We have grown up playing Chess, Snakes & Ladders (Chutes & Ladders) and Ludo.  Have you ever wondered how these games came to existence ?  We tend to take common items for granted, even when we are aware that every item in our day-to-day life has some reason for its existence.  I have been working on these subjects for over a decade now, and I realise that if we dig deeper into our lifestyle, we will learn some eye-popping facts.  And if these facts are arranged and arrayed properly for study, they can surely help us live healthy and wonderful lives. Our subject this month is about three of the most common board games of the world.

Chess is considered to be the most sold board game in the world. It is said to have originated as Chaturanga in the Gupta Empire before 6th century. “Chatur” mean four and “Anga” means part.  Chaturanga thus means the 4 divisions, namely infantry, cavalry, elephantry and chariotry.  These forms are represented by modern day Pawn, Knight, Bishop (earlier elephant) and rook (earlier Chariot) respectively. The Chaturanga is also said to have come from an earlier game of the Kushan Empire (50 BCE – 200 CE), from the region we now know as Afghanistan.  Chaturanga was commonly pronounced as ‘Chatarang’ by the Persians who took it to their native land.  When the Arabs overran Persia, they started pronouncing it ‘Shataranj’ due to the lack of ‘Ch’ and ‘ang’ sounds/syllables in Arabic.  The word ‘Shah’ (Persian for King) was being used for ‘Check’ and ‘Shah-Maat’ (King is Helpless) was used to denote ‘Checkmate’.  The Words Shatranj, Shah, Sheh, ShehMaat are still used in areas the Persians once ruled, or wherever languages derived from Arabic or Persian are spoken, including India.   Chaturanga travelled to Europe and name transformations kept happening. North African moors pronounced Shataranj as Shaterej, which in Spanish became Acedrex, Axedrez and Ajedrez.  Let’s have a look at this game’s journey in meme-space …

Chatur + Anga = Chaturanga (India), Shataranj (Persian), Shaterej (African), Acederex/Axedrex/Ajedrez (Spanish), Xadrez (Portuguese), and Zatrikion (Greek).  In Europe: Shaah/Shahi (Persian for King), Scacc(h)i (Latin), Scacchi (Italian), Escacs (Catalan), Echecs (French), Schaken (Dutch), Schach (German), Szachy (Polish), Šahs (Latvian), Skak (Danish), Sjakk (Norwegian), Schack (Swedish), Šakki (Finnish), Šah (South Salvic languages), Sakk (Hungarian), and Shah-Mati (Russian).  From the names commonly used in Europe, the modern day derivative ‘Chess’ was established. While the board games that have been recovered from excavations in Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa were having 100 or more squares, the later-period boards were Ashtapada (Eight sections as in modern day Chess – 8 x 8 squares).

I propose to soon come up with a detailed article on Chess, explaining the journey and how the ancient pieces and rules were transformed to the new ones.  But for now, let’s talk about other common games that all of us as kids loved.



India’s ancient education system was evolved and developed enough to teach pupils using scientific devices. One of the important philosophies in Hindu and Jaina traditions is ‘Moksha’ (Salvation). It revolves around the contrast of Karma (Destiny) and Kaama (Desire).  Ladders represent virtues like generosity, faith and humility, with which you get chances to elevate yourself.  The snakes on other hand are vices or ‘Kaama’ or desires like lust, anger or crimes.  The top of the board in ancient India was covered with images of God and angels, while the rest of the borders consisted mainly of worldly elements like people, animals and flora.  The Moral of the game was that by doing good deeds, one attains Moksha and reaches heaven faster, whereas with vices, one tends to fall back and is mired in the cycle of rebirth. This gave this game its name ‘Moksha Pattam’.  The jain version became popular with name ‘Gyaan Chauper’. In Telugu this game is known as Vaikunthapalli (Vaikunth = heaven, pali = dice board) or Paramapada Sopana Patam (Ladder to Salvation).

Chauper literally means a board or setting. Another game that became more popular by the name Chauper was also known as Chauser.  This game had a prominent role in the epic of Mahabharta, where the Pandavas lost everything to Kauravas, including their wife, in the game of Chausar.  Typically, this form of Chauper is a betting game, where you put money and material on stake. Some claim that Chauser is the predecessor of Chess, which is wrong. Actually, Chauser was adopted by commoners, who turned it into Pacheesi.



Pacheesi is the cheaper version of Chauper/Chauser. While the Chauser was played with real money, this was played with sea shells (Kaudis), the unofficial currency of ancient times. This game became popular amongst poor people since the beginning of Common Era. This game is also depicted in the caves of Ajanta. Games played with dice were popular since the Harappan times. Vedic texts mention of the design and usage of various dice. Pacheesi literally translates to ‘game of twenty-five’. In Pacheesi, the highest bid was of getting a 5 on dice, which was valued at 25 (Pachees).

Mughal Emperor Akbar was so fond of Chausar, that he had a huge setup built in the courtyard of his palace at Fatehpur Sikri. He deployed peasants to act as pawns. His game has been depicted beautifully in his autobiography ‘Ain-i-Akbari’ by Abu Fazl, his minister and friend.

The Cross and Circle is a board game design used for Race Games across the globe. Another version of the Cross and Circle is Cruciform, which is the based on the pattern of Pacheesi. Cross-Circle and Cruciform date back to 3500 BC.  It is also associated with the times of King Bharata of ancient India.

Each game derived from this design had a message associated with it.  Next time, when you play one, do remember the underlying message.


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