The Indian Origins Of Snakes And Ladders

Representational image
Representational imagevia Ravenseniors

If you play Game Of Thrones, you either win or you die. But if you play the significantly less lethal game of Snakes and Ladders, you could win plenty of PG-rated fun, perhaps a little frustration, and possibly some lessons along the way. It might come as a surprise to many then, that this board game favourite of millions of children around the world might hold buried learnings and spiritual secrets, inspired by Hinduism and Jainism—and peppered with influences from Islam, Sufism, Buddhism, and Christianity—but is also speculated to have its origins in India. 

However there are some theories that imply it may have come about in India and Nepal simultaneously under different names and forms. Some say the game’s earliest form is 2,000 years old, but it’s likely that it might have even been invented before—and possibly played on wood—while others believed that the game was invented relatively more recently by Saint Gyan Dev in the 13th century. Extra Credits was able to put together a small video that helps highlight the evolution and significance of the popular board game.

As for the theme, Andrew Topsfield, keeper of the Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford and a leading scholar on the game, states in an article that the crux of the game is all about ‘the spiritual quest for liberation from the vicissitudes of karma or the hindrances of the passion.’  The game has had several monikers over the years, the most popular one being ‘Gyan Chaupad.’ Others include Leela, Moksha, Patamu, Paramapada, Sopanapata, and Vaikuntapali. Few of these titles roughly translate into ‘Game Of Self-Knowledge, Ladder To Salvation, or Steps to the Highest Place, all indicative of the significance the game was meant to serve. The final square in the remnant of a 200-year-old Sufi Board declares Extinction into God, thereby echoing the faith’s doctrine of ‘death into death’, similar to the goal of Moksha/Nirvana in the final squares of the Jain and Hindu boards.

Jain Version of the Game. 19th century India. Image Source: Reform

The Jain Mandalas are also said to have devised the earliest forms of the game with various karmic concepts, illustrating the various squares and lines that were used to underscore their relationships, with these lines ultimately evolving into the iconic snakes and ladders symbol we’ve become familiar with today. ‘My impression is that some boards (including Jain ones) seem more pessimistic in that they include a lot of snakes and fewer and shorter ladders to aid the upward path. This may reflect the very highly developed nature of Jain karma theory and the many subtle spiritual pitfalls that the Jain scholars identified. The bhakti or devotional worship-based boards (Hindu and Muslim) can seem a little more balanced in this respect, though not without generous provisions of dangerous snakes of their own,’ Andrew Topsfield continues in his article, pointing to the peculiarly disproportionate amount of ladders and snakes in this version of the boards.

Image Source: Hinduism Today
Image Source: Star Goose And Hanglands

Doug Bierend, in his descriptive Reform article, which traces the Eastern and Western evolution of the game, states, ‘Devout laypeople would play these games as a form of meditation or communal exercise, reinforcing the teachings of their religion in a form of study that didn’t involve books or sermons.’ The connection between each square was carefully considered, and was intended to invite contemplation about specific tenets of the underlying belief or philosophy, and the larger worldview when taken together. Multiple versions of the board games were then designed differently in terms of the number of players, as well as the number of squares. For example, the eastern Snakes and Ladders game had a higher number of vices over virtues, traditionally speaking, to illustrate how difficult the righteous path was.
Moksha Patamu, is said to have the squares with virtues such as faith, reliability, generosity, knowledge, and asceticism, while the ‘squares of evil’ were marked by disobedience, vanity, vulgarity, theft,lying, drunkenness, debt, murder, rage, greed , pride and lust. The use of dice represented the power and play of fate in life, thus providing an intricately vivid portrayal of the experience of living itself.

Jain Gyan Chaupar On Cloth. National Museum Museum

The game was then taken to Victorian England upon the commencement of Britain’s colonisation of India, where it was embellished and changed to highlight underlying western values. In 1943, Milton Bradley further rebranded the game as Chutes and Ladders, in an effort to perhaps spare young children from the frightening inclusion of snakes. The version thus created has since been played around the world, never altering the underlying significance and capability of a mere board game in imparting knowledge and values.

Calico Museum Of Textiles via Reform

For the sake of a more modern update still, new versions of the game are now helping people engage in discussion on important issues such as Climate Change, HIV/TB awareness as well as disaster preparation. A Vijaywada based NGO called Vasavya Mahila Mandali designed a Snakes and Ladders board game based on the dos and don’ts for educating TB and HIV at-risk communities, with the game being played at least 648,000 times, 60% of whom played it repeatedly, taking the message to a whopping 3,88,800 people.
The profound significance of this age-old game has us questioning whether the Lion King missed an important clue, and perhaps the roll of the dice might be just as valid in this ‘Circle Of Life?’