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Some History

{extracts by kind permission of  Ram Chatlani, author of "Karom Reflections}
Pen and Ink Graphic It is safe to assume that karom (or 'carrom') as we know it today has been played for nearly two hundred years although games of a very similar nature have been played for thousands of years under a variety of names. No one knows when the first game of karom was played in the style with which we are now familiar although we know when the word entered into usage. The word "carrom" probably originates in Timor in south east Asia.

Carrom in Kathmandu
Carrom players in the streets of
Kathmandu, Nepal

From there it travelled with the Portuguese who found it to be a convenient description for the Malabar coast of India. It is also the name of a particularly delicious fruit (star fruit) and by the late eighteenth century the English speaking world was familiar with the word in the context of the game of 'carrom billiards', a game played on a snooker type table without pockets. A little more time passes and the word 'carrom' becomes prominent in English usage, thanks to the growing popularity of billiards, to mean 'hitting one thing on to another'. More time passes and the word 'carrom' becomes the now more familiar 'canon' in English usage . By the time 'canon' was in usage in English 'carom' was becoming the standard name for a variety of games that form the basis of this book.

Carrom is an ancient game that has survived into the modern world because it is easily adapted to suit the existing circumstances. Tolerance for different styles of play is the very heart of the success of the game. It is and always has been a game played by simple folk, for simple pleasures. Pen and Ink Graphic

Games are part of living culture, something that has been recognised by games commentators over the centuries. Like language, they are adopted from other countries, or brought in by travellers and adapted to suit. This is the nature of language, it is the nature of games and it is the nature of human culture.

The present knowledge we have of the game of carrom holds its own clues: it is played differently in different parts of the world and even called different names. People who know the game have a remarkable store of sources and origins for the game, all of which differ and contradict each other. Later we will explore the different styles and techniques of play and see what light this throws upon the matter.

It is clear that the recent history of carrom involves the Portuguese. They may not be solely responsible although they are being remembered as responsible. Just as in the same way Aristotle is remembered for the books which did survive and not for the other works which did not. Concerning karom, we have to credit the Portuguese if for no other reason than they are responsible for the existence of the word carrom and because they are the people to whom the history books point.

Part of the process of games is to teach. Either someone teaches you, you teach someone else or the game teaches you. This can happen on many levels. One of the broader parameters of this notion is connected to the history and background of the game and its generalities. The potential to learn from these is manifold

Carrom does not comply with all the rules of form that many of us have learnt to expect from games. If you learn one tradition you will certainly encounter others.

Carrom is considered an oriental game and touched with the charm of things from the east. Either because it is an oriental game, or because it is played by orientals, but more likely because it is played by so many different cultures, Carrom at first seems without certain form, without fixed rules. Anyone who claims that their tradition is the only tradition does a disservice to the game and to the generations of cultures who in their own individual and unique ways have developed forms, styles and traditions that continue to be borrowed, adapted and adopted. Carrom is simple: it is the development of a very early game played by our oldest ancestors and given a certain form. Because this form has been given by thousands of different people over the centuries there is no certain form, just a collection of different forms. Pen and Ink Graphic

Speaking to one native of China in 1993 I was amazed to learn from her that "everyone in Hong Kong and China plays carrom". It surprised me because my contact with the Chinese (in the form of sailors, chefs , acupuncturists and herbalists) had disclosed very limited knowledge of the game. Still I was glad to learn that the Chinese describe the game of carrom with three Chinese characters that roughly translate as "a healthy game." Those who have had any doubt about playing carrom may now take up the practice in earnest. For a game to earn such a label from the Chinese is indeed a special affair.

It says much about the charm and universal appeal of the game of carrom that almost anywhere in the world you can set up a board, flick around a few pieces and soon enough there is bound to come along someone who wants to know, wants to play or simply wants to watch. Over the last ten years, in seven countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe I've done just that during some ten thousand hours of public exhibition carrom play.

Carrom is played and known by people in more countries than you could hope to visit in a lifetime.

Where can you buy a Rulebook?, see the pages of Karum, the Board Maker.

The most comprehensive rule book available in the carrom world is the UK Carrom Club rulebook, originally written in 1986 and revised since then. It encompasses many of the known variations in the game, even those that are at odds with each other. So for example, it states the possibility of backshots and the possibility of rebounds only. It indicates various sizes of striker, board and material for stones. The variations that cannot be played together are marked with an asterisk and the most recent edition of this rule book appears in the appendix. The most charming and the oldest known rule book is the All India Carrom Federation rule book. Its charm is disclosed only to the attentive and tenacious reader. Its language is sometimes amusing, often arcane. It covers only one system of rules, the backshots, wooden pieces and powder game but covers every conceivable situation in an Indian carrom match.

The All India Carrom Federation rulebook is now in its third edition. Early editions are still the best and most amusing since they contain some important fouls and penalties such as rule 23 (a) regarding the use of `unparliamentary language' or 23 (e) regarding passing `"insulating"[sic] remarks against the referee' and 23 (f) regarding `smelling foul due to intoxicating drink' and, most interestingly, 23 (i) regarding `disturbing or distracting the attention of the opponent while at play more than three times'. Less comprehensible are the fact that the rule book states that the `Queen means the red carrom man' and that there should be `four pockets at each corner'.

For details on where you can buy a Carrom Board, see the pages of Karum, the Board Maker.

Design on the board itself varies but always tends to include the following features: moons [the concentric circles closing the striking boxes or tramlines]; striking boxes, almost always four, one on each side of the board; arrows pointing to the corner pockets; at least two concentric circles in the centre, one being exclusively for the queen and usually about the size of the queen, the other marking the area where the pieces are set up at the start and making the area where penalty pieces may be returned. Other embellishments and artwork depend on the taste of the maker or buyer. The tradition exists for "keys" to be included in the artwork on carrom boards [or any work of art]. These keys may disclose a system of philosophy, or they may disclose aspects of the relationship between the planets and stars, in the same way that a system of philosophy is said to have been secreted into playing cards to ensure its survival through the ages, although mostly dormant, in the hands of card players . In the same way I have heard the design in particular carrom boards described as depicting in their design certain aspects of astrology, or including designs that are a reflection of universal cosmic laws. A board carrying a yin yang or OM symbol would be the clearest way of using a carrom board design to carry a message of substance. It is a familiar feature of many things that are at our hands and perhaps in daily use: that we are not necessarily aware of all the implications. Someone somewhere has a master plan. It may or may not be depicted in your carrom board but it is, say some, for example, depicted in the great pyramid at Giza and in Stonehenge or found in the geometry of the cathedral at Notre Dame and so on. As Jung said of the collective unconscious "it is common to all; it is the foundation of what the ancients called the 'sympathy of all things'" and it is alive and well in the karom realm.

Copyright 1997, 2000, chandra lal.
Last Update 20.02.2000