India has always played a central role in the evolution of global culture, from the early development of Hinduism to its current role as one of the most populated countries in the world.
Along its millennia of history are the creation and evolution of some of the most popular board games of today. At the same time, its role as a trading center between Europe and Asia allowed it to take the best of both worlds.
It is no surprise, then, to learn that many of the board games of Ancient India have survived even til today. Pachisi is still played in the form it was over two thousand years ago, while Chaturanga is considered the ultimate grandfather of Chess.
Snakes and Ladders is an ancient morality tale, while even Indians play the global phenomenon known to most of us as “nine-men morris”.
The board games of India reflect the culture and environment of ancient times. Not all games are necessarily about competition–cowry shells are more likely to be used than dice, and those few strategic games are filled with subtle complexities.
By examining the board games of ancient India, we discover so much about the people of our past and how they became the people of our present.
Chaturanga is one of the oldest board games in human history, the precursor to Xiangqi and, according to most historians, the ultimate ancestor of modern Chess. Archeological remains have found pieces dating back to approximately 3000 BC. “Chaturanga” means “four arms”, and it likely refers to the four types of pieces representing parts of ancient Indian armies; infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry.
Despite its quite ancient origin, written references to Chaturanga didn’t begin until around the 6th century CE, and from them, we know the little we do about the game itself. Early Indians played it on square boards, eight by eight in size.
Chaturanga had pieces that mirrored modern chess pieces, with a general instead of a queen, a chariot instead of a rook, and an elephant instead of the bishop. These pieces also moved differently, with the general being quite a weak piece and the elephant having a range of movements with no parallel to the modern game.
In Chaturanga, the aim was to wipe out the opposing player, leaving his king alone. However, if there were a stalemate, the player who was stalemated would become the winner.
Pachisi is sometimes spelled in English as “Parcheesi”. It is a racing game played on a board that looks like a giant cross. It is likely the oldest game still being played regularly today.
Pachisi is also called “Twenty-Five”, reflecting the largest score you can “throw”. Pachisi is a descendant of an older game called Chaupar, which is similar enough that many historians prefer to examine them as versions of the same game. Art depicting the game board has been found dating back to 200 BC, and the game is mentioned in important works of Indian literature, including the Mahābhārata.
Pachisi is played using a uniquely designed cross-shaped board with eight by three arms and six or seven cowrie shells used as a form of dice. Played with two, three, or four players, each player has four pieces they must race to a finishing point by throwing cowrie shells. A throw of the shells could give you between two and twenty-five moves, and players kill/capture other pieces to slow down their competitors. In this way, Parchisi has similarities to other ancestors of Backgammon.
Pachisi boards are unique in that they were often embroidered onto the cloth rather than wood or stone. However, evidence of temporary scratched panels has been unearthed, as well as large human-sized “boards” created in gardens of Rennaissance-era emperors.
3. Gyan Chaupar
Of all the ancient board games, Gyan Chaupar might be the one most recognizable to today’s children; it is more commonly known as “Snakes and Ladders”. Surprisingly, the rules of Gyan Chaupar have not changed much since its development in Vedic times.
Gyan Chaupar is a surprisingly philosophical game with roots deep in Hindu Philosophy. As the game’s outcome relies entirely on the luck of dice, with no strategy possible, it is deterministic and, in many ways, fatalistic.
Many Indian players see the parallels with the ups and downs caused by the snakes and ladders as a reflection of life and karma. The good and the bad are out of mere mortals’ hands and should be accepted whatever happens.
Perhaps pessimistically, older versions of the game include more snakes than ladders, while more recent finds are equal. Almost all modern versions, especially those made outside of India, have ladders that provide far more advantages.
Pallankuzhi is an ancient mancala game, much like the mancala games found in Egypt and the Middle East. While evidence shows people played games of Pallankuzhi in South India as early as the first century CE, they could have played versions for centuries before that.
Pallankuzhi is played with two rows of seven holes, often dug into stone flooring rather than as discrete boards. Two players would use 146 counters (usual pieces of shell or seeds) distributed over many turns, with counters being “captured” by following different rules. To win the game, you would be required to capture all of your opponent’s counters.
People played the Pallanguzhi version of mancala as far away as Singapore. While it appears that all classes played the game, only elites would have boards and crafted pieces.
No one knows when mancala was introduced to India, but it was likely due to trade with North Africa sometime in the late centuries BC. Some academics suggest Pallankiszhi boards may have also been used as a form of abacus and as teaching aids for children’s lessons in mathematics.
5. Chowka Bhara
Despite having dozens of names throughout India, played with the same rules, very little information is known about the history of Chowka Bhara. It is a “race game” with four or six cowry shells (or dice in modern versions). There are claims it is one of the oldest games in India, but the evidence is challenging to uncover.
Chowka Bhara is played on a five by five square board, with four pieces per player. It is generally a four-player game, but extra players can be added with larger boards and more pieces. Chowka Bhara is a racing game in which pieces must take a circuitous route through the board.
In most places, if a player lands in an occupied square, the occupier “dies” and must start again. However, there are rest squares where this does not occur. Pieces must also roll the exact number to reach the final square and end the race.
Pulijudam, or “Lambs and Tigers” as it is most commonly known today, is an asymmetric two-player game in which one player has three tigers that “hunt” the other player’s fifteen lambs.
The game is played on a pyramidal grid board. Tigers start at the apex and must “jump” over a lamb to eat it. However, the lambs can begin in any arrangement the player desires. To win, the lambs must find a way to make it impossible for the Tiger to move, or to last as long as possible before switching sides for the next round.
“Lambs and Tigers” is a “solved game”. That is, there is an optimal strategy, which computer engineers have worked out. Despite this, it continues to be popular as a children’s game.
Little is known about the game’s history, but it is likely quite old. An old dutch fort from 1600 includes records of soldiers being taught the game by locals. It is claimed that a board for the game is etched into the parapet of Chamundeshwari temple, atop Chamundi Betta (hill) in Mysore, Karnataka. This information, however, has not been verified.
Some games are universal – examples of them can be found in the Northern mountains of the United Kingdom, while others in South America. Called Meirelles, The Mill Game, or Nine Man Morris, in India the game exists as Navakankari. “Navakankari” means “nine pebbles”. And in Barikot, archeologists have found the unique game board in an ancient city square that existed in 800 BC.
Played on a board that is three squares inside each other, linked by horizontal and vertical “windmill arms”, the board is instantly recognizable, and you can find the pattern on top of Egyptian Temples as well as European Illuminated Texts. It is the pattern carved into a rock that Titania, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, says “is filled up with mud.”
The game is simple. Align three of your stones in a row so that you may steal a stone from the other player. The board starts empty, you take turns placing stones and eventually moving them along the lines. When one player has less than three stones, the other wins.
Of course, it should be no surprise that the game made it to India. After all, Barikot is the site of an ancient fortified town recorded to have been captured by Alexander the Great himself. With soldiers traveling from so far away, of course, they would bring with them the games they learned along the way. Or was it the other way around?
The strangest thing about this nine-piece-a-side game is that no historian has been able to agree on where it originated. Maybe it was India that introduced it to the Greeks and, from there, all of Europe? It is definitely possible.
There is something special about exploring the games of ancient India. So many of them are not about clear winning but are about predetermined paths and inevitability. For others, a stalemate is a win because rarely is there an overwhelming victory in life. Games reflect the environment of the ancient world, from the dangers of big prey to the beauty of simple shells.
The ancient board games of India also show just how important the country has always been as the center of the trading world. Its ancient games were the precursors to chess and backgammon, while ancient merchants would also play games you’d more likely expect to see in Egypt, China, or Rome.
Perhaps the craziest aspect of exploring ancient Indian board games is when one recognizes the games we play today in them. That Snakes and Ladders is ancient can be unsettling, while Chataruga didn’t pass through many evolutions before becoming the most popular game in the world – Chess.
If there is a culture we most have to thank when we sit around the family table during the holidays, it would be hard to argue for anywhere other than India.
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