Of Dice and Men

Posted by sepoy on March 11, 2010 · 6 mins read

I have now discovered Do not get angry, Dude in Germany along w/ a commemorative stamp. It was invented by the clerk Josef Friedrich Schmidt (1871-1948) for his three children and then commercialized in 1914.

[originally published Aug 30, 2005 @ 9:03]
This falls squarely in the well-established tradition, here at CM, of wasting time. Raven's post on Ludo [which you should also go read] made me really curious about the history of this board game most Americans know as Parcheesi.

The game has many names: Pachisi or Chaupar being the ancient Indian/ medieval Mughal names [there is some difference in the rules for the two], and Parcheesi or Ludo being the American/colonial ones. Essentially it is a dice game, with cogs for players, five safety points [traditionally arranged with four points of the compass and the center of the earth], with the objective being to reach the safety points while taking out the cogs of your competitors. The origin of the game is a tad mystical. It is Duryodhana's deception at this dice game, which emulates the realm of earth as its board, that sets up the epic war of Mahabharata. I will allow Mughal historian and chronicler Abu'l Fazl to set the stage:

Duryodhana was beside himself at the sight of their sovereign splendour, and the pangs of envy drove him more distraught. With deceptive intent, he held a festival and invited the Pandavas and proposed a game of chaupar, playing himself, with cogged dice. By this means he won all they possessed. The last stake was made on the condition that if the Pandavas won, they should recover all that they had lost, but if otherwise, they were to quit the royal dominions and wander in the wilds for twelve years in the garb of mendicants after which they might return to civilised life for a year, and so conduct themselves that none should know them. If this last particular were infringed, they would have to pass a similar period of twelve years in the forests. Unsuspecting foul play, their uprightness brought them to ruin.

Let's go from the realm of gods to those of men. Herodotus claimed that Lydians invented dice while Socrates thinks the Egyptians did. Both are obviously wrong because dice, as you may or may not know, was invented by one of our common ancestors named Javihm who found some knuckle bones lying outside the cave while he was recuperating from a nasty case of poison ivy. More interesting is the case of the "board game". Leslie Kurke in Ancient Greek Board Games and How to Play Them mentions two games which I found interesting, polis and pente grammai - both involving a lined board, throwing dices, moving pieces and capturing pieces. In the case of polis, Kurke maintains that the board resembled the layout of the city. The pachisi board, like I said, takes the idea of the polis but to the global scale.

In terms of archeological evidence, we have the ancient game of Pañca[game of five], found in Tamil, with a board with five safe spots, player tokens that moved across the board after the roll of dice. However, the board here could be of any shape [and was often in any shape]. It is conjectured that this earlier board travelled all the way to Egypt to become the Dogs and Jackals Game, as well as Snakes and Ladder, which, in turn, gave us the Game of Goose and Chutes and Ladder. The board with the four points of the compass symmetry of Pacisi spread to Ceylon [panca], Korea [nyout], Vietnam etc. There is some controversy around E. B. Tylor's claim that the ancient Aztec game of Patolli is also related.

Anyways, back to Pachisi, Chaupar and to the medieval/early modern era. Akbar, the Great Mogal King [as I like to call him], was a big fan of Chaupar. In his capital at Fatehpur Sikri was a courtyard which doubled as a Chaupar board and on which the life-sized game was played in the King's attendance [those fetching kaneezis being the gotis]. Here and here are a couple of contemporary pictures. Just as Akbar was a big fan of the game [or maybe because Akbar was a big fan of the game], there was wide popularity for the game [I love that painting]. In folklores of Sindh and Punjab are many tales of the game being played amongst wily and cunning opponents. The hardcore players kept the cloth board rolled up in their pagris and hats. The pieces [got] were often carved out of wood [or ivory for the fancy folks] and dyed in red, green, yellow or black colors. I'd imagine that this was a great source of entertainment for travellers, and wayfarers. It also caught the fancy of the colonials. Here is a photograph taken by William Chapin in the early part of the twentieth century. India, being timeless and all, I am sure that their medieval counterparts behaved much in the same way.

Selchow & Righter, the American board-game company, trademarked Pachisi as Parcheesi and started marketing it as a children's game in 1868 or so. It had reached England a few years earlier but by the 1920s, it was marketed as Ludo [latin for "to play, sport /imitate, banter /delude, deceive"]. Ludo was the version I grew up with.

So, there you have it. A game of chance played on a board of the world. Wasting my time....


raven | August 31, 2005

Man, I got jipped: didn't get any kaneezis with my Ludo :(

Saurav | September 01, 2005

great post; i would like to see some info on carom should the mood strike you :) Writing on the origins of chess is generally overdone, but perhaps someone else might be interested in that too :)

Sumana | September 05, 2005

Around the time that you were writing this, sepoy, I was writing about the dice game here: http://www.insidebayarea.com/bayarealiving/mcmasala/ci_2992021

kuffir | September 10, 2005

the post would have been more complete(?) if you had added details about the taboos/superstitions associated with it in hindu homes. it is forbidden in the afternoon, in common spaces inside a home etc., the game is said to arouse feelings of jealousy,anger, ill-will and other negative emotions.

Anirban | March 11, 2010

Exceptional research. I grew up with Ludo who was pronounced "ludu" for some unknown reason.

Aligarian | March 11, 2010

Good post, here is an interesting article on chess. http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200904/the.game.of.kings.htm

Kishore Asthana | June 25, 2010

Very informative, thanks. In our family the game is very much alive. At our house we have a cloth pacchisi (my mother made these for each of us brothers) and one inlaid in the patio tiles. At family get-togethers we play pacchisi (we call it Chaupad, too, though that is originally a slightly different game). One baazi can go on for 2-3 hours and is full of laughter and sounds of dismay. There is a fixed set of rules for our family game (others may have different rules) covering every eventuality. I am in the process of compiling these rules now, so that the younger generation can continue our generations old tradition.