Even within Indonesia, Congklak is known by different names from region to region. The most common name, Congklak, is taken from the cowrie shell, which is commonly used to play the game. In Malaysia, the game is known as congkak, a name that is used in many Sumatran provinces as well. In Java, the game is known as Congklak, dakon, dhakon or dhakonan. In Lampung, the game is called, dentuman lamban. In Sulawesi, the game is referred to as Mokaotan, Maggaleceng, Aggalacang and Nogarata.
Historical references to Congklak refer to the game played by young girls of Javanese nobility. It is most likely that foreign traders, due to their close contact with the upper classes, introduced Congklak to them. With the passage of time, Congkla’ s popularity grew until its now widely played by the common people as well. In most regions, Congklak play is limited to young girls, teens and women in their leisure time and its seen as a ‘girl’s game’. In only a few regions is Congklak played by men and boys as well.
In Sulawesi, historically, the game was reserved for play only during grieving periods, after the death of a loved one. It was considered taboo to play the game at any other time. In Central Java, in pre-historic times, Congklak was used by farmers to calculate the seasons, to know when to plant and harvest, as well as to predict the future.
The playing board is made from wood, with variations from island to island in the number of holes on each side, either 5, 6, 7 or 9 holes. All the boards have two ‘store house’ holes, one on each end. The design varies from simple, unadorned woods, to boat-shaped boards, to highly decorated playing boards. In Central Java, elaborate designs utilizing the Javanese naga (dragon) are common. Dragons face out from both ends, with their tails decorating the side of the boards and legs suspending the board up off the floor. Congklak boards can be elaborately carved and painted, with gold and red being popular colors. Most, however, are made of relatively plain wood.
As in the archaeological find in Jordan, diggings in Mojokerto, Lamongan and Bondowoso in East Java have unearthed Congklak ‘boards’ with holes carved into large stones. These were found along with the broken pieces of temple stones and other archaeological remains of earlier times.
In Lampung, village children often play without a board, but instead create their own playing area by scooping out holes in the ground and collecting stones or seeds each time they want to play.
Not much has changed since prehistoric times, when Congklak was played with stones or seeds. In Indonesia, stones, seeds and shells are used to play the game, whatever is close at hand. Near a beach shells may be used. Near rivers, the game may be played with smooth pebbles and in agricultural areas, seeds. Commonly used seeds are tamarind, kemiri, sawo and even corn kernels.
The widespread popularity of Congklak around the world can undoubtedly be attributed in part to the simplicity of the materials used to play the game. Congklak, in all its variations, continues to attract dedicated players as well as craftsmen, mathematicians, programmers and collectors of regional art and handicrafts.
Whatever version you play today, and by whatever name you call it, you’ll find Congklak a challenging game of patience and skill.