Snakes and Ladders

December 01, 2007
Sam Siddiqui

Vaikuntapaali or Parampada Sopanam, better known as Snakes and Ladders made its appearance in India somewhere around 2 B.C.

Like Life, the game is full of ups and downs; like Hinduism, being swallowed by the snake (evil) brought death which lead to the cycle of rebirths, going through the entire process, again, subject to the same roll of dice or cowries. Good deeds (aka ladders) took you higher and away from the cycle of karma.

Interestingly, the positioning of the ladders and snakes had deeper moral implications.

    The squares of virtue on the original game were Faith (12), Reliability (51), Generosity (57), Knowledge (76), Asceticism (78).

    The squares of evil are Disobedience (41), Vanity (44), Vulgarity (49), Theft (52), Lying (58), Drunkenness (62), Debt (69), Rage (84), Greed (92), Pride (95), Murder (73) and Lust (99).

    One opines that the final square is release or Nirvana.

The game was "discovered" by the British in the 1850s; their Victorian values probably identified with the values in the game, though they sanitized it for the religious implications and exported it as a game for children.

There are indications that the game may have been derived from the dasapada another game that was played on a 10x10 grid, while still others cite Sant Gyandev, a 13th century poet as the author, this game being originally called Mokshapat, or the path to salvation.

Andrew Topsfield (Artebus Asiae, 1985), while lamenting the ephemeral nature of the original cloth and paper boards, believes the game to be a secular version of the gyan chaupar (loosely translated as 'the chess of knowledge'), no dated version of which survives from before the 18th century.

In this version of the game, there are 72 squares and the aim of the game is to reach Vaikuntha (the abode of Vishnu), or square 68, through the ladders of virtue, with the snakes of sin hampering progress.

Then you have the Jain version of the game, which can be played online here.

Even the British were pretty imaginative in their interpretations, with a variety of boards designed around the basic game.

Interesting how games evolve with time, culture and players.

I wonder about the rules and level of complexity of the original Indian games, which were designed for adults, rather than children.

I'm an explorer in science, philosophy and religion, defining the boundaries where one stops and the other begins. An admirer of reason, compassion, humour and integrity, my travels have been fruitful and rewarding, shaping my outlook and perspective.
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December 1, 2007
09:23 AM

Very interesting. One rarely thinks about complex strategies in the game, given its two-dimensional nature, but it seems there may be more than meets the eye.

December 1, 2007
09:57 AM


i was not aware of its origin! pleasantly surprised:)

December 1, 2007
02:57 PM

Interesting read. Some of the Indian indoor games are a tad kid unfriendly, especially of the board variety ; but there were others like a bunch of em with small conch shells that was a kid favorite.

Thanks to the year round sunshine(almost), the outdoor games were the preferred ones. Just the other day, amid paying thru our noses for football & hockey gear, a bunch of us desi parents were reminiscing the not so expensive, great physical activity, helps teambuilding, games we grew up playing : Kho-Kho, Lagori/7-Stones, gilli-danda and variants of Dodgeball.

Or even the street versions of soccer, volleyball, shuttle & cricket for that matter...

December 1, 2007
04:44 PM

Yeah I don't remember ever playing board games except on camps. Mostly we played tag, langdi tag, collecting marbles, playing gilli danda, hopscotch and blind man's buff. Also phugdi and skipping rope games, played that a lot.

Fun times :)

December 3, 2007
01:34 PM

Wonderful read!

Ramesh Raju
June 21, 2008
05:19 AM

I want to see high resolution Jpg image of original Gyan Chaupar board. I think it is in British museum.

Ramesh Raju
June 21, 2008
05:33 AM

I want to view high resolution of at least 500x500 Jpg of Gyan Caupar board (hindu snakes and ladders. I want to save the image of it. I think the original board is in British museum.
rameshrajuartist at the rate of gmail dot com.

June 21, 2008
09:06 AM

amazing! who would have guessed! and there are some kids who refer to board games as "bored games"!

Deepa Krishnan
June 21, 2008
12:35 PM

If you have the inclination, take a look at, they sell all these traditional games and it doesn't cost much. Stores in Chennai carry them, and they sell online as well. I think I can recognise some of the text of this article, it is the same text on kreeda. It is a great gift if you are visitng someone abroad.

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