Its one of the most popular board games across the world and chances are that you would have played at some time or other. But did you know that Ludo traces its roots to the ancient Indian game of Pachisi going back to 6th century CE! The game of Pachisi was extremely popular in ancient and medieval India and a version of the game called Chaupar or Chausar, is central to the story of Mahabharata, when Yudhisthir lost his kingdom, wife and brothers to the Kauravas in this game.
The earliest reference to board games in India comes from excavations carried out in Harappan sites, and go back all the way to 2500 BCE. Dice and counters have been found in Harappan sites like Harappa, Mohenjodaro and Lothal. The popularity of these games can also be seen in the the Rig Veda. In Book 10, verse 34, there is a ‘Gambler’s Hymn’’ which warns of the dire consequences of gambling. A theme, that found resonance in the great Indian Epic of Mahabharata. The story of the Pandava Yudhisthir losing his kingdom and family in game of Chaupar forms the pivot around which the story of the great war spins.
Much later, even Gautama Buddha, while laying down the rules of the monastic order in the text Vinayapitaka, warns against playing a board game called Ashtapada. The earliest visual reference to the game is a relief in one of the most adorned caves of Ellora - cave number 29. Built between the 6th and 8th centuries CE, one wall of the cave is sculpted with figures of Shiva and Parvati, shown enjoying a game of Chaupar.
However, the most detailed description of the game and how it was played comes from Mughal Emperor Akbar’s biographer, Abul Fazl (1552-1602). In the Ain – i – Akbari Fazl remarks, “From times of old, the people of Hindustan have been fond of this game.” He goes on to outline the rules and playing process of Chaupar, making it the first description of the game available to us. It seems even Akbar was obsessed with Chaupar., so much so that in the courtyard of his palace in Fatehpur Sikri, red and white square flagstones were laid out to represent a magnificent life-size board, where he and his courtiers enjoyed the game, with a twist. Slaves were used as playing pieces and they were moved according to the players instructions! This giant Chaupar board can even be seen today at Fatehpur Sikri.
There may have been more to Akbar’s love for Chaupar than just fondness for the game. Karuna Sharma of Georgia State University, in her research paper titled ‘A Visit to the Mughal Harem: Lives of Royal Women’ notes that there was also a political side to these board games. Since the game required intelligence and skill, the Emperor tried to weigh the talents of men through the game. The popularity of Chaupar extended to the ladies of the Royal harem as well as the Rajput courts. Numerous 17th-18th century Pahari paintings from Himachal depict men and women playing Chaupar. In 2016, one such Pahari painting of a couple playing Chaupar fetched a whopping Rs 93 lakh at an auction at Christie's.
The aristocratic game of Chaupar also had its version for the common man. It was called Pachisi, meaning twenty five in Hindi, which was the highest score that can be attained in this game. Instead of long dice, it was played with koris or cowrie shells, as a substitute for money.
With the advent of colonial powers, the game of Chaupar or Pachisi travelled the world. Around 1860, the English firm of Jaques and Son produced a game called Patchesi. In 1874, E.G. Selchow & Co in United States trademarked a game called Parcheesi, which went on to become America’s longest-selling board game until release of Monopoly in 1935. It was sold in USA and Europe with branding ‘The Game of India’, to make it sound even more exotic. In 1896, Patchesi was changed to a more simple game called Ludo which in Latin means ‘I Play’. The eight squares were reduced to four and it was turned into a children’s game. By 1900s, the versions of the game became extremely popular in France and Germany.
Ironically, Ludo in its current form came to the land of its origin, India only in 1950 where it remains popular to this day. Sadly, very few people in India play the game of Chaupar.
After a long journey through history and geography, it is amazing that the game that was once played by kings (and famously started wars), is now enjoyed by children oblivious of its past.