A popular cross and circle board game that originated in India, pachisi derives its name from the Hindi and Urdu word for twenty-five, pachis. The game uses five cowrie shells as dice, with the highest throw valued at twenty-five. While the game is traditionally played on a cross-shaped cloth, any surface may be used, including a drawing or engraving on the floor. In contemporary India, ludo is the most commonly played version of pachisi, although the original version is still played in some parts.
The origins of pachisi are disputed, with some scholars speculating that a version of the game was played in the pivotal gambling scene in the Mahabharata, or is being played by Shiva and Parvati in a relief carving at Cave 29, Ellora. However, in the absence of any description of a board or gameplay, there is no evidence that these games were pachisi and may have simply been bets made on rolls of the dice. The oldest surviving evidence of the game is in the form of sixteenth-century pachisi courts built by the Mughals at Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. These were used for a life-sized version of the game in which Akbar’s courtesans took on the role of tokens who moved across the court as per the plays of the emperor and his noblemen. Details of these games and the gameplay have been recorded by Akbar’s biographer Abu’l Fazl, who notes that the game was already popular at the time, implying that pachisi substantially predates Mughal rule. Further evidence of the game exists in the form of surviving boards and tokens, as well as paintings from Mughal- and Rajput-era manuscripts, which depict people playing the game.
Most cross and circle games use a board made of a circle enclosing a cross, usually in the form of paths. This can also mean that the tokens used by players follow a circular movement along the central cross without the presence of an actual circle, as is the case with pachisi. The board for pachisi consists of four pathways, each of which is eight tiles long and three tiles wide. All four pathways meet in a central area known as charkoni. Some tiles, usually three or four per arm of the cross, are marked with an ‘X’ and are called castles.
In traditional gameplay, four players are divided into teams of two, with players facing each other forming one team. Each player has four tokens, all of which are placed in the charkoni. Players take turns casting the cowrie shells, and the one with the highest roll makes the first move of the game, followed by the rest in a counter-clockwise order. Once the game begins, each player moves one of their tokens according to the roll of the cowrie shells, first going down the middle column of the arm that faces the player, then up and down the outer paths of each of the remaining arms in a counter-clockwise progression, with the last path being the same as the first. The first team to return all their tokens to the charkoni after completing a full circuit of the board wins the game.
Capturing and blocking tokens is also a major component of the gameplay. An opponent’s token is considered captured when a player lands on the same square as that token. Captured tokens are sent back to the charkoni and have to begin the game anew. In some versions of the game, a token could only finish at the charkoni if it captured at least one enemy token during its time on the board.
Another Indian game similar to, and possibly also contemporaneous with pachisi, is chaupar (not to be confused with gyan chaupar), which uses stick dice in place of cowrie shells. Early European variations of pachisi include ludo, a British game invented in the late nineteenth century, and Mensch ärgere Dich nicht, an early twentieth-century German game. Later American adaptations of the game include Sorry! and Parcheesi.
Pachisi boards and tokens from various periods of Indian history can be found in the collections of the National Museum, New Delhi; the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK; the Swiss Museum of Games; the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, USA; and in the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art.
Brown, W. Norman. “The Indian Games of Pachisi, Chaupar, and Chausar.” Expedition Magazine, 1964. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-indian-games-of-pachisi-chaupar-and-chausar/.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Pachisi.” Encyclopedia Britannica, January 19, 2018. Accessed 16 November, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pachisi.
Falkener, Edward. Games Ancient and Oriental, and How to Play Them; Being the Games of the Ancient Egyptians, the Heira Gramme of the Greeks, the Ludus Latrunculorum of the Romans, and the Oriental Games of Chess, Draughts, Backgammon, and Magic Squares. New York: Dover Publications, 1961.
Mohr, Merilyn Simonds. The New Games Treasury: More Than 500 Indoor and Outdoor Favorites with Strategies, Rules and Traditions. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. https://archive.org/details/newgamestreasury0000mohr/page/68/mode/2up.
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