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Ambalappuzha and the Chess connection – Janmashtami special

Dear readers, the 44th Chess Olympiad 2022 got over at Chennai just ten days back, on 9th August 2022. And the birthday of our beloved Krishna is being celebrated as Janmashtami today.

So why not a story connecting Chess and Krishna??

No, I am not joking. There is such a story. That too in God’s own country at Ambalappuzha!

Ambalappuzha is a place in Kerala near Alappuzha (Aleppey) famed for its temple dedicated to Lord Srikrishna. The temple is equally famous for the Paal Payasam (milk Kheer) served there to all who visit the temple even today. It is a delicacy whose taste can be matched by none.

When was this Paal Payasam introduced in this temple as Prasadam? Well, therein lies this fascinating story.

Many years ago, this area was ruled by the Chembakassery family of Namboodiris. This incident is said to have happened during the reign of the king Pooradam Thirunal Devanarayanan Thampuran.

Devanarayanan Thampuran was a proud king. Proud, not without reason. There was prosperity all around. He had vast tracts of fertile land of the Kuttanad area under his control yielding high quality rice in huge quantities. All the other kingdoms were dependent on rice sold by his government. Annam (rice) was considered Mahalakshmi, and if the Goddess of wealth resided with us, would we not be proud?

Well, the reason of the king’s pride was not only that. Pooradam Thirunal was a player par excellence in the game of Chaturanga (form of chess). He was an ace player, extremely sharp-brained and shrewd and loved playing the game any number of times. He was always the undisputed winner.

People from far and near wanted to try their luck and there was always someone or the other wanting to play the game as his opponent. Of course, the king was magnanimous enough to reward the losers also for their guts to challenge him, but there were only losers and losers all the time.

It was a gloomy but hot afternoon and the king had had a sumptuous lunch followed by the traditional betel leaf with arecanut and lime (chuna). His routine was to complete all administrative matters prior to lunch. Post-lunch time was for relaxation, with the game of Chaturanga. Winning everyday had become an addiction for him like eating betel leaf after lunch. There was no dearth of people every day, seeking to play with the king and one would see a long line at the palace gates post-lunch.

Today was strange in that, there was no one at the gates.

The humid and gloomy weather outside was reflecting in the king’s mind. He was becoming restless, pacing up and down. His mind was already thinking of which of his ministers to summon to play the game, since no other opponent had come seeking to play against him. However, since he knew all of the ministers’ capabilities like the back of his hand, there would be no thrill.  Nevertheless, something to satisfy his craving was better than nothing at all.

He sat on his throne in the ‘Chaturanga Mandapa’, a specific hall for playing the game. The ornate heavy wooden table had squares inlaid in it, sixty-four of them, alternating with black granite and white marble. The ivory and the ebony chess pieces arranged neatly seemed to be pleading with the Thampuran to pick them up. It was time for play.

Thampuran made up his mind. He decided to send for three ministers of his, to come and play as opponents, for he could not wait indefinitely.

Just then he heard some commotion at the entrance. And in a few moments, a serene looking young man, was being escorted in. When Thampuran looked at him, the youth’s eyes seemed to smile with a sparkle, something which seemed mysterious, yet so divine which Thampuran could gaze into endlessly.

“Ahem…” The voice of the youth brought back Thampuran to reality. 

“My name is Unni” The youth introduced himself. “I had come escorting my elderly relative who visited me, and now am on my way back. I heard that your highness plays Chaturanga every day and I thought I could try my luck playing if you permit”, he said with a smile. Unni’s smile was so mesmerizing and magical. “I hear Thampuran rewards the losers also magnanimously…”

Thampuran’s ears perked up. Here was an opponent thinking of the reward for losers before the game even started.

“Hahahaha… You are right… Haha…” The vanity of Thampuran could not be concealed.

Thampuran looked at Unni from head to toe.

Strangely he could not come to a conclusion as to the background of the youth. Unni’s dhoti was tied like a warrior with a dagger neatly tucked in his cummerbund. The white sacred thread across his black complexioned well-built bare upper body, looked like the aerial view of a river winding through the mountains. He was carrying bags like a trader but his well-built arms and legs gave the impression that he was used to doing lot of manual work. He had such curly locks which seemed to be waiting to be let loose from the knot on top of his head. His forehead looked exceptionally beautiful with a crescent shaped sandal mark (Gopichandana). The face exuded unusual calm and tranquility.

“Could we start the game your highness?” Unni’s voice brought back Thampuran’s attention to the present.

“Yes yes, why not?” said Thampuran. “Sit down Unni”, he said pointing at the opponent’s chair. You will play…”

“Black”. Pat came the reply.

Thampuran expected Unni to gape at the marvelous ‘Chaturanga Mandapa’ which was decorated with a dozen pairs of ivory tusks, the beautiful floral decorations with a vast variety of flowers from his own garden and of course the beautiful customized table which functioned as the ‘Chaturanga Palaha’(chessboard). Whoever came to play looked at all this with amazement. But Unni seemed unnerved by all this – looked as if he was used to better luxuries.

By now, word had spread of the handsome new opponent and the crowd of courtiers and the queen gathered as was the custom every day to cheer their king.

The people gathered were all drawn to the youth as if by magic.

Whispers about his looks and his background went around.

“Do you think this young man will win?” whispered one courtier.

“Don’t even dare to think that way”, his neighbour chided. “Our king has never met defeat in all these years, and the opponent is quite young”.

“Yeah yeah, the boy’s age must be our king’s experience hehehe…” guffawed another with his mouth full of betel leaf.

The queen was also curious. When she saw Unni, she thought he looked very familiar but could not place him exactly. However, the youth’s calmness struck her and she also sat down in her designated seat to watch her husband win yet another game effortlessly, or so she thought!

The ceremonial prayer was chanted and the king made the first move.

Unni was very quick and did not take much time for his moves.

Within a few minutes, the king knew he was losing and before he could do something about it, he had lost.

“Game over your highness” said Unni in a soft yet firm voice.

There was pin drop silence in awe of the happenings. Nobody could believe that what they saw was true. Thampuran’s heart sank. He was perspiring heavily, wiping his sweat from his face and forehead. The fan-bearers fanned harder. Thampuran did not want to look up. However, the end of his eye caught Unni getting up, ready to leave.

Without his realizing, words tumbled out of Thampuran’s mouth.

 “Why don’t we play another game… Unni?”

Unni flashed his magic smile and nodded to convey his readiness.

The queen and the onlookers were too shocked to utter anything.

The coins were arranged once again and the game started and this time with Unni playing the white coins, the game ended earlier than the first one and yet again, there was a blanket of silence.

For, the ace player Thampuran, had lost consecutively to a stranger, who was a nobody.

Thampuran’s mouth ran dry. Unni had now got up to leave. He looked so nonchalant, no elation or pride on having won over the Thampuran.

Gathering his wits, Thampuran stammered, “S..son, why…why are you leaving so soon? You can enjoy our hospitality for a few days….”

Unni smiled. “No your highness. I have to leave now”, he said maintaining his calm demeanour.

Thampuran got up and said, “But Unni, you deserve a prize for defeating me though I still don’t know how this happened. What do you want? Gold? Silver? Diamonds? Lands? Silken garments? Name it and I shall give it to you right away!” His voice reflected the ego which had not reduced even a teeny weeny bit.

Unni looked at him. “Hmm… I do not want any of what you mentioned. However, I would like to take back some rice if you can give me the amount I ask”

Thampuran was annoyed. Here was a youth asking for ‘some rice’ from a king who had enough rice to feed an army.

“Some rice? How many Paras (Para was the traditional rice measuring unit) of rice?” Thampuran’s voice was filled with scorn.

“Your highness” said Unni. “Since we played Chaturanga, I want the rice also to be measured in a particular fashion based on this” he said pointing to the chess board.

Thampuran was puzzled. “What fashion? I cannot understand what you want. Be very clear” he said with irritation.

“Well” said Unni. “It is like this. Keep one grain of rice in the first square, double of that in the second, double of that in the third, and so on. I mean, one in the first square, two in the second, four in the third square, eight in the fourth and so on…”

Thampuran, relieved at this insignificant request of Unni, signalled to the messengers. “Come on, bring the rice he is asking” he said.

Unni raised his hand as if to interrupt. “Please calculate how much rice is required so that there may be no confusion” he said with an inexplicable smile.

“Don’t you worry about that” said Thampuran as he ordered the rice to be brought. Soon enough a group of expert counters were counting the grains and checking the squares and depositing the rice on the squares, only to realise quickly that the grains would not fit in the squares. So they started depositing the grains in one corner of the room after counting. By the end of the tenth square the total grains were 1023 (1+2+4+8+16+32+64+128+256+512) and by the end of the twentieth, it had gone up to 10,48,575!!  

The sun had set and the lights were lit and not even the halfway mark was reached. And when the full moon was smiling outside, thirty-two squares were completed, totalling to about 429,49,67,280 grains. To give you a rough idea, a kilogram of rice has approximately sixty thousand grains. And this meant that over seventy-one thousand five hundred kilos (in today’s measuring unit) had been brought.

All the courtiers and the Thampuran were staring wide-eyed and taken by surprise. A messenger came and informed the Thampuran in a hushed voice that all the rice in the granary was over. Rice had been collected from the citizens’ houses also and it was all over. Thampuran could simply not believe his ears. And there, Unni was sitting with his enigmatic smile watching the fun. The grain counters were making their calculations furiously and arrived at the figure of 18446,744,073,709,551,616 grains if all the squares were to be filled as per Unni’s request. This translated to 307. 445 trillion kilos of rice!!

The people assembled were shell shocked. Where would they go for so much rice? Even if rice was to be borrowed from all the kingdoms in the country, it would take years and years to give the gift sought by Unni.

Unni’s was watching quietly – with a constant smile and a twinkle in his eyes.

It was only then Thampuran realized that Unni could not be a normal young man. With tears streaming in his eyes and palms joined together in obeisance, Thampuran spoke in an emotional voice, “Unni, I do not know who you are but indeed, you have humbled my arrogance completely. I do not know how I will keep up the word given to you. Perhaps I am destined to be shamed as the king who could not keep up his word.” He broke down sobbing , his voice choking with grief.

There was a glowing light around Unni. He spoke in a sweet voice. “Thampuran, I am the Srikrishna you worship in the temple. I am pleased with your commitment to keep up the word given. You or your dynasty will not be shamed. Do not worry. Do as I say. Prepare Paal Payasam with rice every single day for me at the temple and distribute the Prasadam to all who come to see me. Continue the practice till your debt is cleared. Shubhamastu!!”

And to the bewilderment of the onlookers, Unni disappeared in a flash.

And from that day Paal Payasam is prepared in huge quantities every single day using rice and milk and distributed to the public visiting the temple and the debt owed by the Thampuran is still being cleared!

Don’t forget to taste the Paal Payasam next time you happen to visit Ambalappuzha!

Some facts about the Paal Payasam:

  • Made every day in a huge brass ‘Uruli’ with about 9 kg of rice and a milk-water mixture in the ratio 100 litres:300 litres and about 30 kilos of sugar. This mixture reduces to about one fourth by boiling and evaporation for over seven hours. Water is from the temple well and the milk from the cows owned by the temple.
  • Cooking starts before sunrise and it boils till about 11.30 am
  • Lord Krishna is called out aloud by the priests before the sugar is added while cooking.
  • After cooking is over, the entire quantity is offered to Srikrishna before distribution.
  • Lord Guruvayoorappan’s Murti was brought to Ambalappuzha temple for safe keeping in 1789 CE fearing an imminent attack from Tipu Sultan’s savage army who were demolishing and looting Hindu temples in Kerala. The Lord was taken back to Guruvayoor twelve years later but from that time it is believed that Lord Guruvayoorappan developed a special liking for this payasam and therefore waits for his lunch till the mid-day Pooja at Ambalappuzha temple is over, since the Paal Payasam is offered to Lord Srikrishna at midday.

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23 Comments

  1. S Chalapathi Srinivasan

    Dhanyoasmi. Very interesting and well written Vidhyaa Garu.

    Proud of you and your I encourage Hindus to read more of our proud culture, charm of our religion and the mesmerizing peace which comes out of the practice of rituals. Hare Krishna हरे कृष्णा

  2. Sarada devi

    Fantastic Vidhyaa. So proud of you.

  3. Usha Ramaswamy

    Vidya . Such a sweet story narrated in your own special way including the way the payasam is being made .Thanks for sending it on Janmashtami. May Lord Krishna’s blessings be on you always to share more and more of our legends and puranas amongst the children especially .
    Ps Bhavanas illustration is stunning

  4. Anita rajaram

    Beautiful story Vidhya n interestingly narrated Vidhya

  5. Vidhya Sivakumar

    Very interesting and a totally new story for me 🙂 loved the way you have narrated it vidhya 😊

  6. Badri

    Very nice story ma! Love the new style of writing 🙂

  7. Rajagopal Menon

    Beautifully written.

  8. Gomathi

    That’s a beautiful story with very good description matched by Bhavna’s very nice drawing. The maths is amazing !!
    I remember tasting the Payasam with no background knowledge. Our driver Mr.Linson also enjoyed his share.

  9. BHARATHY VARADARAJAN

    Hi Vidhyaa,
    Very nice narration of the story. We have visited Aballapuzha Temple & heard the story but you have brought it as a picture in visual form. Thank you & Best wishes.
    (I am a friend of Gomathy Srinivasan )

  10. Ramesh V

    Beautifully narrated story Vidhyaa. This is the first time I’m hearing this story but I could visualise the story unfolding before me – that’s how well you have narrated it.

  11. Lalithambal Natarajan

    Great story very well narrated

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