Volume 62 1953 > Volume 62, No. 1 > The Galah game of Indonesia, by H. A. Holtzappel and W. R. Geddes, p 1-12
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This article describes a variety of “tag-game” played by children in several parts of Java and Sumatra, and discusses the way in which it has spread not only to the Dayaks in the neighbouring island of Borneo but across the world to Holland.

Dr. Holtzappel was until recently Lecturer in Physical Education in the University of Indonesia at Bandoeng, Java. Dr. Geddes, now Lecturer in Social Anthropology at Auckland University College, was engaged for two years on a socio-economic study of the Land Dayaks of Sarawak.

Although the writing of the article has been done co-operatively by the two authors, all the information except that relating to Borneo has been supplied by Dr. Holtzappel.


In the Sundanese villages of West Java, there are several varieties of “tag” games known generically as GALAH. They are so-called because the central line marked on the playing-area looks like the GALAH, or pole, with which a boat is punted. To some extent games of song as well as of movement, they are much the most popular of the games of Sundanese children from the ages of about nine to fifteen years. During the daytime they are played mainly by the boys, the girls being busy at domestic tasks. But in the evenings, if the moon is shining, boys and girls may play together. The playing is usually confined to the season of the east monsoon, for the games demand dry ground.

The particular game with which we are concerned in this article is that known to the Sundanese as GALAH - 2 ASIN. 1 It is by far the most favoured of their tag games. The following description explains the manner of playing it.

Supposing the number of players is ten, the field is marked in the form shown on the opposite page.

The number of players must be even. Ten is the usual number, but if there were more an extra oblong would have to be added for every two. The field is meant to represent a house, with the oblongs as rooms and the cross lines as doors to them. The long middle line is the GALAH.

The players are divided into two teams of equal size, one to attack and the other to defend. The defending team, whose job it is to guard the house from the intruders, is called the NU MEGATAN, or “the Watchers.” The other team is known as the NU NGALUNG, or “the Runners.” By means of a counting-out song, it is determined which team shall have the privilege of being the Runners first.

The Watchers place themselves one apiece on the cross-lines of the playing field. These cross-lines represent the doors between the successive rooms of the house, and the front line is the front door. The Watcher who guards this front line is the captain of his team, and he alone has the right to move down the centre line, or GALAH, as well as across his own cross-line.

The goal of the Runners is to get through all the rooms—that is, all the oblongs—and return through them all to pass out through the front door. The Watchers must try to tag 2 the runners as they pass over the cross-lines or over the GALAH. But they can only do so while they themselves are standing on the lines. The side lines are the limits of the playing-field and are not guarded. If one of the Runners is tagged, his whole team fails.

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The teams then change, to give the former Watchers a chance as Runners.

On the other hand, if a Runner does succeed in passing out the front door on his return, he cries loudly “ASIN!”, and then has won the round for his team. He may not pass out the front door, however, until all the members of his team have succeeded in entering the house—that is to say until all of them have got into at least the first oblong. For this reason it is part of the tactics of the front linesman to let all the Runners except one pass into this oblong at the start of the game. By this means he is able to concentrate on keeping that single one out, thus preventing any other member of the team from clinching the game by passing out of the front room on his return.

The game has its special situational terms. For example, the situation in which two or more Runners are enclosed between two cross-lines and the GALAH line is called GUMBUK (group).


The game may be played with some variation on the normal rules, provided agreement to play according to these variations is reached between the players before they begin. The main variations, and the names for them, are as follows:

a. Gadjligan

This name is derived from the word GADJLENG, meaning “to leap down.” The variation could therefore be called “Leaping Galah.” According to the normal rules the chief Watcher, who guards both the front line and the GALAH line, is not permitted to leap diagonally across from the front line to the GALAH line. But in “Leaping Galah” he may do so. However, he must not tag a Runner during his leap.

b. Bedolan

This name is derived from the word BEDOL, meaning “to tug.” The variation may therefore be called “Tugging Galah.” When a Runner is ringed in by Watchers and believes that he cannot escape, he may - 5 declare his wish to try to cross BEDOLAN. Thereupon he and the Watcher of the line which he wishes to cross grasp each other's hands for a tug-of-war. If the Runner succeeds in dragging the Watcher off his line, he may pass unmolested into the next oblong. If, on the other hand, the Watcher manages to draw the Runner towards him, it counts the same as a tag and the Runner's team loses.

There is craft in the tugging. Each opponent tries to catch the other by surprise with a sudden pull. During the tugging, any other Runners in the same oblong must wait until the contest is decided.

c. Sirah

According to this rule, the Watchers, instead of merely having to touch the Runners anywhere on the body, must touch them on the head. 3

This form of the game is much enjoyed because it gives the boys an occasion to break the Moslem rule of good conduct which decrees that one person should never touch another's head. Thus the tang of the improper adds to the excitement of the game.

Big boys have an advantage in that the Watcher must reach high to touch their heads. Smaller boys try to avoid the tag by leaping up as they cross the lines. [The game may be played according to a combination of the above variations on the normal rules.]

The Sundanese have several other “tag” games, two of which are highly popular. The simpler of these is the game called UTJING KURILING, or “The Circling Cat,” played mainly by girls. The other is a game played more frequently by boys, and is called GALAH GINDER. - 6 The basis of both is a circle. However, since these games have not the same distribution in other regions as the game so far discussed, we shall not treat them here. It is hoped that Dr. Holtzappel will publish a description of them later.


The Javanese, as distinct from the Sundanese, name for the game is GOBAG SODOR. SODOR is the term for a wooden or metal lance about two metres in length. The term is said to be applied to the game because the movement of the Watcher who guards both the front cross-line and the long centre line resembles the thrusting of a lance. The Watcher himself is also called the SODOR.

In Central Java the game is played in the same general way as amongst the Sundanese. There are some minor variations, however. One of these is that the Runner who first succeeds in completing the course calls out IWAK, or “Fish!”, thus signifying a win for his side. Alternatively he may cry out MENTAS, meaning in this sense “End!”.

The number of players varies usually between six and ten. When the number is six, a situation may arise in which three Runners are bottled up in one square between two cross-lines and the centre line. There will now be a Watcher on each of the lines so that together they equal the number of Runners in the square. Thus there will be no opportunity for one Runner to create a diversion in order to allow another Runner to escape. Therefore the situation may be recognised as hopeless. The Runners then give in, and the teams change over.

In Cheribon, u.m. in Madjalenka, according to reports, the rules of the game permit the SODOR, or Chief Watcher, to run across the corners of the front compartment in order to reach the centre line. This modification of the game was not witnessed in the villages in the Preanger visited by Dr. Holtzappel.


Snouck Hurgronje 4 describes a game played by the Achinese children of Sumatra which is clearly the same - 7 game in a slightly different form. It is known as MEUTA THAM EUË GALAH. A condensed translation of Hurgronje's description, with the diagram by which he illustrates it on the next page, is as follows:

“Besides the GALAH line AB, which one may imagine as capable of infinite extension at both ends, there are a number of cross-lines, CD, EF, and so on, at equal distances apart. The number of these cross-lines depends on the number of players: 12 players will have 5 cross-lines, 14 players will have 6 cross-lines, and so on. . .”

It will be noted that in the Sundanese form of the game, the number of cross-lines was equal to half the number of players, whereas in this Achinese form it is always one less than half. The reason for the difference is quite simple. It is that in the Achinese form the GALAH line has a separate Watcher, whereas in the Sundanese form it was guarded by the same Watcher who guarded also the front cross-line. In the Achinese game, if there are 12 players altogether, 6 of them will be in the Watcher's team. One has to guard the GALAH line AB, and this leaves only 5. Therefore there can be only five cross-lines.

Hurgronje's description goes on to explain that the Runners must try to cross over all the lines from front to back and then return over them all from back to front, being exposed to the danger of tagging as they do so. A Runner who is tagged is said “to die,” and his whole team dies with him, thus losing the game. For a win, the Runners must achieve what is called a BILON, that is, they must have two of their team complete the course before any of them has been tagged.

There is some variation also from the Sundanese form of the game in the tagging rules. Although the Watcher on the GALAH line may tag in any direction, the Watchers on the cross-lines may tag only in the direction from which the Runner is attempting to cross the line. On the other hand, a Watcher is not obliged to be actually on his line when he makes a tag. He is permitted to spring from it as far as he may do in a single leap with his feet together.

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In the Land Dayak village of Mentu Tapuh, where the second of the present authors lived during part of 1949 and almost all of 1950, the children often played the game. The form it took was almost identical with the Sundanese GALAH ASIN. The main difference was that there was an extra oblong at the front of the playing field, and it was from this that the Runners started and to this that they had to return to complete the course.

Quite possibly the game is played elsewhere in Borneo and may even be widely distributed, but we have no other information about it. We cannot therefore discuss its occurrence in Borneo generally. But we may ask how it came to be played in this particular village, which is remotely situated on the upper reaches of the Kedup tributary of the Sadong river.

Any answer to the question must be speculative, but there are some interesting clues. Let us consider them briefly:

1. In other villages in the Land Dayak area of which Mentu Tapuh forms a part, the game was not noticed. It may be played in some of them but, at best, its distribution is patchy. It can be played in Mentu Tapuh because, although the area required for playing is small, it is one of the few villages which has even that amount of flat, clear, unmuddy ground. Other villages, however, could without a great deal of trouble make such an area, and had the game been a traditional feature of their culture one might have expected to find it made. It looks, therefore, as of the game were an innovation adopted in this one village, and perhaps in a few others, because the ground happened to be suitable. If the nature of the ground has not in fact played a part in affecting the spread of the game, the patchy distribution is even more indicative of recent introduction, by which we mean within the last few generations.
2. In the Sundanese and Javanese villages the game is only one of a number of similar team - 10 games. In Mentu Tapuh it is the sole team game, and it is played only in the one single form. The absense of other team games, or of variations of this one, again suggests that the game is an acquisition from another area.
3. In Mentu Tapuh the name of the game is not GALAH, which is unknown. It is GEM, a word not used otherwise by the Land Dayaks. The suspicion arises that the word is really a Dayak rendering of the English word, GAME. This suggests that the game may have been taught to Land Dayaks by a European. If such were the case, it must have happened a fairly long time ago because the elderly men in Mentu Tapuh—and the oldest still reliable was 68 years of age—said they had played the game when they were children. It need not have originated much earlier than their childhood, however. The Land Dayaks are not historians. Most of them do not know the names of their great-grandparents, and many are even uncertain of the names of one or both of their grandparents. It is quite possible, too, that the game reached Mentu Tapuh through a Dayak intermediary who may have learnt it in another village or at an early Mission station or Government centre.

The three clues all suggest that the game is not a feature of the indigenous culture of Mentu Tapuh. How it reached the village cannot be decided definitely. Europeans may have had nothing to do with it and it may have been learnt from Malays, for we have no information as to whether the game occurs, or how wide-spread it may be, among the Malays of Borneo. Nevertheless, it is not fantastic to suppose that the process by which the game spread to this particular Borneo village is in fact the same as that which, as we shall see in a moment, seems to have carried to the other side of the world—the interest of people of a culture alien to those who developed the game. In the case just discussed, these aliens passed the game on to another culture. In the following case, they brought it home to their own.

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In the 1932 Guide for Dutch games, 5 published in Groningen/Batavia, mention is made of a game called “GALLAH,” which is described as a “variation of the game of prisoners' bars over three or more bars.” This is surely the Sundanese GALAH ASIN interpreted in a more familiar symbolism.

Dr. Holtzappel has personal knowledge that a game called “GALAH,” identical in rules with the Sundanese GALAH ASIN, was popular until about 1925 amongst children in some of the municipalities in the Guelders Valley.

All the evidence strongly suggests that the Dutch game was in fact an acquisition from Indonesia. Etymologically there seem to be no grounds for deriving the word “GALAH,” or “GALLAH,” from any source in Dutch or in any other European language. None of the accounts which have been consulted of children's games in other parts of Europe make any reference to a game of similar name.

In his book entitled, in translation, “Children's games in Het Gooi,” 6 De Vrankryker refers to a game called “GALLEN” which closely resembles the Sundanese GALAH GINDER. We have not concerned ourselves in the present article with this particular Sundanese game, but this further correspondence strengthens the case for a diffusion of tag-games from Indonesia.

The actual process of diffusion need involve no puzzle. In both the Het Gooi region and in the Guelders Valley there settled many Dutch persons on leave, or repatriated, from Indonesia, and their children could well have brought the game back with them.

A further point of interest is that in the 1948 Guide for Dutch games 7 no mention is made of “GALLAH.” The elimination of the reference made in the 1932 edition could mean that the game has been recognised as a foreign one, thus strengthening the supposition of diffusion made above. Alternatively, it could mean that, as far as is known to the authors of the Guide, the game has ceased to be played in Holland.

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The spread of the GALAH game through the islands of Indonesia and across the world to Holland is an unspectacular case of diffusion. It has not altered people's lives as the diffusion of ideas political, religious, or economic may do. It is useful to note the case, nevertheless. It reminds us of the community of children of all races, a fact which we tend to forget when we consider the differences which politics, religion and economics so often create.

1   This is the name by which the game was called in Kampong Sekoloa. At Bandoeng it is known as GALAH ULUNG. The word ASIN means “salt,” or “salty.” We are uncertain of the reason for its use in the context of the game.
2   The tagging of a runner is called TEPAK (“to stick something with the flat of the hand”). On this account, the game is sometimes called GALAH TEPAK.
3   Sometimes a rule is made that the Runners must be seized by the ears. This form is not regarded, however, as a proper or dignified form of the game.
Reports have been received of a form of GALAH played in Padangsidimpuan in South-Tapanuli on the West Coast of Sumatra in which the Watcher must clasp the Runner in his arms. If the Runner cannot free himself, his team loses. To avoid being clasped the Runners sometimes make dive-leaps close above the ground. It is regarded as a rough game.
4   Snouck Hurgronje, prof. Dr. C.: De Atjéhers. (E. J. Brill, Leiden & Batavia, 1894.) Vol. 2, p. 203ff.
5   Het Bewegingsspel. Technische Commissie van de Nederlandse Bond voor Lichamelyke Opvoeding. (J. B. Wolters, Groningen/Batavia, 1932.) 6th revised edition, p:. 164.
6   de Vrankryker, dr. A. C. J. Kinderspelen in het Gooi. (Reprint from Volkskunde.)
7   Ons Speeluur. Technische Commissie van de Nederlandse Bond voor Lichamelyke Opvoeding. (J. B. Wolters, Groningen/Batavia, 1948.) 11th edition, Vol. 1.