The game had its origin in India and was called Moksha Patam or Parama Padam or Mokshapat. It was used to teach Hindu Dharma and Hindu values to children. The British renamed it as Snakes and Ladders.
The game was created by the 13th century poet saint Gyandev. The ladders in the game represented virtues and the snakes indicated vices. The game was played with cowrie shells and dices. Later through time, the game underwent several modifications but the meaning is the same i.e good deeds take us to heaven and evil to a cycle of re-births. There are certain references which take the game back to 2nd century BC.
In the original game square 12 was faith, 51 was Reliability, 57 was Generosity, 76 was Knowledge, and 78 was Asceticism. These were the squares were the ladder was found. Square 41 was for Disobedience, 44 for Arrogance, 49 for Vulgarity, 52 for Theft, 58 for Lying, 62 for Drunkenness, 69 for Debt, 84 for Anger, 92 for Greed, 95 for Pride, 73 for Murder and 99 for Lust. These were the squares were the snake was found. The Square 100 represented Nirvana or Moksha.
Also known as ‘paramapadam’, there are a hundred squares on a board; the ladders take you up, the snakes bring you down. The difference here is that the squares are illustrated. The top of the ladder depicts a God, or one of the various heavens (kailasa, vaikuntha, brahmaloka) and so on, while the bottom describes a good quality. Conversely, each snake’s head is a negative quality or an asura (demon). As the game progresses, the various karma and samskara, good deeds and bad, take you up and down the board. Interspersed are plants, people and animals.
The game serves a dual purpose: entertainment, as well as dos and don’ts, divine reward and punishment, ethical values and morality. The final goal leads to Vaikuntha or heaven, depicted by Vishnu surrounded by his devotees, or Kailasa with Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha and Skanda, and their devotees. In this age of moral and ethical degeneration, this would be a good way of teaching values to children who think they already know more than their parents.
If paramapadam teaches moral values, pallankuli develops skill and quick thinking. Two players compete on a board consisting of between seven and twenty pits per player; each player has to collect the coins or shells or seeds with which the game is played, the player with the maximum number being the winner. There are nine variations of this game, each a ‘pandi’, with regional, caste and religious variations. It was very popular among women and required a good memory and alertness, as they had to count and remember the number of coins or seeds accumulated by the opponent.
The British took the game to England in 1892 and named it Snakes and Ladders and changed it according to Victorian values.