Antakshari recitation in India

« previous post | next post »

This is part of a long series of Language Log posts in which we pondered the phenomenal memorization skills of persons of Indian heritage (see "Selected readings" below).

So you know what's happening in the following astonishing video, let me begin by giving a basic definition, etymology, and explication of what happens in this intricate word game:

Antakshari, also known as Antyakshari (अंताक्षरी transl. The game of the ending letter) is a spoken parlor game played in India. Each contestant sings the first verse of a song (often Classical Hindustani or Bollywood songs) that begins with the consonant of Hindi alphabet on which the previous contestant's song ended.

The word is derived from two Sanskrit words: antya (अन्त्य) meaning end + akshara (अक्षर) meaning letter of the alphabet. When these words are combined and an '-i' suffixed, the term means "The game of the ending letter". Due to schwa syncope in Hindi and other Indo-Aryan languages, Antyakshari is pronounced antakshri. A dialectical variation of the word is इन्ताक्षरी or intakshri.

Antakshari was originally present in the Ramayana, where rishis (sages) sang the first verses of bhajanas continuously by singing another Bhajana beginning with the last letter of the ending word.

The game can be played by two or more people and is popular as a group activity during commutes, and social gatherings. The first singer has to sing two complete lines and then s/he may stop at the end of those or following lines. The last letter of the last word sung is then used by the next singer to sing another song, starting with that letter. The winner or winning team is decided by a process of elimination. The person or team that cannot come up with a song with the right consonant is eliminated if their opponents can produce such a song.

The game is often kicked off with the consonant /m/ (म ) with the recitation of the following couplet which varies, but usually has wording similar to –

बैठे बैठे क्या करे? करना है कुछ काम,

शुरू करो अंताक्षरी, लेके प्रभु का ना!

Baiṭhē, baiṭhē, kya karē? Karnā hai kuch kām,
Shurū karō antākshari, lēkē Prabhu ka nām!

Sitting here all bored, whatever shall we do?

Take the name of the Lord and start a game of Antākshari!


This is a performance by a group of girls who have memorized the Bhagavad Gita and are reciting verses with each new verse starting with the last letter of the previous verse.

It is evident that the girls are enjoying this cerebral pastime.

This reminds me of similar poetic games in medieval China and Japan where friends would entertain themselves by engaging in linked verse composition.  One person would recite a line, and the next person would recite the succeeding line by beginning it with the last word of the preceding line.


Selected readings

[Thanks to H. Krishnapriyan]


  1. denis mair said,

    July 1, 2023 @ 10:28 am

    That kind of game is also played in Iran, using Persian verses. // There is an anglicized form of linked haiku verse called "RENGAY," developed by American enthusiasts based on Japanese "renga." The Anglicized form is generally shorter, only six linked verses so it can fit on one page. There is a "rengay" journal. Here is a site dedicated to "rengay":

  2. Frank Chance said,

    July 1, 2023 @ 11:21 am

    There is also a simpler form of the game in Japanese called "shiritori" "take (tori") the butt (shiri). It involves words, not verses, and each contestant in turns begins a word with the final sound of the previous word. Thus you might get a series like "sushi – shiri – riisaitaru (recital) – ruri (lapis lazuli) etc… See for official rules.

  3. François Demay said,

    July 1, 2023 @ 2:04 pm

    En français on a l'équivalent, parfois appelé le "Jeu des Queues"
    Ci-dessous, deux sites pour des exemples et une analyse.



  4. Tom Rathborne said,

    July 1, 2023 @ 2:58 pm

    I've always played it as 'geography' in which each item is the name of some place or geographical feature. My family only plays it during long car trips, but it was also played in school. On the final day day of grade 7 geography class, given 'O' as the starting letter, my classmate could not think of any word that had not yet been used, so said "Over". "Over?" asked the teacher. "As in: geography is over!" came the reply.

  5. Deven M. Patel said,

    July 2, 2023 @ 1:39 pm

    There is a forerunner in India to the game Victor mentions here called Aksharashlokam. It is an active tradition in the southern Indian state of Kerala. It is mostly now done in Malayalam but it used to be a mix of both Malayalam and Sanskrit verse. I visited a master of this art form in 1999, KPC Nambudiripad, and recorded a long session of some virtuoso players, who had hundreds of Sanskrit verses on the tips of their tongue. Unlike Antyakshari, the special rule, if I recall correctly, is that the last syllable of the final quarter of the verse (or song nowadays) doesn't ignite the next verse but rather it's the penultimate syllable of the third quarter of the verse (!). I saw young children in schools being trained in this game at Trichur, in central Kerala, and so the tradition continues for at least another generation. Here is a Wikipedia article on this game:

  6. Fred Smith said,

    July 2, 2023 @ 1:45 pm

    It's not necessary to make much of the pronunciation of the word, with or without the "y". The recitation on this video is of the Bhagavad Gita for he hundredth anniversary of the well-known Gita Press, in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. I observed innumerable antyakṣari contests in india. They used to have national contests (maybe they still do). Quickness and extreme memory are the requirements. I know a pandit from Mysore who won the national contest at least ten times. He had memorized more than ten thousand verses by the time he was sixteen years old, and probably doubled that in every decade after that. Now, at around eighty, I swear he still knows them all. This has been adapted to Hindi film songs (and doubtless venues in other Indian regional languages), and I have seen rooms full of film buffs play this as a party game. It's very thrilling, and elicits oohs and aahs and much twittering when someone comes up with a really obscure song from the 1950s.

  7. Surendra Gambhir said,

    July 2, 2023 @ 2:53 pm

    I participated many times in Antyakshari in Bharat (India). It was always a lot of fun in reciting in Hindi and Sanskrit. I don’t know personally but I am reasonably sure that this game is played in all major languages of the country.

  8. crturang said,

    July 2, 2023 @ 4:25 pm

    Adding a note that this sort of thing is more than a mere game. In Tamil, there are andAdi compositions, for example, the famous tiruvAymozhi of Nammalvar, which is a composition of 1102 verses. Each verse begins with the last syllables of the previous verse (the meaning of the syllables can be the same or different) and the final verse ends with the first syllables of the first verse, thereby making the entire poem cyclic.

  9. maidhc said,

    July 3, 2023 @ 3:33 am

    There is a musical relative of this in Quebec called "Pure Laine". In the beginning of this video there is a pretty good description of the rules. The music starts around 8 minutes. This is maybe not the best video, but it's easy to find a lot more.

    Spare a thought for the poor piano player.

    I think many cultures have similar poetic competitions.

  10. David said,

    July 5, 2023 @ 12:16 pm

    Similar games were played in classical antiquity as well. According to the dinner-party writer Athenaeus (10.458a), at ancient symposia guests were expected to provide verses of Homer beginning and ending with the same letter (alpha, epsilon, etc.), or Homeric verses whose first and last syllables combine to form other words (lyre, etc.).

RSS feed for comments on this post