The Origin of Snakes and Ladders: A Moral Guide of Vice and Virtue
The game of Snakes and Ladders is today considered a classic, and is loved by children from all over the world. Whilst the game itself is known my most people, its origin is less well-known. As a matter of fact, the game of Snakes and Ladders is an ancient Indian invention, and was not played for mere entertainment, but had a philosophical dimension to it as well.
The Game of Knowledge
Originally, the game of Snakes and Ladders was known variously as Gyan Chaupar (meaning ‘Game of Knowledge), Mokshapat, and Moksha Patamu, and was originally a Hindu game. Nobody knows for sure as to who invented this game, or when it was created. It has been speculated that this game was already being played in India as early as the 2 nd century AD. Others have credited the invention of the game to Dnyaneshwar (known also as Dnyandev), a Marathi saint who lived during the 13 th century AD. In any case, this dice board game became popular amongst the children of ancient India.
It may be said that whilst the gameplay of Gyan Chaupar is the same as today’s Snakes and Ladders, the board and higher objective of the game may be said to be quite different. Like the modern Snakes and Ladders board, the number of squares in that of Gyan Chaupar may vary. One version of this board, for instance, contains 72 squares, whilst another has 100. A major difference between the traditional and modern versions is the fact that in the former, a virtue or a vice and the effects of these virtues and vices, or something neutral is placed within each box.
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A Gyan Chaupar board. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0
For instance, in an Indian Gyan Chaupar board of 72 boxes, squares number 24, 44, and 55 have the vices of bad company, false knowledge, and ego respectively. As the game places great emphasis on karma, the Hindu principle of cause and effect, each vice (the snakes’ heads) has a corresponding effect. Thus, for the vices mentioned above, the corresponding effects are conceit or vanity, plane of sensuality, and illusion. On the other hand, the virtues of purification, true faith, and conscience are contained in squares number 10, 28, and 46, and these lead to heavenly plane, plane of truth, and happiness respectively. In this version of the board, the goal is to reach box number 68, which is the plane of Shiva.
Gyan Chaupar, Late 18th Century Jain game board on cloth in the decorative arts gallery of the National Museum, India. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Religious Teaching Tool
This game was so popular that it was also adopted and adapted by other religions that existed in the Indian subcontinent. It is known that Jain, Buddhist, and Muslim adaptations of the game exist, as the concepts of cause and effect, and reward and punishment, are common to them. For devout followers of these religions, the game may be played as a form of meditation, as a communal exercise, and even as part of one’s religious studies without the use of more conventional books or sermons.
It may be added that many of the surviving game boards are works of art in their own right, as they contain elaborate illustrations of human figures, architecture, flora and fauna, etc. These boards were commonly made of painted cloth, and most of the extant ones date from after the middle of the18th century AD.
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Jain version Game of Snakes & Ladders called jnana bazi or Gyan bazi, India, 19th century, Gouache on cloth. (Public Domain)
The Modern Game
The game of Gyan Chaupar became Snakes and Ladders towards the end of the 19 th century, when it was introduced to Great Britain by India’s colonial rulers. Whilst the original gameplay was maintained, its underlying philosophical message was greatly diminished. The religious virtues and vices were replaced by two-part cartoon dramas connected either by a snake or a ladder. Additionally, the number of snakes and ladders were equalized, whilst in the original ones, there were usually more snakes than ladders, which symbolizes the belief that it is far easier to fall prey to vice than to uphold virtue. From Great Britain, the game traveled to the United States, where it was introduced in 1943 by Milton Bradley as Chutes and Ladders.
Top image: Jain version Game of Snakes & Ladders called jnana bazi or Gyan bazi, India, 19th century, Gouache on cloth. ( Public Domain )
By Wu Mingren
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