The Ancient Game of Chaturanga: the Indian Origins of Chess

hindu aesthetic
8 min readApr 8, 2021


Two women play Chaturanga, a board game. An attendant is holding a fly whisk. Mandi, c. 1805 — c. 1815

Chess as a Product of Indian Genius

Professor P. Thine observes: “Surely a civilization and gave birth to the grammar of Paṇiṇi produced also a game that was above the grasp for children and could be played for the sheer joy in puzzling out intricate problems of an abstract nature”.

In 1972, Professor S. R Rao brought forth the oldest archaeological evidence of chess in India to light in his work Lothal and Indus Civilization. Lothal was a port town in Gujarat and in excavations there, chess pieces were discovered, closely resembling modern chessmen. The date assigned to these chessmen was about 2450 BC. Professor Rao said in his work, that “it is interesting to note that some of the animal headed games-men and pyramidal ones with ivory handles found at Lothal closely resemble in size and shape of the modern Indian chessmen”.

Excavation conducted in Tamil Nadu provided some terracotta cylindrical pieces made from clay and burnt in a kiln, and came in red and black, with their bottoms flat, presumably for easy handling on the board.

The word “chaturaṅga”, meaning “having four limbs or parts” is found both in the Ṛg Vēda and the Śatapata-Brāhmaṇa, though it does not refer to any game in that context. The term Chaturaga and allusions to chariots, elephants, horses and foot soldiers as constituting the army are profusely available in the Rāmāyaṇa. But there is no single instance in which this word is used in connection with any game. The Mahābhārata does not refer to the game chaturaga — the game mentioned in the Mahābhārata similar to dice-play (akṣakrīda) of the Vedic period. The game of dice is compared with a battle in many places in the Mahābhārata. But no reference is made to either the pieces (śara) or to the board (aṣtāpada). Declaration of victory takes more time in the game of Chaturaṅga and brought as it depends on the clever movement of the pieces on the board in accordance with the fall of the dice. The quickness with which Śakuni was winning the game in Mahābhārata clearly points to the fact that the game in play was not Chaturaṅga. But the commentator Nīlakaṇṭa explains that the terms found in the Mahābhārata as connected with some game -like draught.

Since there is no reference to any board game either in the Rāmāyaṇa or the Mahābhārata, it can be safely concluded that the invention of this game cannot be attributed to the wife of Rāvaṇa or the Pāṇdavas.

But we must appreciate the fact of Chaturaṅga hints at its high antiquity. In Chaturaṅga, there is no minister by the side of the king. This refers to a period in history of evolution of monarchy when the king had no one fixed minister (mantrin). The institution of the minister was still unknown even in the period of the Śatapata-Brāhmaṇa. Thus, the Chaturaṅga has no mantrin by the side of its king, which apparently reflects a primitive organization of the state. This fact may be considered as an indication of the great antiquity of the game.

A manuscript of a treatise on Chess, developed from the ancient Indian game of Chathuranga, titled “Chaturanga Sāra Sarvasva”
Mysuru, circa 1850; Sanskrit written in Kannada script on paper, 672 pages; written in red and black ink, with numerous diagrams and board settings of deities and mythological and geometrical designs; in original gold and red cloth with stamp of the Rajah of Mysore.

The earliest Indian reference to the game by name occurs in the seventh century A.D. in the poet Bāṇa’s Harṣacaritra. In a characterization of Harṣa’s greatness filled with highly crafted puns, we find used next to one another, the words for both the chessboard and the game. He says that under Harṣa, “cutting feet is (a matter) of boards with 64 squares, criminals having all four limbs”.

Daṇdin’s Daśakumāracarita provides a possible late sixth century reference to the game in which there is an example of what chess players call today a “kibitzer”. The game alluded to is played by two people, but we cannot be sure it is chess. A possible technical term for a type of move possibly characteristic of chess pieces may occur as early as the fifth century BC. Such an interpretation, however, requires so much equivocation and doubt so as not to be meaningful. In general, Indian literature does not make many references to games. They were not considered to be conducive to spiritual advancement to the tradition probably looked down upon them.

The game of chess appears to have been modified from the Indian game of Chaturaṅga first around the 6th century A.D. Arabic and Persian accounts of a later date give several accounts of the game’s origin. It has been generally agreed though, that test was introduced from India to the Persian king Khusraw I Anushirwan at this time together with a Persian version of the Indian book of fables Kathāsaritsāgara, the Kalīla wa-Dimna.

When Persia was conquered by the Arabs in seventh century, the game spread to the Middle East, Spain, Byzantium. From Byzantium it for spread to Italy then to other countries of Western Europe. It is also probable that in the Middle East, the game was learned by the Crusaders who further spread it throughout Western Europe. Over the central Asian trade route between the Middle East in China, the game spread to China. A late Chinese account discusses the games origin in China, and attributes invention to China, but this perhaps may refer to the game’s modification in China.

The first mention of the game in Persia is in the seventh century Persian history, Artakhshatr-i-Papakan. Its Persian designation shatranj, comes from Sanskrit, ‘chaturaṅga’, Bring to the four divisions of a traditional Indian army, so that the name of the game might appropriately be translated to “army”.

As the game migrated changes were introduced. The “general” or the “minister” of the Middle Eastern and Persian games was made into the “Queen” in Europe. The “elephant” sometimes became the “camel” in the Middle Eastern and Persian games but various pieces in Europe such as the “fool” in France and the “bishop” in England. The “horse” became the “knight”. The “chariot” shows changes even in India — sometimes a ship was used, though perhaps only through the influence of the Persian game or through the maritime influence of coastal India.

In India, from the earliest times down to the end of the epics and even several centuries after, chariots played a very prominent role in warfare. Chess can be traced to the period when chariots were still used in warfare, but also used as a means of transport ( fourth century BC). But at least by the 1st or the 2nd century BC, it evolved into a larger and more complicated vehicle than the fighting chariot of ancient India. By the 4th century AD, it was a little more than a means of transport.

In his article “Chess 1,300 years ago”, I. Linder observes: ‘an answer to the question of where the game might’ve originated can be obtained from the figure of the elephant, an animal not only characteristic of India, but one employed in warfare there in ancient times’.

A Royal Treatise on the Game of Chaturanga Mysore, circa 1850; In Sanskrit written in Telugu script, titled “Sri Krishnaraja Chaturanga Sudhākara” with a leaf of dedication to Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar III of Mysore; eight leaves with illustrations of the board in colours and gold with captions, and a final page of postscript, bound with 16 pages of printed text, each with text explaining the table and instructions to the game.

The association of man and elephant in India dates back to a period of remote antiquity. The bones of the animal unearthed at Mohenjodaro, the realistic figurines and familiar representations of the scales of the Indus sites point to the beginnings of this friendship. A passage in the Ṛg Vēda describes hunters chasing wild elephants, possibly to capture them. The elephant makes it to debut as a royal mount in Vedic literature and then use the battlefield. The epic tradition of the fighting elephant must’ve owed something to earlier antiquity. The absence of directed more explicit references to the use of elephants in war in the later Vedic literature is doubtless due to the character of that literature: there was not so much room in the Brāhmaṇas or the Upanishads for discussing the arms of the army or the dispositions of battle. The Epics assign elephant their proper place in army organizations. Elephants are placed on the joints and extremities of the wings (of the various bird-like vyūhas or battle formations. Deer station so as to give stability to the army, to support and cover its flanks. Elephants rush against elephants but the spare none else — horse, chariot or foot soldier. The elephant slaughters and destroys; but is not able to outdo the knight in his chairiot.

That the board on which the game is played is a board of 64 squares tell us that it is the world, the universe regarded as a manifestation of the primeval cosmic man and supreme spirit, which is the field upon which this game is played. The association of this board with the kingly sport of dicing on which kings play their fate, and on which kings in Indian literature have lost their empires and even their wives, indicate this. When a person plays on such a board, everything is at stake. Such a diagram, representing an ordered universe, is even laid out on the ground before erecting buildings in traditional India. It is believed to bring the spirit to possess the ground under control. The chessboard is, in fact, one of the most common of such great used in building in northern India, the maṇdūkamaṇdala, a Square grade of 64 squares, 8X8. Eight represents intrinsic harmony, excellence and stability. Eight is the number of the primary and intermediate cardinal directions, the parts of a kingdom, the parts of a court of law, the parts of the human body. 8X8 is the best of its kind and continually increasing excellence. A gift of 8X8 in India around the beginning of the Christian era was considered to be "royal”. On such a grade the cosmic man was sacrificed so as to create the universe.


  1. Indian Origins of Chess: An Overview by C. Panduranga Bhatta 2003

2. Chess - its South Asian origin and meaning by Stephan Hillyer Levitt


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