Sports and Games

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By Shri Sudheer Birodkar

A large number of games, like Chess, Snakes and Ladders, Playing Cards, and sports like Polo, and martial arts have originated in India and it was from here that these games were transmitted to foreign countries, where they were further developed. At times, the changes made in the original nature of the Indian sport-forms were so many and so fundamental that the game lost all similarity with its original form in India.

Some Indian games were not transmitted abroad and remained confined to India. For instance, Kabbadi, Kho-Kho, Atya Patya, Malkhamb, Galli-danda, etc which are still exclusively played in India even today. In this article, we shall look into how the games like Chess and Ludo (Snakes and Ladders), martial arts, and playing cards had existed in India for over 2,000 years and how in some cases the indigenous form of the game became totally extinct erasing the fact that- the game had ever been played in India.


A game very similar to modern Chess and Ludo was played in ancient India. In this game, there used to be four participants due to which it was named Chaturanga meaning 'four bodies'. This four-bodied game was played with counters and a dice (aksha). The other term Astapada meaning eight steps, which was also used to describe this game in ancient India, perhaps was a description for the eight steps (Squares) which the modern Chessboard, has. The modern Chessboard is chequered with 64 (8 x 8) squares in all, with eight squares on each side. The old English word for chess which is Esches, possibly stems from this eight squared aspect of the game as did the Sanskrit word Astapada. This game was perhaps the progenitor of both modern day games of Chess and Ludo.

Chess originated in ancient India and was known as "Chaturanga" meaning four bodied, as it was played by 4 players. From this name we have its current name "Shatranj."

History of Chess

There are many documented instances of this game being played in ancient times. One such instance is in the Mahabharata when Pandavas and Kauravas play this game. Yudhistira the eldest of the Pandavas places his bets on his kingdom, his wife Draupadi and all other material possessions. And by a malevolent trick he loses to the Kauravas everything that he had placed his bets on.

The Mahabharata story throws light on the fact that a game similar to Chess was played in ancient India. The Mahabharata is dated prior to 1000 BCE and thus this game was known in India for at least 3000 years. It is the view of some historians that this game was also used in the allocation of land among different members of a clan when a new settlement was being established.

Origin of Chess

Sir William Jones argues in 1783-1789 that Hindustan was the cradle of chess, the game having been known there from time immemorial by the name Chaturanga, that is, the four angas, or members of an army, which are said in the Amarakosha (an ancient Indian Dictionary) to be elephants, horses, chariots and foot soldiers. As applicable to real armies, the term Chaturanga is frequently used by the epic poets of India. His essay was substantially a translation of the Bhawishya Purana, in which is given a description of a four-handed game of chess played with dice - however, Sir William grounded his opinion upon the testimony of the Persians and not upon the above manuscript [1][2].

Wander Linde, in Geschichte and Litteraturdes Schachspiels [3], has much to say of the origin-theories, nearly all of which he treats as myths. He agrees with those who consider that the Persians received the game from the Hindus. The outcome of his studies appears to be that chess certainly existed in Hindustan in the 8th century, and that probably that country is the land of its birth. He inclines to the idea that the game originated among the Buddhists, whose religion was prevalent in India from the 3rd to the 9th century. According to their ideas, war and slaying of one's own fellow-men, for any purpose whatever, is criminal, and the punishment of the warrior in the next world will be much worse than that of the simple murderer, hence chess was invented as a substitute for war.

H.J.R. Murry also comes to the conclusion that chess is a descendant of an Indian game played in the 7th century.[4]

Altogether, the best authorities agree that chess existed in India before it is known to have been played anywhere else. In this supposition they are strengthened by the names of the game and some of its pieces. Shatranj as Forbes has pointed out is a foreign word among the Persians and the Arabians, whereas its natural derivation from the term Chaturanga is obvious. Again affix the Arabic name for the bishop, means the elephant, derived from alephhind, the Indian elephant." Even the word checkmate is derived from the Persian term Shah Mat which means 'the king is dead!'. The Sanskrit translation of this term would be Kshatra Mruta. Another term viz. 'the rooks' which is the name for one set of the counters used in chess originated from the Persian term Roth which means a soldier. The Persian term is derived from the Indian term Rukh, which obviously seems to have originated in the Sanskrit word Rakshak which means a soldier from Raksha which means 'to protect'.”

The Persian poet Firdousi, in his historical poem, the Shahnama, gives an account of the introduction of Shatranj into Persia in the reign of Chosroes I Anushirwan, to whom came ambassadors from the sovereign of Hind (India), with a chess-board and men asking him to solve the secrets of the game, if he could or pay tribute. The king asked for seven days grace, during which time the wise men vainly tried to discover the secret. Finally, the king's minister took the pieces home and discovered the secret in a day and a night."

Thus it was from India that the ancient Persians are learned this game, and from them it was transmitted to the Greco Roman world. The evidence of the Persians having borrowed this game from India is seen in the name the Persians gave to it. The Persian word for chess is Chatrang, which was later changed by the Arabs to Shatranj. As said in Encyclopedia Britannica, this word is obviously a corruption of the Sanskrit original Chaturanga.

Other Persian and Arabian also writers state that Shatranj came into Persia from India and there appears to be a consensus of opinion. Thus we have the game passing from the Hindus to the Persians and then to the Arabians, after the capture of Persia by the Caliphs in the 7th century, and from them, directly or indirectly, to various parts of Europe, at a time which cannot be definitely fixed, but either in or before the 10th century. That the source of the European game is Arabic is clear enough, nor merely from the words "check" and "mate", which are evidently from Shah mat ("the king is dead"), but also from the names of some of the pieces".

Playing Cards

Surprising though the popular game of cards originated in ancient India and was known as Krida-patram in ancient India. The game of playing cards was also one of the favorite pastimes of Indians in ancient times. This game was patronized especially by the royalty and nobility. This game was known in ancient times as Kridapatram, in the middle ages, it was known as Ganjifa. In medieval India Ganjifa cards were played in practically all royal courts. This game is recorded to have been played in Rajputana, Kashyapa Meru (Kashmir), Utkala (Orissa) the Deccan and even in Nepal. The Mughals also patronized this game, but the Mughal card-sets differ from those of the ancient Indian royal courts.

Some scholars are of the opinion that this game was in fact introduced into India by the Mughals. But according to Abul Fazal author of the Ain-e-Akbari, the game of cards was a very popular pastime in the Hindu courts when the Muslims came into India. According to Abul Fazal's description of the game, the following cards were used. The first was Ashvapati which means 'lord of horses'. The Ashvapati which was the highest card in, the pack represented the picture of the king on horseback. The second highest card represented a General (Senapati) on horseback. After this card come ten other with pictures of horses from one to ten.

Another set of cards had the Ganapati (lord of elephants) which represented the king whose power lay in the number of elephants. The other eleven cards in this pack represented the Senapati and ten others with a soldier astride an elephant. Another pack has the Narpati, a king whose power lies in his infantry. We also had other cards known as the Dhanpati, the lord of treasures, Dalpati the lord of the squadron, Navapati, the lord of the navy, Surapati, the lord of divinities, Asrapati, lord of genii, Vanapati, the king of the forest and Ahipati, lord of snakes, etc.

On the authority of Abul Fazal, we can say that the game of playing cards had been invented by sages in ancient times who took the number 12 as the basis and made a set of 12 cards. Every king had 11 followers, thus a pack had 144 cards. The Mughals retained 12 sets having 96 cards. These Mughal Ganjifa sets have representations of diverse trades like Nakkash painter, Mujallid book binder, Rangrez, dyer, etc. In addition there were also the Padishah-i-Qimash, king of the manufacturers and Padishah-izar-i-Safid, king of silver, etc.

Cards were known as Krida-patram in ancient India. These cards were made of cloth and depicted motifs from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, etc. A tradition carried on today with floral motifs and natural scenery.

The pre-Mughal origin of the game of cards is evident if we examine the pattern of painting the cards. We also find that even earlier, in Indian courts there were packs with 8, 9 and 10 sets apart from the usual 12. The numbers were derived from the eight cardinal directions Ashtadikpala, for the pack with 8 set, from the nine planets Navagraha for the one with 9 sets and from ten incarnations Dashavatara of Vishnu for the pack with 10 sets.

Themes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are painted on these cards. The largest number of such cards is to be found in Orissa. The painters from Orissa have represented various illustrations like the Navagunjara, a mythical bird-human animal which was the form assumed by Sri Krishna to test Arjuna's fidelity, illustrations from the Dashavatata of Vishnu are also portrayed.

All these cards were hand-made and were painted in the traditional style. This required considerable patience and hard meticulous work. The kings usually commissioned painters to make cards as per their preference. The commoners got their cards made by local artists who were to be found in urban and rural areas. In order to obtain the required thickness a number of sheets of pieces of cloth were glued together. The outlines of the rim were painted in black and then the figures were filled with colors.

As cards were played by members all strata of society, we find different types of cards. Some cards were also made of ivory, tortoise shell, mother of pearl, inlaid or enameled with precious metals. The cards were of different shapes; they were circular, oval rectangular, but the circular cards were more common. The cards were usually kept in a wooden box with a lid painted with mythological figures. This art of handmade, hand painted cards which had survived for hundreds of years gradually fell into decay and became extinct with the introduction of printed paper cards in the 17-18th centuries. With the extinction of the art of making and painting cards, also was erased from the memory that Indians ever had played the game of cards with their own specific representations of the Narapati, Gajapati and Ashvapati.

The Martial Arts


The origin of martial arts (such as Judo or karate) can be traced to Kalaripayate in ancient India. The practitioners of Kalaripayate have to develop acrobatic capabilities and use swords or knives to attack an opponent. Even an unarmed exponent of Kalaripayate presents an invincible adversary.

Kalaripayat from Kerala was transmitted to China by a sage named Boddhidharma in the 5th century. The Chinese called him Po-ti-tama. He taught this art in a temple. This temple is today known as the Shaolin temple and Shaolin Kung Fu later split to form many other styles such as Judo and Karate.

This art form seems to have traveled from India to the countries of the far-east along with the Buddhist religion. Buddhists monks who traveled barefoot and unarmed to spread the gospel of Buddha seem to have accepted this art with alterations suitable to the philosophy of nonviolence. Such a technique of defense would have been necessary for them as they traveled individually or in small groups in foreign lands during which they were exposed to dangers from bandits and fanatics from other religions. Buddhist monks seem to have tempered the originally violent character of this art. The violent and exterminative nature of Kalaripayate is evident from the daggers and knives that are used. Unlike Kalaripayate, Judo and Karate do not allow the use of lethal weapons.

The aim of a Karate practitioner is mainly to disarm and disable his opponent without mortally wounding him. This can be looked upon as a reflection of the Buddhist attitude towards life. Further both Judo and Karate are deeply interwoven with meditation unlike other martial arts like boxing, wrestling, fencing, etc. The concentration aspect in Judo and Karate perhaps stems from this. Both Judo and Karate are sought to be kept as arts to be used for just purposes for protection of the weak, etc.

The oath that every student of these disciplines has to take is evidence of this. A teacher of Judo or Karate traditionally commands deep respect of students and a lesson always starts with a bow of the students to the teacher. The teacher here is not looked upon only as a coach as in western martial arts like boxing and fencing. This relationship between a teacher and student in Judo and Karate could have its roots in the Guru-Shishya tradition of India.

Thus it is quite possible that these martial art forms originated in southern India and were transmitted to China, Korea and Japan by Buddhist monks. But it has to be conceded that they were neglected in India where like Buddhism they atrophied and today the world considers them to be a legacy bequeathed by the countries of the far-east.


  1. Sir William Jones, in an essay published in the 2nd volume of Asiatic Researches"
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica
  3. Wander Linde, Litteraturdes Schachspiels, 1874
  4. H.J.R., "A History of Chess"

[1]. Reprinted with permission.