The Tribune - Spectrum



Sunday, November 19, 2000
'Art and Soul

Different snakes, different ladders
By B.N. Goswamy

FROM time to time, I hear from all kinds of people, young scholars included, asking for help or clarification or advice on things they think I know something about. A query that came in some time back intrigued me greatly, for it was about a board game that I knew as a child – and most children still know, I am sure – as ‘Snakes and Ladders’. It is a simple game which holds some excitement for the players: the board has something like a hundred squares, each numbered, many of them featuring either the bottom or top of a ladder, or the tail or hood of a snake; you roll a pair of dice and move your marker the number of squares that the numbers on your dice show. Depending upon where your marker lands, you can jump a whole lot of squares by suddenly going up a ladder, or you can be ‘bitten’ by a snake and slide down, along its slithering body, to a square way, way below. Ladders are of all sizes, as are the snakes. The objective is to get to the 100th square, the player reaching it first being the winner. But – I am sure everyone remembers this – before you get there, you have to go past the dreaded snake with an enormously long body which lurks in square 98 or 99. You can suddenly find yourself, down from square 99 to square 2 or 8. Or something like that.

But, to get back from the game to the query that I received about the game. The young scholar who wrote to me wanted to know if I knew any old ‘snakes and ladders’ boards from India, since his information was that the game, as known in the west, came originally from ‘an eastern source’. I did indeed know something, for several ‘boards’ of the kind – they were not literally boards, but thick cotton squares – came to my mind: of those in good condition, at least two were from Gujarat, one from Rajasthan, and one from closer home, Jammu.

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I do not recall exactly where I saw it, but one of the two from Gujarat bore a date in the sixteenth century, and the most recent – the one from Jammu – belonged to the early years of the 20th, this small sample alone spanning a period of four hundred years. How far further than the 16th century did the game in India go, I would not know, but this is far enough.

But there is much more of interest here than the antiquity of the game alone. In India, the game had a different name – this of course is predictable – and a different end than simple entertainment. Gyan (Sanskrit, jnana) Chausar (or Chaupar) was the commonly used name; but one also hears the name Gyan Baaji (i.e. baazi). And, unlikely as it would seem to today’s players of ‘snakes and ladders’, this game contained within itself something of a value system, a statement about what constituted good deeds and what, bad ones, and the consequences that follow from them. The word ‘gyan’ in the name of the game is thus clearly not out of place: the idea was that you learnt, and imbibed ideas, as you played. Among the Jains of Gujarat, the game was especially popular, being widely favoured in the eight-day fasting period of paryushana, for playing it reinforced the player’s familiarity with what is good and what evil, in Jain belief.

The piece of cotton – often beautifully painted – that served as the ‘board’ had at its heart a grid of squares, each numbered, on which were superimposed snakes and ladders, much as today. The game was played with dice, and the objective was to reach the top first. However, what gave the game a different dimension was the ‘value system’ incorporated in it, as said before: each of the squares contained a written statement or a term which determined whether it was a good square or a bad one, and upon which depended of course whether you went up a ladder, or were pushed down, ‘bitten’ by a snake. What was ‘good’, and what ‘bad’, depended upon what belief system the ‘board’ sprang out of. Virtues (like humility, truthfulness, respect for elders, compassion, etc) and vices (like greed, ignorance, hauteur, disobedience) were clearly distinguished; you could ascend to heaven or fall into the nether regions. Not merely this: the heart of the game, with its squares – these were generally eighty-four, the magical number we have in India – was often only a part of a broad, cosmographic scheme that was represented, in the form of painted scenes, on the broad surrounds. There could be representations of the various levels that the world consists of, or different heavens, and hells; places of pilgrimage and the worldly snares that await man. All this, within a broad decorative scheme, with elegant borders, and birds of colourful plumage filling empty spaces. In a fine board, now in the Calico Museum of Textiles at Ahmedabad, the central grid is conceived as the torso of the Lok Purusha, Cosmic Man, with his head towering above the squares, and arms and legs issuing forth from the sides. In another surviving piece, the squares are part of a vast, sacred architectural scheme. Clearly, the intention was that, as one played, one would register, at another level of awareness, a whole set of ideas, beliefs.

Given this orientation, it would be easy to imagine that, even as the game was played in like fashion by different people – with squares and dice, snakes and ladders – no two ‘boards’ might have looked exactly alike. A Jain board could thus be different from a Vaishnava board, and so on, for different terminologies, different values would come into play. Even within the same religious or sectarian setting, there could be variations, for each ‘writer’ of the game – he would give a date, the name of his patron, and his own name, in an inscription – could be expected to bring in his own ideas. It is all rather complex but, to put it briefly, to each person his own snake, his own ladder.

Continuing tradition

That the game, with its Indian orientation, continues to survive came home to me the other day when I chanced upon a ‘Gyan Chaupar board, published from Delhi. It had a ‘universal’ set of good deeds and bad deeds inscribed in the squares, taken from various religions, and replete with quotations culled from texts of different faiths: Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity, included. Whether any child would be attracted to this game in today’s brazen world of greed and consumerism may remain a matter of doubt. But someone, somewhere, has at least tried to move away from the usual ladders and the usual, nameless snakes.