their bins then can put their remaining pieces into their kalaha.

· The winner is the player with the most playing pieces in their kalaha.


Our class made the Mancala board from egg cartons.’

 Sample Image

 Fig: 3

Now does this description ring a bell? It just happens to be a more detailed one of how one version of Chongkak could be played, if you had six kampongs on either side instead of seven. You have the ‘egg theme’ striking the mind of a student again, on the other side of the Pacific!

The popular On-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia, as amended fairly recently, refers to the following as the most popular versions of Mancala played around the world. The most widely played games are probably:

· Oware, the national game of Ghana, also called Warri, Ayo, Awele, Awari, Ouril, and known also by other names (It has relatively simple rules but considerable strategic depth) and using a 2×6 board with stores.

· Kalah with a rule-set usually included with commercially available boards (the game is heavily biased towards the first player, and it is often considered a children’s game) and using a 2×6 board with stores.

· Omweso, a strategic game of Uganda, played on an 8×4 board and

· Bao , a complex strategy game, also played on an 8×4 board.

The growing encyclopedia then goes on to describe 5 exotic variations, namely

· Eson xorgol, a game played by the Kazakh minority in western Mongolia, traditionally played with goat feces! (The board is 2×5),

· Das Bohnenspiel , a German Mancala, based on a Persian game not unlike some African Mancala variants. The board is 2×6 with stores.

· Hus , a Namibian game which, although a perfect information game, has sometimes been classified as a game of chance (The board is 4×8), 

· Christian Freeling’s complex Mancala-style game with different coloured stones, called The Glass Bead Game ,

· 55Stones, a modern Mancala game with simultaneous moves

and then gives a formidable list of over seventy other games, starting from our subject game Chongkak, which is played in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines with a 2×7 board. It is not my intention to convert this article into a study of how each variation is played, because sources indicated at the end of this article, which include the ones in Wikipedia, can meet that need rather well for our readers. I would instead prefer to look into some of the names used in the Straits countries and in the South of India for the Mancala-like games and to wonder aloud with my readers how these names would have come about. Old Tamil-origin Singaporeans should be able to corroborate some of these inputs and thought processes.

Let me start with names from my homeland, South India, where at least five versions of the game are played, all of them using a 2×6 board, with the mandatory 2 extra houses. In my mother-tongue Tamil, the board and therefore the games are known as Pallaanguzhi with possible alternate spellings because of transliteration uncertainties. The names in Kannada, the language of my adopted city Bangalore and the state of Karnataka are Hal(lu)gunimaneChannamane. In the rich old language Tulu of coastal Karnataka, which does not yet have a script of its own, the name used is Arasaata. In Telugu, the language of Andhra Pradesh, the names are Vaamana guntalu and Vanagallapeetha. In Malayaalam, the language of Kerala, the board is referred to as Parakkuzhi board. and

The Tulu name translates to ‘The King’s Game’. Did a visiting Arab leave the game board with a Tulu chieftain, from whom the subjects learnt it later?

The first Telugu name means ‘The hollows of the dwarf’. I am unable to get at the identity of the pioneering dwarf, though the significance of guntalu, the hollows, is obvious. It is the hollow again that is referred to by galla in the second name, in which peetha is a platform, board or base and vana is forest or garden probably referring to a picnic spot.

The Malayalam name tells you that something is spread in pits or hollows (kuzhis).

The less popular Kannada name Channamane simply means nice house.

The Tamil name Pallaanguzhi and the more prevalent of the two Kannada names, Hallugunimane strikingly send out the same message, though in slightly altered sequence. They list three significant material components of the game, the pieces, the action pits and the houses. Hal or hallu in Kannada and pal in Tamil mean tooth. Mane in Kannada and ahamaam in Tamil mean house, like the rumah in Bahasa. Guni in Kannada and kuzhi in Tamil mean a pit or hollow. Small residential areas which are situated in valleys are often called gunis in Kannada, vaguely matching the villages or kampongs in Chongkak. And the word kuzhi has been used in old Tamil as a unit for area measurement, especially for cultivable lands and house sites. colloquially modified to

Having satisfied ourselves with the equivalence of the village and house themes in South India and the Straits Archipelago, let us come to the pieces which are transferred from hollow to hollow. Why are they called hallus, pals, namely teeth in South India? The actual pieces used were cowry shells for a long time, later replaced by several tough seeds (tamarind seeds in Tamil country and Olinda seeds in Sri Lanka for instance) or by smooth pebbles.

The Indonesian Bahasa name for the game, Congklak and the closely related Malaysian and Singaporean name Chongkak are both believed to refer to cowry shells, though the word Tengkuyung, sometimes spelt Tengkuyong could describe these shells better. What matters is that the ancient use of cowry shells as play-pieces has been blessed also in the game nomenclature. Pearls are called muthus in Tamil, and in view of their pleasant white glow, pearls have been used by Tamil poets from the very distant past as standards for comparison with teeth. Muthuppalvarisai (Muthu+pal+varisai) means a row of pearly teeth. The colour of the inner side of cowry shells (chozhis in Tamil) too is white, while the outer side could have other colours and various designs. So it is quite appropriate to use in reverse idiom, the name pal or tooth for both pearls and cowry-shells. Two of the many Srilankan Tamil names for the game use the pearl theme. They are Daramuthu and Puhul mutti. It has also become the custom to refer to any seed which is used in the play as a muthu, even if the colour is not white. Thus tamarind seed used in the game is called puliyamuthu, the pearl of tamarind!

A third century B.C. Tamil epic refers to considerable sea-diving activity for pearl-oysters and other shells on the Tamil sea-coast. Busy trading in ancient Tamil ports in a number of commodities including gold, gems and spices with men from the Middle East and the Mediterranean regions is also described. I have sometimes wondered whether the Latin word perla for pearl had been picked up by Tamil traders from merchants travelling from the Mediterranean and the first name given to the board game in Tamil land could have been perlaanguzhi. Subsequent change of perl to pal and its translation into the Kannada form are easy to comprehend. I however prefer to stay with the tooth-pearl idiomatic connection which Tamil poets have been using for more than two thousand years.  A Tamil poem of the kalivenpaattu format, of approximately the fifth or sixth century lists out a large number of games and pastimes, one of which happens to be Pallaanguzhi, (pal+ aam+kuzhi).

In sum, we find that prominent South Indian names for Chongkak variations incorporate a reference to cowry-shell idiomatically or directly, while the Malaysian/Singaporean name for the game itself stands for the cowry-shell. Names for the play-pits and the home-pits are kampong and rumah respectively in Bahasa Melayu, meaning village and home, while terms for home and hollow/valley are incorporated as part of the game name in South Indian languages. Chongkak/Pallaanguzhi is not indigenous either to South India or to the Straits countries. Archaeological evidence definitely favours its origins in any one of a few candidate regions of Africa. Commercial travellers from the Middle East, before and after the advent of Islam, must have been picking up various versions of the game from African lands and taking them home and elsewhere, for instance to India and beyond on their spice trade jaunts and to China and beyond on their silk trade travels. Game lore must have travelled in reverse directions as well, polishing, modifying and multiplying. The ubiquitous cowry shells, which even enjoyed currency status in the Chinese mainland in the past, must have been collected in great quantities in the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, The Indian Ocean and the Straits and carried around, first for their monetary value and later out of pure fancy and force of habit.

Have you tasted the Chong Kak Kimchi, the young bachelor radish pickle? Have you visited Sungai Chongkak, the lovely natural park at Selangor, which is the haunt of young bachelors and young maidens alike? Try playing Chongkak, the experience could be equally satisfying.

The bibliography below is related in part to the contents of the article but is substantially for the benefit of those readers who have not so far read up on these fascinating games of yore. The mathematically inclined among them may also look up the very large number of software programmes that are now available, particularly under the game-names Mancala and Oware.

1. Stewart Culin, Philippine Games, American Anthropologist, Vol. 2, No. 4. (Oct-Dec 1900), pp. 643-656.

2. Henry R. Muller, Warri: A West African Game of Skill, The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 43, (1930) No. 169. pp. 313-316.

3. H. J. Braunholtz, The Game of Mweso in Uganda., Man. Vol. 31. (July 1931), pp. 121-122.

4. P. H. G. Powell-Cotton, H. J. Braunholtz, A Mancala Board Called “Songo.”, Man. Vol. 31. (July 1931), pp. 123.

5. HJR Murray, History of Board Games other than Chess (1952).

6. Alan P. Merriam, The Game of Kubuguza Among the Abatutsi of North-East Ruanda. Man, Vol. 53. (November 1953), pp. 169-172.

7. Laurence Russ, Mancala Games (1984).





12. V. Balambal, Pallankuzhi, a traditional board-game of women in Tamilnadu, in Kala : The Journal of Indian Art History Congress : Volume VII: 2000-2001/ edited by Maruti Nandan Tiwari and Kamal Giri. New Delhi, Sundeep, 2002.


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