10 traditional Indian toys that are good for play and the planet

Steena Joy
·Contributor
·10 min read

As India’s first Toy Fair is being held virtually till March 2, interest in Indian toys has revived, which is after all the aim behind PM Modi’s call for an Atmanirbhar Toy industry.

India’s tryst with toys dates back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Excavations of cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa have uncovered toy carts made of terracotta and simple playthings made of clay - their detailing shows that they were made by skilled craftsmen. These toys were not just tools of learning but they were made of materials that were not only local but sustainable as well. Unlike most of our modern toys which are either made of plastic or non bio-degradeable materials which find their way to landfills and remain in the soil forever.

So, let’s take a look at 10 traditional Indian toys that are not only good as playthings but are also good for our Planet.

1. Lattu (Spinning Top)

Lattu or spinning top is one of the oldest desi toys. It has been in existence for thousands of years. Like many traditional games such as marbles, the earliest tops were made from clay, and were discovered in the Middle East as early as 3500 BC. Later wooden spinning tops emerged around 2000 BC. Some early spinning tops made from bones have been found in Europe.

A wooden top can balance itself on a point of a nail because of the “Gyroscopic Effect”, which combines the universal laws of inertia (& momentum), friction and gravity, and the transfer of potential to Kinetic energy.

A wooden top can balance itself on a point of a nail because of the “Gyroscopic Effect”, which combines the universal laws of inertia (& momentum), friction and gravity, and the transfer of potential to Kinetic energy
A wooden top can balance itself on a point of a nail because of the “Gyroscopic Effect”, which combines the universal laws of inertia (& momentum), friction and gravity, and the transfer of potential to Kinetic energy

While it is called Lattu in Hindi or Urdu, its other names include Bambaram (Tamil Nadu), Pambaram (Kerala) and Bongaralu Aata (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana).

The Lattu spins rapidly with the aid of a string rope coiled around its axis which when pulled quickly, sets it in motion. 'Haath Jali' is a unique way of playing with Lattu where the spinning top is taken on the palm. Desi Toys offers these authentic colourful 'Lattus' in wood so they are eco-friendly.

2. Bhatukali

Bhatukali are miniature versions of kitchen sets. Utensils and other household items were scaled down to the greatest detail and were made from copper and brass. In ancient times, Bhatukli was devised as a method of getting young girls to learn home management rituals and traditions through play. Children used these to imitate their mothers to cook and make use of everyday household items.

Though Bhatukali existed in some form across the country, it was more predominant in Maharashtra. Bhatukali is mentioned in the ‘Dnyaneshwari’ written by the 12th century Marathi saint-poet Dnyaneshwar. The word Bhatukali also finds mention in the ‘Kamasutra’ written by Vatsyayana Mallanaga. Bhatukali is also one of the 14 vidyas and 64 kalas recognised by Vedic scholars.

In ancient times, Bhatukli was devised as a method of getting young girls to learn home management rituals and traditions through play
In ancient times, Bhatukli was devised as a method of getting young girls to learn home management rituals and traditions through play

Studio Coppre has Bhatukali sets made of brass so they have an uber-cool sustainability factor. You can shop for your kids knowing you won't be adding to the toy-plastic footprint on our Planet.

These pretend play miniatures are handcrafted by highly skilled artisans. Only a handful of artisans remain with the knowhow of crafting these traditional toywares. Terracota ones are available on Amazon.

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3. Pachisi

Pachisi, also known as "Twenty Five", is the national game of India and has been played here for millennia. The variant of this is the lesser known ancestor Chaupar (also Chaupur or Chaupad).

Different regions have given Pachisi different names - Pagade (Kannada); Sokkattan (Tamil); Pagdi Pat (Marathi) - and internationally, Parcheesi (USA); Parchís (Spain). This game may have been a precursor to the modern day board game, Ludo.

But unlike Ludo, the Pachisi board is made of cloth in a patchwork design. The four arms/limbs of the board are conjoined at the center called 'Char Koni'. Each arm of the board has three marked squares, which are called 'castles.' The game set comes with a set of 12 beehive shaped wooden pawns in yellow, black, red, and green. The players throw cowrie shells on the Char Koni and the pawns move according to the number of shells that fall with the open face. The objective of the game is to get all the four pawns, allocated to each player, to complete the round of the board as fast as possible.

Ancient Living sells a Pachisi board made of Raw silk. Smartcraft Store also retails Pachisi boards on Amazon.

4. Chaturanga

Chaturanga or Chaduranga was invented at least 1,500 years ago and is believed to be the earliest predecessor of the game of Chess. The Arabians adapted it to Shatranj, which was later embraced by the Europeans during the Medieval Period who modified it to Chess.

Chaturanga is played by four players unlike two players on the conventional chess board and a single stick dice known as the Daala.

Though both Chaturanga and Chess are played with almost same pawns and board, unlike Chess, Chaturanga is played by four players and one common Daala. Also unlike Chess, Chaturanga has no light and dark squares – it is played on a plain, uncheckered board.

Players are divided into two groups, with two players in each group and each player gets four soldiers, 1 elephant, 1 horse, 1 bishop and either a king or a queen. The name Chaturanga, roughly translates to "four limbs" from Sanskrit. It is believed that the game’s pieces represented the four divisions of the Indian army at that time -infantry, elephantry, cavalry and chariots.

5. Channapatna Toys

Not many toys can boast of having a 300-year old history that began because of a king; it is said that King Tipu Sultan who ruled Mysuru from 1750 to 1799 received a lacquered Persian toy which excited him enough to send for artisans from there to train some of his people. And that’s how the wooden toys made in Channapatna became famous.

It is said that King Tipu Sultan who ruled Mysuru from 1750 to 1799 received a lacquered Persian toy which excited him enough to send for artisans from there to train some of his people. And that’s how the wooden toys made in Channapatna became famous
It is said that King Tipu Sultan who ruled Mysuru from 1750 to 1799 received a lacquered Persian toy which excited him enough to send for artisans from there to train some of his people. And that’s how the wooden toys made in Channapatna became famous

This town near Bengaluru is also called Town of toys (Gombegala nagara). The World Trade Organisation’s Geographical Indication gives this town exclusive rights to sell its toys under the Channapatna name. With the Prince of Bhutan and former US President Barack Obama being famous recipients of these unique wooden toys, Channapatna toys are known across the globe.

The toys are made with wood mainly ivory wood known as alae mara in Kannada giving a polished look to the wooden toys.

The woodwork is coloured using vegetable dyes so the toys are completely environment-friendly. The toys include not just dolls and horses, but also mathematical games and puzzles, all made of wood. Channapatna Toys and Engrave both retail these toys online.

6. Kondapalli Toys

Kondapalli Toys are the toys made of wood in Kondapalli of Krishna district, a village nearby Vijayawada in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Kondapalli was registered as one of the Geographical Indication handicrafts from Andhra Pradesh as per Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999. These toys are used during the festivals of Sankranti and Navratri and is referred to as Bommala Koluvu.

The Kondapalli toys are made from soft wood known as Tella Poniki which are found in nearby Kondapalli Hills. Each part is carved out separately. Then a paste of tamarind seed powder & sawdust called makku is used to join pieces together, and finish the toys. The wooden piece is heated to make it moisture-free. Water and oil colours or vegetable dyes are used to paint the toys using soft and thin paint brushes made of goat's hair. The artisans mainly work on producing figures of mythology, animals, birds, bullock carts, rural life etc.

Kondapalli toys are made from soft wood known as Tella Poniki which are found in nearby Kondapalli Hills
Kondapalli toys are made from soft wood known as Tella Poniki which are found in nearby Kondapalli Hills

Kondapalli soldiers, pen stand, Dasavatar set and the Ambari elephants are among the famous items produced. They are available on the Andhra Pradesh Handicrafts Development Corporation website and on Artsy Tribe.

7. Natungram Dolls

Natungram is a small village of Bardhaman district in West Bengal, the hub of wooden doll makers also known as ‘Sutradhars’ (narrator or storyteller). Carved out of a single piece of wood, these dolls from ancient folklore and mythology are characterised by their vibrant colours.

The dolls are mainly made out of ‘gamar’ wood, mango wood, shimul wood, ata wood, chatim wood. Around 51 families living in the area are involved in doll making and it is a family based activity. The men generally complete the cutting and carving the wood as per the requirement and women then step in to paint the products with various colours.

West Bengal State Government’s Department of Micro Small and Medium Enterprises & Textiles, in association with UNESCO, has developed Natungram as one of the Rural Craft Hubs of the state.

8. Thanjavur Dolls

Another toy that has received Geographical Indication (GI tagging) by the Government of India in 2008-09 is the Thanjavur doll. The history of this doll is as old as the 19th century where it was first made by an artist from King Saboji’s Kingdom.

The Thanjavur or Tanjore doll with detailed, painted exteriors is a type of traditional Indian bobblehead (head is detachable) made using various materials including papier mache, plaster of Paris, terracotta or very light wood.

In Tamil language, these dolls are called Thanjavur Thalayatti Bommai which translates to ‘Thanjavur Head-shaking Doll’
The centre of gravity and total weight of these dolls is concentrated at the bottom-most point, generating a dance-like continuous movement

In Tamil language, these dolls are called Thanjavur Thalayatti Bommai which translates to ‘Thanjavur Head-shaking Doll’. They are handcrafted by traditional artisans who have been in the business for generations and have mastered the fine art of balance in these dolls. The centre of gravity and total weight of these dolls is concentrated at the bottom-most point, generating a dance-like continuous movement. You can shop Thanjavur dolls on Thugil and CraftsnRustics.

9. Gulel (Slingshot) and Dug dugi (Rattle)

This classic Slingshot/Catapult toy from the 90's consists of a Y-shaped frame held in the off hand, with two rubber strips attached to it. The other ends of the strips lead back to a pocket which holds the projectile. The pocket is grasped by the dominant hand and drawn back and then let go, very similar to a catapult.

Dug Dugi is a traditional Indian Rattle, and has been around for ages in India and helps to keep the child busy with its cute Dug-dug sound.

10. Pallankuzhi

Pallankuzhi is a traditional ancient mancala game played in South India especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Later the game spread to other places including Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in India as well as, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.

It is played on a rectangular board with 2 rows and 7 columns. There are a total of 14 cups (kuzhi means 'pit' in Malayalam/Tamil language. Hence the name from fourteen pits - pathinaalam kuzhi) and 146 counters. For the counters in the game, seeds, shells, small stones are commonly used.

Pallankuzhi has many names - Alaguli Mane in Kannada, Picchala Peeta in Telugu and Satkoli in Marathi
Pallankuzhi has many names - Alaguli Mane in Kannada, Picchala Peeta in Telugu and Satkoli in Marathi

As the game proceeds, each player distributes the shells over all the pits. The game ends when one of the players captures all the shells, and is declared as a winner. Tamarind seeds and cowry shells (Sozhi in Tamil language) are used in this game, to fill the holes of the Alli gulli board.

It has many names - Alaguli Mane in Kannada, Picchala Peeta in Telugu and Satkoli in Marathi.

Pallankuzhi boards are available on Thugil and Kalpadruma.

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