In today’s time, when we have a plethora of board games at our disposal, do we ever pause for a moment and think how did these board games come into existence? Were they always so advanced or evolved step by step in due course of time? Let us go on a journey and get to know the story of board games from the beginning.
Historically, board games can be considered to be 9000 years old! Yes, we’re going 9000 years back! In the neolithic period around 7500 BC, even before pottery was invented, pieces of limestones with two rows of holes were found across the middle-east regions. Although the rules of playing this game are not known, it is ascertained that these were a kind of board game found in most of the houses of that time.
After covering a huge gulf in time, we next find in pre-dynastic Egypt 3000 BC the games called Mehen and Senet. Both of these games have a spiritual element within them. In Mehen, as the name itself suggests, the board is based around the Egyptian God Mehen, a giant serpent who wrapped itself around the God of Sun – Ra. This is supposed to be a race game with throw sticks and two different types of pieces; marbles and lions. The players begin from the tail of the serpent and race to the centre, going back to the tail again where the second piece, i.e. the lion piece is activated to capture the opponent’s marble pieces!
Senet is another ancient Egyptian board game and there are lots of paintings of this game found. Interestingly it was believed that the Gods Ra, Thoth, and Osiris protected those who would win this game and it is mentioned in the Book of the Dead. There is even an Egyptian papyrus which describes how the deceased has to play this game of Senet so that their afterlife goes well.
Our next stop is the Royal Cemetery of Sumerian city of Ur, where a British archaeologist named Sir Leonard Woolley uncovered five worn playing boards in 1928. Made up of wood, inlaid shell and lapis lazuli, these boards were highly decorated. When examined, it was found out that these boards were created around 2600-2400 BC which means that at this point of time, this game was in vogue. Maybe after a long hot tiring day, men would sit and relax with this game whereas women would rush to finish their chores for their share of play. More of such boards were found across Iraq and the Indus Valley Civilisation. You’ll be surprised to know that one variation of this game was even present in Tutenkhamen’s tomb! So popular was this game that it was not only played by the royals but the commons etched it wherever they could make time for playing it, which means many variations of it is found on palace walls, on the floors of various temples, steps of some places, basically wherever they could sit and play the game!
This game becomes even more interesting when a British anthropologist and a curator at the British museum named Irvin Finkel translated a cuneiform script on a clay tablet that had been brought to the museum by an antiquities dealer. This script was a rulebook to an ancient game, and that too the Royal game of Ur. Written in 177-176 B.C. by a scribe named Itti-Marduk-balatu, the tablet was discovered around 1880 in the ruins of Babylon, according to the paper, ‘On the Rules for the Royal Game of Ur’ written by Irvin Finkel.
Finkel, in one of his lectures even tells us how he found a variation of this very game carved in a courtyard of a temple in Bhubaneshwar. This simply means that when this game travelled west from Mohenjodaro, it stayed here as well.
Finally we come to board games like the Dyuta and Pacchisi which have been prevalent in the Indian subcontinent since antiquity. Archaeologically, it is hard to pin down the origin of these games because the first archaeological evidence of Pacchisi is found in Akbar’s court but these games were prevalent way before the Persians arrived in India.
When we talk about Dyuta, Skanda Purana mentions Shivji as the creator of this game, and Shivji and Parvati ji play this game with each other. So this becomes a form of pleasure in a way. Dyuta was also of many kinds; Buddhi Dyuta which can be equated to Ashtapad or chess, Yuddha Dyuta where a physical fight takes place between the players, Praani Dyuta where a fight is conducted between animals, Dhur Dyuta which is a kind of deceit play, Suhridya Dyuta which is a friendly game played between friends and Aksha Dyuta is a play of dice. In Kamasutra, there is a dyuta called Chumban Dyuta played between the Nayak and Nayika, it’s basically a kind of Rati play.
When we talk about ancient texts, Dyuta is mentioned in Rigveda, Manusmriti, in various Puranas, Upanisadas and Neeti shashtras as well. This strongly points out that Dyuta was a very popular game during ancient times. There is a mention of Dyuta in even Bhagwad gita when Krishna ji is talking about his various vibhutis in the tenth chapter, he says, “In deceit (छल), I am Dyuta.” In Mahabharat, we’ve the Dyuta Parva and even there are characters teaching the art of playing Dyuta.
The game of Pacchisi or Chaupar is also mentioned in Mahabharat. Both these games were in vogue since ancient times, almost like today’s netflix! You can imagine the people getting special boards designed for them with clothes and jewels from faraway lands. But the thing that made these games so famous was that people from all walks of life played them. People who were rich had special boards whereas people who couldn’t afford boards drew them on the ground, on the steps and wherever they could find time to play them.
A variation of Pacchisi was introduced commercially into the United States in the 1860’s by a certain John Hamilton, living in the Hudson River Valley. He first marketed his adaptation under the name “Patcheesi” and filed a claim for a copyright in 1867. Mr. Hamilton evidently expected the name to be pronounced like the Hindi pachisi. He presumably obtained the name from someone who represented the sound of the second consonant by “tch” (as in “patch”) rather than by “ch” (as in “church”). But the game was still very young when Mr. Hamilton discovered that people were pronouncing it “potcheesy” as though it had something to do with “pot cheese,” which is a dialectic name for cottage cheese. He sought a way to obviate this indignity and, apparently not thinking that it would be enough just to delete the “t,” looked instead for a substitute. He ended up with “r,” and in 1869 adopted the name “Parcheesi,” characterised in due time by the Oxford English Dictionary as “error.” His game used two cubical dice rather than three long dice or a number of cowries, and some of the playing rules differed from those for chaupar/chausar and pachisi, but the board is essentially the same, with the same number of squares or boxes and with castles (“Safety Points” in the American terminology) in the same places.
What is today popularly known as ‘Snakes and Ladders’ was an ancient Indian game called ‘Moksha Patam’. It’s not exactly known who invented it, though it’s believed that the game was played at a time as early as 2 century BC. This game was used to impart moral education to children and was one of the cause and effect games. The squares containing a ladder were supposed to stand for virtues and the ones housing the snakes were supposed to stand for vices. The game was transported to England by the colonisers where it was stripped of its moral and religious importance making it a random luck-based game.
Then there is the popular game of chess, which started in India with the name “Chaturanga”. Armies in ancient times used to have four divisions, foot soldiers,
horse warriors, elephant warriors and chariots, leading to the name Chaturanga. Recorded history of this game dates back to the 7th century, which travelled across the world and the modern rules of the game emerged in Europe sometime during the 15th century.
Starting our journey from almost 9000 years ago, we’ve reached today’s time when we’ve uncountable board games at the tips of our hands. And now we know that recreation is as old as the Vedas themselves! So many board games originated in ancient India and travelled to various parts of the world, especially the whole of the middle-east and we’ve seen these board games through the historical findings. Now, it’s on us to carry forward this means of recreation which is slowly getting lost in the virtual universe that we all have created around us.
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