The Game of Chess

The game of chess was invented in India and was originally called Ashtapada (sixty-four squares).

"Ashtapada" Sanskrit for spider -"a legendary being with eight legs" was played with dice on an 8x8 checkered board. There were no light and dark squares like we see in today's chess board for 1,000 years. Other Indian boards included the 10×10 Dasapada and the 9×9 Saturankam.

Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga on an 8x8 Ashtāpada.

Later this game came to be known as chaturanga. The Sanskrit name Chaturanga means 'quadripartite' — the four angas (divided into four parts). The earliest known form of chess is two-handed chaturanga, Sanskrit for "the 4 branches of the army." Like real Indian armies at that time, the pieces were called elephants, chariots, horses and foot soldiers. Unlike modern chess, chaturanga was mainly a game of chance; results depended on how well you rolled the dice.

Map showing origin and diffusion of chess from India to Asia, Africa, and Europe, and the changes in the native names of the game in corresponding places and time.

Chaturanga is well recognized as the earliest form of chess. Played on an authentic cloth game surface by 2, 3 or 4 players, Chaturanga combines the basic strategy of chess with the dynamic challenge of chance as each move is determined by the random roll of wooden dice. There is evidence of ‘chaturanga’ having been played with dice, which is still not uncommon, although it involved more skill than chance in this version. In fact, Yudhishthira and Duryodhana, in the Mahabharata, played a version of chaturanga using a dice. The game Chaturanga was a battle simulation game which rendered Indian military strategy of the time.

In 600 AD this game was learned by Persians who named it Shatranj. Shatranj is a foreign word among the Persians and the Arabians, whereas its natural derivation from the term Chaturanga is obvious. Again affix the Arabic name for the bishop, means the elephant, derived from alephhind, the Indian elephant.

Even the word 'checkmate' is derived from the Persian term Shah Mat which means 'the king is dead!'. The Sanskrit translation of this term would be Kshatra Mruta. Another term viz. 'the rooks' which is the name for one set of the counters used in chess, originated from the Persian term Roth which means a soldier. The Persian term is derived from the Indian term Rukh, which obviously seems to have originated in the Sanskrit word Rakshak which means a soldier from Raksha which means 'to protect'.

About the introduction of this game into Persia, the Encylopedia Britannica says that the Persian poet Firdousi, in his historical poem, the Shahnama, gives an account of the introduction of Shatranj into Persia in the reign of Chosroes I Anushirwan, to whom came ambassadors from the sovereign of Hind (India), with a chess-board and men asking him to solve the secrets of the game, if he could or pay tribute. The king asked for seven days grace, during which time the wise men vainly tried to discover the secret. Finally, the king's minister took the pieces home and discovered the secret in a day and a night.


The Encyclopedia Britannica concludes that "Other Persian and Arabian writers state that Shatranj came into Persia from India and there appears to be a consensus of opinion that may be considered to settle the question. Thus we have the game passing from the Hindus to the Persians and then to the Arabians, after the capture V of Persia by the Caliphs in the 7th century, and from them, directly or indirectly, to various parts of Europe, at a time which cannot be definitely fixed, but either in or before the 10th century. That the source of the European game is Arabic is clear enough, nor merely from the words "check" and "mate", which are evidently from Shah mat ("the king is dead"), but also from the names of some of the pieces.

Local Variations

Tamil variations of chaturanga are ‘puliattam’ (goat and tiger game), where careful moves on a triangle decide whether the tiger captures the goats or the goats escape; the ‘nakshatraattam’ or star game where each player cuts out the other; and ‘dayakattam’ with four, eight or ten squares, a kind of ludo. Variations of the ‘dayakattam’ include ‘dayakaram’, the North Indian ‘pachisi’ and ‘champar’. There are many more local variations.

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