Archaeologists have been digging them up all over, in Europe, Asia and in India. They are finding evidence of how people, centuries ago, used board games as a means of leisure, to teach young princes wartime strategy and even get people to reexamine their conscience!
Scholars have been able to deduce all this from fragments of board games and their depictions in monuments and ancient caves. Did you know that an ancient version of modern-day chess was played in India back in the 6th-7th century CE and may have even been played in the Indus Valley more than 4,000 years ago?
Ancient Indian literature like the epic Mahabharata, the Rigveda, and Jain and Buddhist texts also mention these games. Throughout the history of the subcontinent, board games appear not only in paintings, temple sculptures and literary texts, but you can also see them engraved on the floors of some cave and temple complexes, including the famous Ajanta and Ellora Caves of Maharashtra.
Each of these games has an intriguing narrative and tells us so much about the life and times of the people who played them.
Our partner platform Peepul Tree, which works closely with craftspersons across India, has a unique form of three of these traditional games – Chaupad, Chess and Snakes & Ladders – in their collection. These sets are handcrafted by artisans from Kutch in Gujarat and even feature exquisite embroidery from that region. Dive in for the exciting stories of these three board games.
Did you know that it was a game of dice that cost Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, his kingdom, his brothers and their wife Draupadi to the Kauravas in the epic Mahabharata? That game of dice, then called Chaupad and later Pachisi or Chausar, is the forerunner of the modern-day game of Ludo.
– The word ‘Chaupad’ is a combination of ‘Chau’ from the Sanskrit ‘Chatur’, which means ‘four’, and ‘Para’ from the Sanskrit ‘Pata’, which means ‘cloth’, as the original ‘board’ was an embroidered, cross-shaped fabric. The word ‘Chaupad’ thus means ‘four boards’.
Interestingly, while Chaupad was played by royals and nobility, the game of Pachisi was the common’s man Chaupad. In this game, four players try to move their pieces to the centre of the board. Their moves are determined by the roll of the dice, which was replaced by cowrie shells in Pachisi.
While Chaupad is named after the number of boards, Pachisi is named after the throw value of the cowries. The number of cowries used was five, six or seven. When only five cowries were used, the highest throw value was 25, which is what gives the game its name, as ‘pachees’ in Hindi means ‘twenty-five’. This suggests that the oldest versions of this game probably used just five cowries.
The earliest visual reference to this board game in India is from the 6th century CE, on the walls of Cave No 29 at Ellora, where Shiva and Parvati are depicted playing a game of Chaupad.
This board game was also very popular during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605 CE). In fact, one of the most detailed and earliest descriptions of Chaupad and how it was played comes from Akbar’s biographer, Abul Fazl (1552-1602). In the Ain-i-Akbari, Akbar’s biographical account, Fazl remarks, “From times of old, the people of Hindustan have been fond of this game.”
You can still catch a glimpse of Akbar’s fascination with this game at Fatehpur Sikri, the Emperor’s former capital in Agra. Here, he turned an entire courtyard into a magnificent, life-size board! According to legend, Akbar is said to have played with slaves as the pieces of the game.
Chaupad was so popular that it made its way overseas, to Europe and America in the 19th century. It was only in the 1950s that the present form of the game, Ludo, was introduced to India, bringing the story of Chaupad full circle. Read more about this game here.
Now imagine owning a traditional, hand-embroidered Chaupad set. You can find one at Peepul Tree, which has sourced a Chaupad set from the land of crafts, Kutch in Gujarat.
A group of women artisans from the Rabari community have handcrafted this game using locally available objects and crafts items. The base fabric or the ‘board’ of the game boasts Rabari embroidery, while the playing pieces are made using crochet over betel nut.
Chess is one of the most-well known board games that involve strategy, nerves of steel and patience. Played all across the world today, it needs no introduction. But did you know that many scholars believe that chess originated in India, its ancient version being the game of Chaturanga?
According to American ethnographer Stewart Culin, who has extensively researched board games, Chaturanga was first described in the Hindu text, the Bhavishya Purana. It is believed to have been popular during the Gupta era, in the 6th and 7th century CE.
Interestingly, the word ‘Chaturanga’ is linked to ancient Indian warfare and refers to the four (Chatur) divisions or branches of an army – infantry, cavalry, elephantry and chariotry. Some scholars say the game was designed to familiarise young princes with the four sections of a royal army. The game also finds a mention in the Harshacharita, the 7th century CE biographical account of King Harsha from North India.
Some scholars point out that objects resembling chess pieces were discovered from sites that comprise the Indus Valley Civilisation. Archaeologist S R Rao, in his work Lothal and Indus Civlisation (1972) throws light on one of the earliest pieces of evidence of chess being played in India. These were found in Lothal, in Gujarat, which was a flourishing port town during Harappan times. It was here that objects that closely resemble modern-day chess pieces. Incredibly, they are datable to around 2450 BCE!
Rao writes in his book, “It is interesting to note that some of the animal-headed games-men and pyramidal ones with ivory handle found at Lothal closely resemble in size and shape of the modern-Indian chessmen.” (Quoted from an article titled Indian Origins of Chess: An Overview by C Panduranga Bhatta). However, whether these objects unearthed at Harappan sites are really precursors to today’s game of chess is still being debated by scholars.
Chess is a game of intelligence and skill. The pieces that evolved into the pawn, knight, bishop and rook represented the divisions in the army. It was played on an 8 × 8 grid board called Ashtapada. When the game travelled to Persia, it became ‘Chatrang’, and after the conquest of Persia by Islamic invaders in the mid-7th century CE, the game began to be called ‘Shatranj’. By the 10th century CE, it reached Europe and Russia.
Today, the game of chess is popular all over the world. Read more about it here.
The modern-day game of chess – its board and pieces – are fashioned out of a variety of materials, such as wood, plastic and glass. But, at Peepul Tree, artisans from Kutch have created a chess set using embroidery and patchwork. This chess set is a mini-quilt and the pieces are handcrafted in the form of soft toys made of fabric.
Snakes & Ladders
What if we told you that the ancient version of the game of Snakes & Ladders was a lesson in morals and virtues?
Widely known as ‘Gyaan Chaupar’, this board game has ancient origins and is said to have served the purpose of teaching people about good and bad. ‘Gyaan’ means ‘knowledge’ in Sanskrit and it was also known as ‘Moksha Pat’, ‘Paramapada’, ‘Sopanam’ or the Bengali ‘Golok Dham’.
– In Gyaan Chaupar, the ladders represented virtue and elevated you towards merit or moksha (salvation) while the snakes represented vices and were obstacles in one’s path. The last block on the board represented the goal, that is, nirvana or moksha.
This game reflected the common karmic themes of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. In fact, many believe that the history of Gyaan Chaupar goes back to the 10th century CE, when it was designed by Jain monks to promote the concept of liberation from the bondage of passions. It was probably later adopted by Hindu, Buddhist and even Sufi traditions. A 13th century CE saint, Gyandev, is also credited with the invention of Mokshapat.
In the Jain version of Gyaan Chaupar, the movement of a player across the board was symbolic of the movement of a soul across the various worlds. The end of the game is meant to depict its attainment of siddha or enlightenment. Interestingly, not all Gyaan Chaupar boards had a 100-block grid like they have today. The number of boxes varied with the faith in question.
While other games such as Chaupad and Chaturanga were competitive and strategic, Gyaan Chaupar was philosophical and focused on the players’ morals and values. Find out how Gyaan Chaupar became today’s Snakes & Ladders here.
At Peepul Tree, you can find a beautiful Gyaan Chaupar set, which resembles the illustrated game from 18th-19th century India. The board is a mini-quilt covered with patchwork and embroidery done by artisans from Kutch, Gujarat.
Even the playing pieces are unique. They are handcrafted leather coins, while the dice is carved from wood.
Isn’t it interesting how these games have travelled through time, and across cultures and faiths? During this temporal journey, they may have lost their original essence, but are still a part of popular culture today as they were back then.