**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 9^{th} 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*

.

**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 16^{th} 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]

Persona Creation | Food |

Costuming | Habitat |

Daily Life/Livelihood | Bardic Performance |

Handicraft | Bibliography |

Skills/Scholarly Pursuits | Main |

[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