India’s gift to the world: Snakes & Ladders
Editor’s Note: This is part one of a delightful guide to board games that originated in India. This week, we are introduced to gyan chaupar—literally translated as the ‘game of knowledge’. It represents a lesson in the attainment of moksha or release from the cycle of death and rebirth. The rest of the world knows it as Snakes & Ladders.
These guides are brought to you by our partner, MAP Academy, a wonderful online platform aimed at building knowledge of South Asian art. Each month, we will carry an essay from their Encyclopedia of Art—a fabulous resource for anyone who wants to learn about our shared history and culture. The MAP Academy is a non-profit online educational platform committed to building equitable resources for the study of art histories from South Asia. This article originally appeared on the MAP Academy website, with due image credits for photos used in this republished piece.
About the lead image: Kismet; Globe Publishers; c. 1895; Chromolithograph on paper and card; 39.5 x 39 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum
The Indian subcontinent is home to several traditional tabletop games, including some that have come to be known by other names today, such as Snakes and Ladders (originally known as Moksha Patam) and Ludo (Pachisi). Games and game ideas moved to and from India along trade routes: Ganjifa was brought to India by the Mughals, Naqsh was a confluence of Ganjifa and card games played by Portuguese sailors, and Pallanguzhi arrived through trade with eastern Africa, where its ancestor mancala was invented. Games like Moksha Patam, Carrom and Pachisi travelled to Europe, UK and USA through colonial agents.
Indian board games are typically cross and circle games with randomisers, played by two to four players. The players’ status was reflected in the choice of game or the type of board, with emperors like Akbar playing a life-sized version of Chaupar. At one time considered talismans and even a form of currency, cowrie shells were used as an affordable randomiser or token for board games by most people, while wealthier classes used ivory dice.
The idea of luck in games, extrapolated as divine play, is a recurring theme in Indian mythology, notably in the Mahabharata and the Skanda Purana. Most Indian tabletop games contain underlying moral commentary and heavy symbolism. Among variations of Ganjifa, the images on the cards and the suit divisions are indicative of the social and religious context from which they emerged.
Also known as moksha patam, gyan chaupar is a board game originally played in medieval India and Nepal. The board in gyan chaupar is traditionally made of cloth or paper, featuring a series of squares, snakes and ladders. Some more elaborate boards include additional imagery, such as portraits or decorative borders. Due to the materials used, most surviving gyan chaupar boards are not older than the eighteenth century. Historically, besides being a form of recreation, the game also served a spiritual and didactic purpose—gyan chaupar, literally translated as the ‘game of knowledge’, represents a lesson in the attainment of moksha or release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
The origins of the game remain a matter of debate, with some scholars attributing its invention to Dnyaneshwar, a thirteenth-century Marathi saint, while others interpret a passage from the tenth-century text Rishabh Panchasika as an even earlier reference to the game. The oldest surviving example of the game is from seventeenth-century Mewar. Gyan chaupar was especially popular during the Paryushan festival, when devotees fasted and played the game as a form of spiritual engagement.
Although the modern version of the board has been standardised as a hundred squares arranged in a rectangle, the medieval gyan chaupar varied widely in design. The most common number of squares among Hindu versions was seventy-two, while the Jain boards from the areas that are now Gujarat and Rajasthan had eighty-four squares. A few Vaishnavite boards from the Punjab Hills (or Pahari region) have over three hundred squares, with the board being divided in left and right sections where snakes and ladders allow for lateral movement as much as vertical. Boards of all sizes were arranged in a grid, a cross or in a custom shape that followed a theme.
For instance, in a Mewari board that is housed in the National Museum, the playing area is shaped like a Rajput fort. Some versions of gyan chaupar featured Vaishnavite imagery and labelled the destination square as Vaikuntha, or the abode of Vishnu. Additionally, in keeping with the lesson on overreaching, Vaikuntha was often located a few steps before the end, so that a snake’s head on the last square would send a player down to the start of the board as a punishment for crossing Vishnu’s abode.
Some gyan chaupar designs depicted the playing area surrounded by an image of the Cosmic Being or Lok Purusha. In one confirmed case, a nineteenth-century board inscribed in Persian was made using ideas and designs from Islamic or Sufi spirituality, with the last square denoting the moment of merging with God.
Moreover, the snakes and ladders in gyan chaupar function as karmic devices, either thwarting or aiding a player’s efforts to reach moksha. To emphasise this, the squares from which the tokens either ascend or descend were labelled with names of various virtues or flaws. The positive attributes listed were dependability, asceticism, faithfulness, generosity and knowledge, while the negative attributes and crimes were rebelliousness, vanity, crudeness, theft, lust, debt and violence, to name a few.
These concepts were taken from Jain and Hindu theology, and thus also included ideas that did not have an equivalent in later versions of the game which used Victorian moral codes—such as maya or the illusion of the material world, and dharma, or divinely ordained duty. The squares on either end of a snake or a ladder were often related, illustrating, for instance, the link between ego and illusion, or devotion and paradise. In some boards, there was a prescribed order to a player’s moral progress, meaning that a sudden ascension to a particular square (such as Brahmaloka, or the abode of Brahma) had to be followed by a descent from a subsequent square down a snake (to prithvi, literally down to earth) at least once in the game.
In such cases, players were required to land on such squares with an exact roll of the dice and could not move past them. The game, as a whole, was meant to educate players on which traits and practices were morally desirable, how these would be rewarded, and what consequences lay in store for negative habits. The number of snakes was typically much larger than that of ladders—often twice as many—to underscore the difficulty of the path to enlightenment.
The gameplay of gyan chaupar is as follows: each player has a token and moves between numbered squares from the bottom to the top of the board, according to the roll of the dice or, in older versions, cowrie shells. As discussed earlier, the board contains images of snakes and ladders, which function as conduits between squares on different vertical levels: if a token lands on a box at the head of a snake, it immediately descends to the box containing the snake’s tail, and if it lands at the foot of a ladder, it ascends to the topmost rung. The objective of the game was to reach the last box at the top and exit the game.
Various individual boards (contemporary at the time) were taken to England by British officers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where they were examined and exhibited. A few unique boards following the Jain or Hindu design were also commissioned by British officers as collectibles. It was not until the 1890s, however, that gyan chaupar began to be sold as a children’s game in Britain, under the name ‘Snakes and Ladders’.
While the British version retained some emphasis on ideas of morality—with illustrations of good and bad deeds on the squares that bookended each ladder or snake—it did away with the spiritual connotations and nuances of the Indian version that would have been puzzling to a British player, simplifying these into the more familiar Victorian templates of good and evil. Later, in 1943, the game was introduced in the USA by Milton Bradley under the name ‘chutes and ladders’, as the company felt that the image of snakes would scare children away. Other versions of the game include leiterspiel, a German version that used pictures of circus animals.
Today, contemporary versions of the game have done away with the moral element altogether, and are now played as a game of random chance, while mediaeval-era gyan chaupar boards are housed in the collections of the National Museum, New Delhi; the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, Jodhpur; the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad; and the British Library, London, UK