Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ancient Games, Modern Twists

We’ve played Chutes and Ladders with our young daughters for years without ever realizing how good it was for our karma.

Turns out our Sesame Street-inspired Chutes and Ladders, the Americanized name for what the British called Snakes and Ladders, was originally a morality game from ancient India, one of a variety of family board games, in fact, that started with the invention of dice. 

Archaeologists once excavated the oldest known dice from a 5,000-year-old backgammon set in Shahr-i-Sukhta (Burnt City) in Southeastern Iran. But more recent excavations in the Indus Valley suggest a possible South Asian origin. Possibly corroborating this discovery is that dice were mentioned in the ancient Indian tomes, the Rig Veda and Mahabharata, as a means for gambling. It was even listed as one of the games the Buddha would not play. (He kept a list? Apparently, he also didn’t approve of board games, pick up sticks, hopscotch, playing with toys or balls, charades, or the olden-day version of Pictionary. There are also lists of things he would not watch [dancing and animal fights, among them] and things he wouldn’t wear [mainly anything ornamental or decorative]).

But the ancient Indians loved dice, even creating a number of popular board games with them, games the world continues to play today. The modern forms of Parcheesee and Ludo, for example came from an old game called pachisi (from pachis, which means twenty-five, the largest score that could be thrown in one shot). 

Before Milton Bradley brought Snakes and Ladders from England to the States and changed its name, it was Moksha Patam, which literally means the path to salvation (or the ladder to salvation). The original version was based on the ideas of luck, chance, and destiny. The ladders represented the attainment of higher virtues, such as humility, faith, and knowledge, and the snakes represented vices such as greed, rage, theft, and murder. In the original game, there were more snakes than ladders, to signify how much more difficult the righteous path is than its alternative.

Another game that’s weathered the travel through time and place is chess. The Gupta dynasty in India created it sometime between the 5th and 6th century AD and called it chatrang or chaturanga, meaning “having four limbs,” which in turn was thought to represent the four divisions of the military (in those days, elephants, chariots, foot soldiers, and horsemen). Originally, the Indian military played it as a battle simulation game to work out strategywith 100 or more squares on the original chess boards compared to 64 in our most common modern form. Scholars from those days noted that one of the main reasons ancient Indians used ivory was to produce the pieces for chess and backgammon sets.

An illustration from an old Persian
manuscript shows Indian ambassadors
presenting the chatrang to the king
of Persia, Khosrow I Anushirwan.
(Photo by Firdausi)
From India, chatrang spread to Persia, which changed its name to shatranj. When attacking the piece we now know as the king, the Persians would call out “Shah!” (the Persian word for king, typically the military ruler) and shah mat for checkmate. (Hear the similarity with the current form?) From there, the game spread throughout the Arab and Greek empires then to the Byzantine empire through Spain. Once it made its way through Europe, the game took on its current form around the 15th century, with ornamental pieces shaped as kings, queens, bishops, knights, and rooks, before making its way to East Asia via the Silk Road.

Much of the world derived its names for chess from the Persian one: in Latin, shatranj became scacchi, thus influencing the names in languages derived from Latin, such as echecs in French, or inspired by the Germanic, Russian, or Slavic, such as schack in Swedish or szacyhy in Polish. Mongols call the game shatar; Ethiopians, senterej; and the Russians as shakhmaty. In German, Schachmatt means checkmate.

Plenty of food for thought next time I sit down with our beat-up board games, cluttered with pictures of Big Bird and Elmo, right?

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