Traditional Board Games

Games Around the World: India Through the Ages

The Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal.

Saturday, 14th February 2015

Last month I started an armchair journey around the world and its historical eras. If you weren't with me then, do check the link for "Games Around the World: Ancient Egypt". This month, our armchair has arrived in India, a land richly inventive in our chosen subject.

Since India has been inventing good games for a very long time, I don't propose to restrict ourselves to any particular time period. I've noticed four interesting groups of board games that seem to come from here. Two you've heard of, and two, maybe, you haven't.

The most famous game to come from India is chess. The chess we play today, particularly in the West, is a bit different from the game that was invented in India in the middle of the first millennium. Chaturanga, as they called it, had the same 8x8 board and the same set of 32 pieces. The game was rather slower though, as some of the long range pieces in today's game were much more limited then. The game played in India was much the same as Shatranj, for which there is a link elsewhere on this page.

There was an interesting four-player version of chaturanga invented in India shortly after A.D. 1000, called chaturaji. This was once played with the aid of dice, which told the players which pieces they could move in a given turn. The players were in partnership, much like some other Indian games we'll come to in a moment, and was often played for stakes.

Another well-known game from India is pachisi, a four-player race game played on a cross-shaped board. Americans may think of Parcheesi, which is a very much simplified version. In England, Ludo was even simpler, and there are many versions of this children's game under different names around the world. But pachisi is entertaining for adults.

Players are in partnerships, and a pair win or lose together. Already this introduces some strategy: it's no use just racing your own pieces around the board and ignoring your partner; the pair who come second and third in the race will win over those coming first and fourth. There are also safe spaces in the game, and pieces can be doubled up for protection and extra speed.

Chaupur is a very similar game to pachisi. Where pachisi uses six or seven cowrie shells as dice, chaupur tends to use four-sided dice instead, and the safe spaces aren't used. Chaupur was regarded as the more cerebral of the two games in its heyday.

Looking very different to pachisi and chaupur is another class of race games, the square race games. These are played on square boards, usually with an odd number of playing spaces. Examples include thaayam, sadurangam, and saturankam, and are played on boards ranging from 5x5 squares to 9x9. Pieces start at the edge and race to the centre, following a set path which is rotated for each player.

The path looks complicated, especially on the larger boards, but is probably as easy to learn and remember as the various moves of all the chess pieces. Indians of all levels of education managed it in centuries past. These games, like pachisi, can be played in partnerships, but are also good fun played all-against-all, and support three or two players if participants are wanting.

A third group of race games contains the ancestors of today's snakes & ladders. I don't have this game on the site (yet), mainly because it doesn't involve any player choices and so it's not very entertaining for adults. But in India, it wasn't an entertainment. Their game was one of moral teaching, emphasising the role of fate. One version even had a trap from which one would never escape!

The final group of games may not have originated in India, as they are found all over South East Asia. These are nowadays called the "leopard games", hunt games played on a triangular board. The smallest versions, len choa and hat diviyan keliya, are found outside India, but one of the more well known is Indian: Pulijudam, which has three tigers facing fifteen goats.

There are many instances where India has taken games from elsewhere and put its own stamp on them. There's not time to look at them all, but a list of links to Indian games is shown elsewhere on this page. Now it's time to look further east to our next destination. Next month our armchair will take us to China, well known for its inventiveness within the realm of board games as much as in other arts and sciences.


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