The origin and evolution of Snakes and Ladders


Snakes and ladders originated from an ancient Indian educational game called ‘Gyan Chaupar’ which means the game of knowledge. It had several local variations like ‘mokshapat’, ‘moksha patamu’, ‘pramapada’, ‘sopanam’, and other adaptations such as Bengali ‘golok dham’ and the Tibetan ‘Sa nam lam sha’. It is not exactly known when and who invented it, though it is believed that the game was played as early as the 2nd century BC. According to some historians, the game was invented by Swami Gyandev in the 13th century AD. The Indian version of the board has around 72 to 300 squares wherein snakes were metaphors for various vices and ladders represented virtuous activities. The goal was to reach enlightenment after journeying through many rebirths and corresponding human experiences. In the original game the snakes were more numerous than the ladders. The painted cloth was richly illustrated and the playing tokens were made of ivory. The iconography also depicted cosmological elements, with upper regions depicting divine beings. Around 1832, Captain Henry Dundas Robertson presented what he called the ‘Shastree’s game of heaven and hell’ to the royal Asiatic society in London where the 128 square ‘Gyan Chaupar’ board can still be seen. The earliest ‘Gyan Chaupar’ board that has been traced so far is now in the British library, originally in the collection of East India Company officer Richard Johnson. Frederick Henry Ayers, a famous toymaker from London, patented the game in 1892. But, the squares of the game board lost their moral connotations. The game is now being sold as a children’s game.


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