Game, Set, History: Ancient Indian Games

By Madhavi Pothukuchi

20 September, 2022

The PS5, Xbox and Nintendos are consoles you think of when you think of games today. But once upon a time, there were simple yet super engaging board games that inspired many modern games. It may not be surprising that many of these board games came from India! So, let’s look at some ancient Indian games and see if you recognise their modern versions.

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Also called Ashtapada, you may know this particular game by its English name, ‘chess’. Chaturanga originated during the Gupta Empire in the 6th century in North India. Much like the modern game of chess, it involved two players playing a strategy to take control of the 8x8 board. 

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Pachisi is a four-player game with a cross-shaped board (often made out of cloth) and colourful tokens that have to make it to the centre of the board. It sounds familiar because Pachisi is the ancestor of India’s favourite game– Ludo. The exact date of invention is unknown, but it is mentioned in the Mahabharata and other ancient Indian texts. 

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Snakes and Ladders

This multiplayer game of chance was known as ‘Moksha Patam’ and worked on the Hindu concepts of karma (resultant sum of a person’s actions) and kama (desires). The game was taken to the UK in the late 1800s and sold as ‘snakes and ladders,’ making it popular across the world. 

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Chaupad is a game of strategy played on a plus-shaped board made of wool or cloth and uses wooden pawns and seven cowry shells as tokens. Historians have found evidence of its game boards from the Iron age, which may mean that the Pachisi game was derived from Chaupad. 

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Also called Pallanghuzi, this tactical game was most popular in south India. It is played on a rectangular board with 16 cups carved into seven rows. A total of 146 tokens (anything from shells to marbles) are placed into the cups, and each player needs to get all the tokens at the end. Variations of Mancala can be found in many countries in the Middle East and Africa.

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Ashta Chamma

Also known as Chowka Bhara (Race Game) in north India, Ashta Chamma is a game of strategy and observation played with cowrie shells or dice. The game is essentially a race to the finish, where players ensure that their tokens reach their destination first without getting killed by the opponents. It is an ancient game mentioned in the Mahabharata.

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An almost extinct game, Ganjifa was a game made popular by the Mughal nobility. It is a trick-taking game played using colourful, typically circular cards, and the main objective is to collect as many cards as possible. Ganjifa is unique for its hand-painted playing cards Today, Odisha is the only place in the world where ‘Ganjappa’ is made and played. 

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