Warring Myths

A children’s card game based on the Ramayana

Kumbhakarna appears in different guises in Astra’s Indian and Thai variants. Courtesy Toko Innovation Studios
01 April, 2015

“I SAW YOUR KUMBHAKARNA by the way, by the way,” Arnav Mukherjee teased his brother, Aditya. It was October, and the two were seated across each other at a table, in an office in a south Delhi commercial complex. Each held a fanned-out handful of glossy, colourful cards, printed with the names, images and descriptions of individual characters—Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Vishwamitra. Arnav pointed at the back of a card in Aditya’s hand and declared his intent to capture it, then threw down one of his own cards. And so the battle began.

The Mukherjee brothers—Arnav is 22 years old, and Aditya six years his senior—are the inventors of Astra, a children’s collectible card game in which two players wage battles between mythological characters, most of them based on figures from the Ramayana. The brothers hope it will appeal to a generation of Indian youngsters captivated by creative adaptations of Hindu myths—take the Mahabharata-inspired Chhota Bheem cartoons—and character-driven card sets—such as the Pokémon trading cards, which feature fictional creatures from a Japanese anime series. But in creating a commercial spin-off from a text of near-scriptural stature, the Mukherjees have had to balance carefully between popular veneration and potential profit.

The Astra world consists of 40 characters so far, and the brothers have plans to introduce more. Players draw hands of four cards each, and then try to win all of the opponent’s cards. Characters come with attack and defence scores, of up to 100, for “strength” and “magic” powers. On each round, one player chooses a character in his or her possession to pit against one picked blindly from the opposing hand. Battles can take up to two rounds, and depending on outcomes characters can be captured, swapped, or wounded—that is, disabled for two turns.

Kumbhakarna, the giant younger brother of the Ramayana villain Ravana, has strength scores of 100 on attack and 80 on defence; he is, his description says, “one of the most formidable creatures on the earth, a warrior who can destroy an army single-handedly.” On the card, he appears as a bearded man with massive biceps and a protruding stomach, about to thump something on the ground. He proved decisive as the brothers played, and after 20 minutes Aditya won the last of Arnav’s cards from him.

The brothers told me they approximated characters’ descriptions and ratings in the game from stories in the Ramayana. But beyond that, they took a free hand. To illustrate characters, they commissioned artists from India, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States, who turned in dramatic and loudly colourful treatments drawing more on Japanese anime than on Indian popular imagination. These fresh takes, the Mukherjees hope, will mean fresh interest. “What children, and even adults, want today is not a retelling of those old stories,” Arnav said. “They want Harry Potter set in Indian mythology.”

Kumbhakarna appears in different guises in Astra’s Indian and Thai variants. Courtesy Toko Innovation Studios

But many of the Ramayana’s most recognisable heroes do not appear—most conspicuously, Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. Almost all of the game’s characters are yakshas, or nature spirits, and rakshasas; a few are minor deities, such as Kama, Garuda, Yama and Kuber. Aditya told me this was a conscious choice. “Hinduism is an active religion,” he said. The brothers did not want any revered mythological figures or “any of the gods we worship in our game.”

The cards come in randomised packs of five each, an initial batch of which is now on sale in the National Capital Region. The brothers are working to expand across India, and into other countries with popular ties to Hindu mythology. In Thailand, where the Ramakien, derived from the Ramayana, is recognised as a national epic, they’re exploring a tie-up to sell a modified version of the game. Arnav wrote over email that “there will be a lot of localisation, but it’ll be the same concept.” And, he said, since Thais take a less reverent approach to these myths, some characters missing from the Indian version will also appear.

Rama himself, however, will not, if only for reasons of balance in the gameplay. “If we put in Rama,” Arnav told me, “then he will get all the powers.”

Rahul M is an award-winning independent journalist based in Andhra Pradesh.