Checkmate from India



For the last 30 years, from the time he became India’s first grandmaster in 1988, Viswanathan Anand has been the face of chess, here in India and perhaps the world. Always popular, few however realise that this game of cool calculated moves and patience originated in India over 1600 years ago.


Sir William Jones identified India as the birthplace of Chess and linked it to Chaturanga.

Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, is popular among chess players as the author of 'Caissa' (The Goddess of Chess), a poem composed in 1763. An accomplished linguist who knew Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit; it was he who first identified India as the birthplace of chess and linked its origins to a 4th century game ‘Chaturanga’ popular during the Gupta Empire. While evidence of board game pieces have been found in Harappan sites as well, there is a fair amount of debate on whether they are in any way ‘prototypes’ of chess.

The renowned historian, Will Durant in his book ‘The Story of Civilization’ recounts an interesting legend he heard on the origins of Chaturanga. According to this, there was once a king named Balhait, who considered war as a great way of teaching valuable traits such as valour, decision making, endurance, and circumspection. Disapproving of the existing games based on luck and fate, emanating from the ‘roll of a dice’, he asked a sage named Sissa to invent a new war based game. The sage designed the Chaturanga.

Chaturanga pieces from South India
Chaturanga pieces from South India|Pinterest

The name Chatruranga refers to the four (Chatur) divisions (anga) of ancient Indian armies – infantry, cavalry, elephantry and chariotry. The pieces that evolved into pawn, knight, bishop and rook, represented these divisions. It was played on an 8x8 board called Ashtapada. However, beyond this, we know little of the rules of the game or how it was played.

The early references to chess in Indian literature are only in passing and the earliest can be found in Banabhatta’s text Harsha Charita, a biography of King Harshavardhana of Kannuaj composed between 625 to 640 CE. A verse states -

'under this king only bees quarrel in collecting dews, the only feet cut off are those in meter, only ashtapada teaches the positions of the chaturanga.’

Persian manuscript describing how an ambassador from India brought chess to the Persian court
Persian manuscript describing how an ambassador from India brought chess to the Persian court|Wikimedia Commons

During the 6th century, close trade ties between India and Persia took the game to Iran where it became popular as ‘Chatrang’. Apparently, the Persian text ‘Chatrang Nama’ composed around 620 CE, states that a King of Kannauj sent Chaturanga as a gift to King Norshirwan of Persia, with chessmen comprising of 16 pieces of rubies and 16 pieces of emeralds.


The oldest known Chess pieces ever discovered date back to 700 CE

Following the conquest of Persia in the mid-7th century, the game began to be called ‘Shatranj’ as the Arabs could not pronounce the ‘Ch’ and ‘Ng’ sounds. With the Arabs, the game travelled to Egypt, Morocco and then Spain. By 1000 CE, it had spread to most of Europe as well as Russia. In Persia, when the King or ‘Shah’ was threatened and could not make a move, there was a practice to shout out ‘Shah Maat’ or the ‘King is defeated’. Curiously, the practice travelled with the game of Chess across regions, and soon became ‘Shakmaty’ in Russian and ‘Checkmate’ in English!

The oldest known seven ivory chess pieces found at Afrasiyab in Uzbekistan
The oldest known seven ivory chess pieces found at Afrasiyab in Uzbekistan|www.ancientchess.com

Interestingly, the oldest known Chess pieces ever discovered date back to 700 CE. They were found in 1977, during an excavation carried out at Afrasiyab, near Samarkhand in Uzbekistan.

In the East, Chaturanga was taken to China by the Buddhist monks through the Silk route. Around 800 CE, the Chinese adapted Chaturanga to create their own form of Chess, called the Shang-Chi also called the Chinese River Game, as there is a river in the middle of the Chess board. The main difference between this and chess, is that the Chinese version is played with discs instead of Chessmen and the pieces are kept on the intersection of lines, instead of within the squares like Chaturanga. From China, the game moved to Korea and Japan where it was called Shogi. Similarly, the Indian Buddhist monks had also taken Chaturanga to Burma and Thailand.

Conventional chess pieces from the Arab world
Conventional chess pieces from the Arab world|www.ancientchess.com

It is incredible that each culture interpreted the game in its own way. The ways an elephant could move differed in the Indian, Burmese and Thai versions depending on the relative importance of war elephants in these countries. In China, the Indian chariot (or camel) became a boat. In Persia and the Arab world, Islamic prohibition on the depiction of animals and humans in art, led to the use of abstract forms as chess pieces, which we still use to this day. In Medieval Europe and Russia, the Mantri or Vizier became the Queen, camels became Bishops representing the power of the Church and pawns originally stood for serfs. The rules of the game kept changing and evolving across the regions and across time.

Today, chess is a truly global game and there are super computers playing it! What a long road it has traversed from its origins in Gupta era India or the mythical sage Sissa. What has endured, through its long journey and many moves, is its eternal appeal!


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