Snakes and Ladders Game – An Indian Way Life

The classic board game, popularly known as Snakes and Ladders Game, originated in ancient India or Nepal, where it was known with the name Mokshapat or Moksha Patamu. Being centuries old, it is unknown when exactly or who exactly invented. However it is widely believed the board game was played at a time as early as 2nd century BC. Some historians attributes the invention to Saint Gyandev in the 13th century AD. Originally, the Snakes and Ladders Game was used as a part of moral instruction to children.

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How a common children’s game the Snakes and Ladders Game has survived for centuries?

This Snakes and Ladders game was christened as Chutes and Ladders in 1943 by Milton Bradley, most of us have sat with a version of it at some point in our young lives, but its origins involve much more than just child’s play. The game is a potent teaching tool whose simple design has been used for centuries, as a way to embody and reinforce religious teachings and cultural values. All along it’s evolved and adapted to incorporate the themes and aesthetics relevant to each culture that played it, from ancient India to Victorian England, to the US and far beyond.

Pan Indian Approach to the Snakes and Ladders Game

Earlier it was called Gyan Chauper. There are other versions too, they are named like Leela, Moksha Patamu, and Paramapada Sopanapata. Essentially, they are same as terms mean Game of Self-Knowledge, Ladder to Salvation, or Steps to the Highest Place, showing the weight of the content it was meant to convey. Over centuries the game traveled and evolved, its basic design serving as a durable chassis for any culture that took it up, containing and transmitting their moral and spiritual beliefs.

In Tamil Nadu, playing the game Snakes and Ladders on a particular auspicious day “vaikunda ekadasi” is a must to enter the kingdom of Lord Narayana, the heaven. Entering the kingdom of Narayana is called salvation that ends the vicious cycle of rebirth. While playing the game, children would be forced to know about karma, things to be done during the lifetime and kama things that have to avoided like lust etc. It is a small step taken to make children to adopt to a Hindu Way of Life.

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Make a print out. Give each player a colored marker. Throw the dice, the highest will start the game. Put all counters onto the first square labelled “Start 1”.
Rolls the dice and moves their counter by the number of squares indicated on the die. At the end of the move, if a player’s counter is at the bottom end of a ladder, the counter must be moved up the ladder to the square at its higher end. Conversely, if the player’s counter is located at the mouth of a snake, the counter must be moved down to the end of the snake’s tail.

The first player to reach “100” at the top left wins.

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Why the game is played?

Beginners who hasn’t played some version of it, Snakes and Ladders progresses players in a zig zag pattern up a grid of about 100 squares by the roll of dice, or cowry shells originally. Planted on various squares are ladders that move players further up the board and snakes (or chutes) that slide them back down. The first player to reach the final square is the winner.

Each and every square ladder and snake is a moral lesson. It is available in the form of an illustration or explicitly written out. These are all the game’s most obvious moral and religious didactics happen. While playing, people are made to experience the course of fate, and the consequences attached to virtues and vices. The experiential and communal nature of games is what makes even (maybe especially) the most basic of designs so effective at reinforcing culture.

Moral and ethical concepts are expressed through oral history and storey telling, but this game does what holy books of all religious also do. Play predates any formal system of language, education, politics, even our species itself. For us and our fellow primates, play is as much a way of being entertained as a way to work out how we interact and negotiate with the world. It’s really no surprise that evidence of humans playing games goes back thousands of years. But in an age when many of the newest games become unplayable within a decade of their invention, we still have something to learn from games as old as Snakes and Ladders — and its close associate like Pachisi — that have stuck around for thousands of years.

Jain, Hindu, Islamic, and Buddhist Versions of Snakes and Ladders are well documented. They are simply painted cloth, but a very few boards have survived from any earlier than the mid-18th century. Some scholars believe the earliest form of the game may have emerged from ancient Jain mandalas, in which various squares were illustrated with karmic concepts and progressions, connected by religious scribes with lines to underscore their relationships. The leap from those connective lines to ladders and snakes isn’t a big one — both are symbols common to many religions’ spiritual stories.

Pepple would play these games as a form of communal exercise, reinforcing the teachings of their religion in a form of study that didn’t involve books or sermons. The contents of each square were carefully considered, their connections intended to invite contemplation about specific tenets and the larger world view. It’s possible that even the ratios of snakes to ladders (one version had 40 to 22) were a means of communicating how fraught and narrow the righteous path could be.


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Scholars believe that some boards (including Jain ones) seem more pessimistic because they have a lot of snakes and fewer and shorter ladders to aid the upward path. The bhakti or devotional worship-based boards (Hindu and Muslim) seemed a little more balanced in this respect, though not without generous provisions of dangerous snakes of their own. The designs were eye catching. Many boards have squares adorned with elaborate illustrations of religiously relevant phrases, figures or architecture, framed by flora, fauna, and symbols of spiritual planes. Rows of squares are sometimes arranged by levels of enlightenment, even in shapes suggesting the human body, simultaneously reflecting concepts like karmic paths, chakras, or other conceptions about various levels of the spiritual realm. One surviving board is even divided into sub-games corresponding to distinct spiritual or earthly states of being, an elaboration on the basic mechanic that enhances the religious content. Most of the old boards are genuine works of art, as telling as any manuscript or painting.

Nomenclature is another major distinguishing factor between versions of Snakes and Ladders. A sufi board’s final square says ‘extinction into God,’ echoing the Sufi doctrine of “death before death.” Though distinct, these notions aren’t dissimilar from the Jain and Hindu versions’ goal of reaching Moksha — the ultimate release from the cycle of life and death—in their terminal squares. In the American version last square says win a blue ribbon.

Modern games are much less rigorous in the messages they try to impart. In a popular American version, moral lessons are illustrated as comically simple drawings that anyone born in the ‘80s will recognize — a boy rescues a cat and makes a new friend at the top of the ladder. A girl eats too many chocolates which, as shown at the bottom of the connected chute, makes her ill. There’s no apparent plan in the arrangement of these messages, their relationships to one another, or their correspondence with the number of squares a given ladder or chute advances a player or sets them back.

Britain imported Snakes and Ladders game to Victorian England and soon caught on entire west. It even kept the Indian iconography in its boards until around the 1930s. The content slowly changed to suite their way of living. The virtues and vices became more generalized, endorsing grace and success under the ladders with warnings of poverty and disgrace adorning the snakes. Pregnant religious inscriptions were replaced by the two-part cartoon dramas, separated by a ladder or a serpent (and eventually a chute), as the snake to ladder ratio was generally evened out.

It became very popular in UK and US as a childhood game that, at least in part, furthered the moral vision of its host culture. These games are vehicles for culture it provides a window into numerous places and times in world history. In their look, feel, and design, we see the priorities, values, aesthetics, and mentality of people we’ll never get a chance to meet.

Game continues to demonstrate its value as an educational tool, in promoting linear thinking, and concepts of sequence. Its squares are still being innovated upon. Newer versions have been designed to educate communities facing the consequences of climate change, on how to face conflict, or to learn local farming cycles.

Snakes and Ladders game is not designed to be won, but to teach and communicate through experience. It is a travel, which reveal everything about meaningful living. In our time, games are still as much an amplifier of culture as films, music or literature.

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This game’s model is robust enough to last for centuries precisely because of its simplicity and adaptability. The recent video games are unlikely to survive for another century because the complexity of their underlying code renders it impossible to adapt them to new ideas and perspectives. They are closed systems, whereas games like Snakes and Ladders — whose underlying mechanism is akin to guided reading  or a window— allows any message or idea to be tooled to fit its time and place.

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