Games of Chance

Gyan chaupad board
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Gyan chaupad board
India, Maharashtra; ca. 1800
Color and gold on paper backed with cloth
84 x 90 cm
Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, RAS cat (1991) 051.001 (p.141)

Snakes and Ladders
The game that has long been widespread in the British Isles under the name of snakes and ladders—and less so in America as chutes and ladders—did not begin its history as a simple game at all. It originated as a form of moral instruction to expound the idea to children that good is rewarded and evil punished. Its origins certainly lie in India, where, at some point yet to be determined, a simple linear race game of numbered squares with philosophical implications evolved, in which each player’s single piece moves fatefully from one end of the board to the other, impelled by the throw of dice or cowrie shells. This straightforward progress is enlivened by interruptions in the form of ladders and snakes that stretch between two given squares. Each individual square also carries an inscription that exemplifies a moralizing precept. The lower squares are concerned with mortal vices or hellish states and the upper with heavenly realms and spiritual states, so that the ladders draw the player up (toward heaven), and the snakes draw him down (toward hell).