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, and features 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 no 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 Jain 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 present-day Gujarat and Rajasthan had eighty-four squares. A few Vaishnava boards from the Punjab Hills (or Pahari region) have over three hundred squares, with the board divided into left and right sections where snakes and ladders allow for as much lateral movement 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 Vaishnava imagery and labelled the destination square as Vaikuntha, or the abode of Vishnu. In keeping with a moral 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 Lok Purusha or the ‘Cosmic Being’. 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 merger with god.
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 included rebelliousness, vanity, crudeness, theft, lust, debt and violence. 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 that 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, or 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. Snakes and ladders function as conduits between squares on different vertical levels: if a token lands on a squares at the head of a snake, it immediately descends to the square 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 square at the top and exit the game.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British officers took a number of contemporary Indian gyan chaupar boards to England, 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 the German Leiterspiel, which 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. Medieval-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.
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