Chabcha: The counting game

Ugyen Penjor

A simple game that many Bhutanese girls grew up playing and can hardly recall the rules now is chabcha, a stone game. Five small pebbles that can easily fit in the palm and knowing how to count is all the game requires.

Chabcha starts with the player hurling one pebble in the air and dropping four on the floor, only using one hand. The counting, in a cheerful tune, starts when the pebble is thrown in the air. With one pebble in the air, the player has to grab three of the four pebbles on the floor to count to two.

The counting goes as follows:

Ganga ganga, gaaanga (one)

Ganga ganga dohga (two)

Dohga dohga sum ga (three)

Sumga sumga zhiga (four)

Zhiga zhiga ngaga (five)

When the count reaches 20 without failing to grab the pebbles or dropping the one in the air, the player bends her little finger to indicate a 20. If she drops the pebble, the next player gets the turn. The game finishes when the count reaches kukhey nga da nga (105).  In the old days, using multiples of 20 was a popular counting method. For instance, 100 is khey nga (Khey means 20 and nga means five. 5X20 = 100). It is used in all forms of accounting whether measuring grains or cash.

“It’s a pastime after the early dinner,” says Tshering, 58, who when called for an interview, had to recollect the rules of the game. “It is a fun game requiring only two players. But the more, the merrier.”

Tshering cannot remember the last time she played chabcha, but recalls how they visited their friends’ places after dinner to play and sometimes compete.  “All we need is five small stones, and can sit and play all day long whether when we are herding cattle or between chores.”

Tshering said that their parents would stop them from playing the game at home at night. According to the mother of four, it is believed that playing chabcha at home is not good for the cattle. In a rural home, the cattle are sheltered on the ground floor of the house. Tshering is unaware of why playing chabcha would affect the cattle.

It was probably done to stop children from disturbing the elders. “The counting and throwing pebbles on the floor is quite noisy,” she says.

Tshering’s daughter had heard about the game but never tried it. She is 28 and had tried ek dupa, another stone game with different rules, probably popular among the Lhotshampas, as the name suggests. Ek dupa too is also an unfamiliar term among the young these days.

“These games were popular when there was no entertainment in the past. With smartphones, WeChat, WhatsApp, TikTok, and television, who would play with pebbles,” says Chencho, a village elder. “Times have changed and so has how we pass free time.”

Photo: https://images.mandala.library.virginia.edu/