Games and Past-times In Akbari India: Moksha-Patamu and Pachisi

by Anne Harwood

for the Scholars of St. Thomas, June 2008

 

The popular board game of Snakes and Ladders is one with which most of us are familiar, and yet few of us would guess at its ancient origins. Jains (an ascetic religious sect flourishing in India from the 9th century), Sufis (Islamic mystics) and Hindus all had versions.[1]

Traditionally, moksha-patamu was used to teach morality. The snakes represent pitfalls or vices, such as pride, avarice and the inability to control one’s passions, whereas the ladders symbolize virtues, such as generousity, faith and humility. Typically, the snakes outnumber the ladders, underscoring how the road to spiritual achievement is paved with pitfalls.

In the Ain-I-Akbari (written between 1596 and 1597), Abu Fas’l describes another ancient Hindu game, chaupar, better known as pachisi, or in modern times, parchisi.[2] Akbar was apparently very fond of this game. At his palace in Agra, a large pachisi board is inlaid in marble, and he would use slaves girls from the imperial harem as playing pieces.[3]  From times of old, the people of Hindústán have been fond of this game,” Fas’l writes, and goes on to describe the game board, pieces and rules. The dice, although six-sided, appear to be oblong in shape.  

 

Four of the six sides of each dice are greater than the remaining two, the four long sides being marked with one, two, five, and six dots respectively.[4]  

 

However, in Games Ancient and Oriental and How To Play Them, Edward Falkener mentions cowry shells used as dice[5]. In fact, the name pachisi translates to Twenty-Five, which is the highest roll one can achieve with the throw of the traditional cowry shells[6].

In describing pachisi, Falkener provides an illustration of typical Indian playing tokens in the shape of beehives or the rooftops of Islamic minarets. (See Figure 1.) As they were painted, it is likely that the tokens were either of clay or carved wood.

Both beehive tokens and oblong dice are depicted in Figure 2.

 Figure 1. Beehive-shaped game token and pachisi board

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  Figure 2. Shiva and Parvati playing pachisi, showing oblong dice and beehive-shaped tokens, circa 1694. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Playing Moksha-Patamu

The game is played on a board of one hundred squares laid out in a boustephedron track, starting from the first square in the bottom left hand corner and ending in the upper left hand corner of the board. The cowry shells are thrown like dice and only the upturned shells displaying the “teeth” are counted. Players move their tokens along the board the number of squares indicated by the shells. If a token lands on a square occupied by the bottom of a ladder, the player may advance his token to the top of the ladder. If, however, a token lands on the head of a snake, the token is “swallowed” by the snake and descends to the square occupied by the tail. The game is won, and salvation achieved, only when a player rolls the exact number on the dice needed to land on the one hundredth square.

The Victoria and Albert Museum online features a 16th century Jain board. This appears to be made of painted fabric. Visitors to the site are welcome to play the game, using cowry shells as dice and elaborate disks or coins as tokens. Therefore, while the beehive-shaped tokens were common, it is reasonable to assume that anything was acceptable, as long as the pieces were different enough to avoid confusion. Rajpal’s moksha-patamu board is made of fabric, his dice are cowry shells and his tokens are disks. In rendering this board, I have chosen to embroider the figures and to simplify the imagery.

The subject of Indian embroidery is discussed in Handicraft.

Playing Pachisi

Fas’l gives us the rules of the game as played by the Emperor Akbar and his grandees.

It is played with sixteen pieces of the same shape; but every four of them must have the same colour. The pieces all move in the same direction. The players use three dice. Four of the six sides of each dice are greater than the remaining two, the four long sides being marked with one, two, five, and six dots respectively. The players draw two sets of two parallel lines, of which one set bisects the other at right angles. These parallel lines are of equal length. The small square which is formed by the intersection of the two sets in the centre of the figure is left as it is; but the four rectangles adjoining the sides of the square are each divided into twenty-four equal spaces in three rows, each of eight equal spaces. The game is generally played by four players, of whom two play against the other two. Each player has four pieces, of which he puts two in the sixth and seventh spaces of the middle row of the parallellogram before him, and the other two in the seventh and eighth spaces of the right row. The left row remains empty. Each player moves his pieces, accord­ing to his throw, in the outer row, always keeping to the right, till he arrives at the outer left row of the parallelogram from which he started; and from there he moves to the middle row. When arrived at the latter place, he is pukhtah (ripe), and from here, he must throw for each of his pieces the exact number which will carry them to the empty square in the centre of the figure. He is now rasídah, or arrived.

When a player is pukhtah or rasídah, he may commence to play from the beginning, which leads to amusing combinations. As long as a player keeps two of his pieces together, the adversary cannot throw them out. If a player throws a double six, he can move two pieces over twelve spaces, provided the two pieces stand together on one field; but he is allowed to move them only six fields onwards, should he prefer doing so. A similar rule holds for double fives, &c. A throw consisting of a six, a five, and a one, is called khám (raw); and in this case, two pieces, provided they are together on the same field, may each be moved six fields forwards, and every single piece twelve fields. If a player throws three sixes, and three of his four pieces happen to stand on one field, he may move each of them over twelve fields. A similar rule holds, if a player throw three twos, or three ones.[7]


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[1] Snakes and Ladders (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snakes_and_ladders)

[2] Fas’l, Abu The Akbarnama Volume One  Asiatic Society of Bengal  Calcutta 1907 page 303

[3] Eraly, Abraham  The Mughal World page 74

[4] Fas’l, Abu The Akbarnama page 303

[5] Falkener, E., Games Ancient and Oriental and How To Play Them  Dover Publications New York, NY 1892

[6] Traditional Indian Games (http://sports.indianetzone.com/traditional_games/1/pachisi.htm)

[7] Fas’l, Abu The Akbarnama Volume One  Asiatic Society of Bengal  Calcutta 1907 page 303