Ancient India had a rich tradition of games that were played and passed on through generations and cultures for not only leisure but also to develop mental capabilities and maintain physical fitness. During ancient times, physical fitness was given prime importance, especially by the kings and the higher-class warriors.
Here is a list of well-known indoor & outdoor games that took birth in the soils of Ancient India, many of which are still actively played throughout the world.
The game of chess was invented in India and was originally called Ashtapada (sixty-four squares). “Ashtapada” in Sanskrit denotes a spider -“a legendary being with eight legs” and this game was played with a dice on an 8×8 checkered board. 1000 years back, the squares weren’t black and white like we see in the presently used chess board. Other Indian boards included the 10×10 Dasapada and the 9×9 Saturankam. Later this game came to be known as Chaturanga. The Sanskrit name Chaturanga means ‘quadripartite’ — the four Angas (divided into four parts) which symbolize “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 where results depended on how well you rolled the dice. Played on an authentic cloth 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 a wooden dice. In fact, in the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira and Duryodhana 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. 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 which is again derived 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 with men asking him to solve the secrets of the game. The king asked for seven days grace, during which, 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’s time. 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 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. 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; ‘Nakshatraattam’ (Star game) is the one where each player cuts out the other and the game named ‘Dayakattam’ with four, eight or ten squares, is similar to modern day Ludo. Variations of the ‘dayakattam’ include ‘dayakaram’, the North Indian ‘pachisi’ and ‘champar’ along with many more local variations.
It is a “strike and pocket” table game of Eastern origin similar to billiards and table shuffleboard. It is found throughout the East under different names, though most non-eastern people know it by the East Asian name of Carrom (or Karrom). Carrom is widely played in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and surrounding areas and in the Middle East as well. In South Asia, many clubs and cafés hold regular tournaments. Carrom is popularly played with families including children, especially at social gatherings. Different standards and rules exist in different areas. The game of carrom is believed to have originated from the Indian subcontinent. Although no concrete evidence is available, it is believed that carrom was invented by the Indian Maharajas. One Carrom Board with its surface made of glass is still available in one of the palaces in Patiala, India. It became very popular among the masses after World War I.
Also known as Pachisi, the earliest evidence of this game in India is the depiction of boards on the caves of Ajanta. This game was played by the Mughal Emperors of India; a notable example being that of Akbar. Variations of the game made it to England during the late 19th century. The one which appeared around 1896 under the name of Ludo was successfully patented.
The popular game of cards originated in ancient India and was known as Krida-Patram. These cards were made of cloth and depicted motifs from the Ramayana, Mahabharata along with ancient artwork. The tradition is still carried on today with floral motifs and natural scenery.This game was patronized especially by the royal and noble class. In medieval India, playing cards were known as ‘Ganjifa’ cards and were played in practically all royal courts. It is recorded to have been played in Rajputana, Kashyapa Meru (Kashmir), Utkala (Orissa), the Deccan and even in Nepal. The Mughals also patronized this game, but the Mughal card-sets differed from those of the ancient Indian royal courts. According to Abul Fazal’s (Author of the Ain-e-Akbari) description of the game, the following cards were used. The first was Ashvapati which is the ‘lord of horses’. The Ashvapati which was ranked the highest card in the pack, represented the picture of the king on a horseback. The second represented a General (Senapati) on a horseback. After this card came ten other cards with pictures of horses from one to ten. Another set of cards had the Gajapati (lord of elephants) which represented the king whose power lay in the number of elephants. The other eleven cards in this pack represented the Senapati and ten others with a soldier astride an elephant. Another pack had the Narpati, a king whose power lies in his infantry. The other cards were known as the Dhanpati, the lord of treasures, Dalpati the lord of the squadron, Navapati, the lord of the navy, Surapati, the lord of divinities, Asrapati, the lord of genii, Vanapati, the king of the forest, Ahipati, the lord of snakes and so on. Based on reports by Abul Fazal, we can say that the game of playing cards was invented by sages in ancient times who took the number 12 as the basis and made a set of 12 cards. Every king had 11 followers, thus a pack had 144 cards. The Mughals retained 12 sets, and so they had 96 cards. The Mughal Ganjifa sets have representations of diverse trades like Nakkash painter, Mujallid book binder, Rangrez dyer, etc. In addition to this, there were also the Padishah-i-Qimash, the king of the manufacturers and Padishah-izar-i-Safid, the king of silver, and many more. The pre-Mughal origin of the game of cards is evident if we examine the pattern of painting on the cards. We also find that despite the observation of Abul Fazal that Akbar introduced the pack with 8 sets, we find that even earlier, in Indian (Hindu) courts we have packs with 8, 9 and 10 sets apart from the usual 12. The numbers were derived from the eight cardinal directions Ashtadikpala, for the pack with 8 set; from the nine planets Navagraha for the one with 9 sets and from ten incarnations Dashavatara of Vishnu for the pack with 10 sets. The largest number of such cards are to be found in Orrisa. The painters from Orissa have represented various illustrations like the Navagunjara, a mythical bird-human animal which was the form assumed by Sri Krishna to test Arjuna’s fidelity. Illustrations from the Dashavatara of Vishnu are also portrayed.
All these cards were hand-made and were painted traditionally. This required considerable patience and hard meticulous work. The kings usually commissioned painters to make cards as per their preference. The commoners got their cards made by local artists who were found in urban and rural areas. In order to obtain the required thickness, a number of sheets of pieces of cloth were glued together. The outlines of the rim were painted in black and then the figures were filled with colors. As cards were played by members of all strata of the society, we find a variety of cards. Cards were made of ivory, tortoise shell, mother of pearls, inlaid or enameled with precious metals. The circular cards were more common but there were different shapes like oval & rectangular as well. The cards were usually kept in a wooden box with a lid painted with mythological figures. This art of handmade, hand painted cards which survived for hundreds of years, decayed gradually and thus became extinct with the introduction of printed paper cards by the Europeans in the 17-18th centuries. With the extinction of the art of making and painting cards, the memory that Indians played the game of cards with their own specific representations of the Narapati, Gajapati and Ashvapati was forgotten too.
Snakes & Ladders
This game had its origin in India and was known as Moksha Patam, Parama Padam and 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 Sant (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 remained the same – good deeds take us to heaven & evil takes us through a cycle of re-births. There are certain references which take the game back to the 2nd century BC. In the original game, the squares where the ladders were found were referred as follows – Square 12 was Faith, 51 was Reliability, 57 was Generosity, 76 was Knowledge, and 78 was Asceticism. The squares where snakes were found depicted the vices like Square 41 was for Disobedience, 44 for Arrogance, 49 for Vulgarity, 52 for Theft, 58 for Lying, 62 for Intoxication, 69 for Debt, 84 for Anger, 92 for Greed, 95 for Pride, 73 for Murder and 99 for Lust. Square 100 represented Nirvana or Moksha.
In another version known as ‘Paramapadam’, there are a hundred squares on a board, where the ladders take you up and 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 good qualities. Conversely, each snake’s head is a negative quality or an asura (demon). As the game progresses, the various karma and samskara, which are the good and bad deeds, take you up and down the board. Interspersed are plants, people and animals. The game serves a dual purpose: entertainment being one and the other being the learning that one gets with regards to the do’s and don’ts of life, divine rewards and punishment, ethical values and morality and so on. The final goal leads to Vaikuntha (heaven) which is depicted by Vishnu who is surrounded by his devotees or Kailasa with Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha and Skanda with their devotees. In the present age of moral and ethical degeneration, this game would prove to be a brilliant way to instill values in children who are way too exposed to the highly influential world. The British took the game to England in 1892, named it Snakes and Ladders and changed it according to Victorian values.
If Paramapadam teaches us moral values, Mancala (Pallankuli) develops mental skill and quick thinking. Two players compete on a board consisting between seven to twenty pits per player, where each player has to collect the coins or shells or seeds with which the game is played. The player with the maximum number is declared the winner. There are nine variations of this game, each with regional, caste and religious significance. This game was extremely popular among women and required a good memory and an alert mind since they had to count and remember the number of coins or seeds accumulated by the opponent. This is a traditional mancala game played in South India (especially Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala), Sri Lanka and Malaysia. This game is also known as Ali guli mane (in Kannada), Vamana guntalu (in Telugu), Pallanghuzi (inTamil) and Kuzhipara (in Malayalam).
The game is played by two players, with a wooden board that has fourteen pits in all (hence the name from the words fourteen pits (pathinaalam kuzhi). There have been several variations in the layout of the pits, one among them being seven pits on each player’s side. The pits contain Cowry shells, seeds or small pebbles used as counters. There are several variations of the game depending on the number of shells each player starts with.This board game with 14 cups is set out with six seeds in each cup; the players distribute these seeds into the other cups until there are no seeds left. The person who reaches two consecutive cups without seeds has to bow out of the game. This game is popular among the kids as well as the old. Kids are encouraged to play this game as it teaches how to count, improves eye–hand coordination and develops concentration while playing. And for the older people of the house, it is a god way to spend time in the company of the young members of the family. In Indonesia, this is known as Congkak or Congklakin. It is somwhat similar to Brainvita.
The dice is attributed to India based on certain accounts. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of oblong dice have been found in the Harrapan sites such as Kalibangan, Lothal, Ropar, Alamgirpur, Desalpur and the surrounding territories. Some of these oblong dice that were used for gambling, date back to the third millennium BCE. The oblong or cubical dice (akṣa) is the precursor of the more primitive vibhīṣaka—small, hard nuts drawn randomly to obtain factors of a certain integer. Dicing is believed to have later spread towards the west to Persia, influencing Persian board games. Early references to dicing can be found in the Ṛig Veda as well as the Atharva Veda.
India is said to have set the base for modern Polo. In the 15th century, Babur made the sport popular when he founded the Mughal Empire. Later, the Britishers globalized the sport which was only played in the areas of Manipur, Jammu & Kashmir and other states. Another variation of polo is the one played with Elephants and is known as ‘Elephant Polo’. It is played in India (Rajasthan), Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, England and Scotland. Since very ancient times, Elephants have been a part of Indian culture. They were representatives of the strength and power of Kings and Emperors. It was therefore natural that polo “The King of Sports”and simultaneously “The Sport of the Kings” was included to be played on elephants as well.
It was invented in India during the early 1900s when we were a part of the British Empire and the first people to play were members of the English aristocracy. Elephant polo is played between two teams of three or four elephants. Each elephant is ridden by two people, a player and a mahout. Mahouts are professional elephant handlers who work for many years with an individual animal to develop a close rapport. They are able to communicate quickly and effectively by using spoken commands and by pressing behind the elephant’s ears with their feet. Players are tied onto the back of their elephant in rope harnesses, so they can concentrate on hitting the ball without the fear of falling off. The players give directions to the mahouts and the mahouts give directions to the elephants.
Bull Fighting which is also known as Jallikattu, Eruthazhuvuthal or Manju viraṭṭu, is a bull taming sport played in Tamil Nadu as a part of Pongal celebrations on Mattu Pongal day. Bulls are bred specifically for the sporting event and a specific breed of cattle bred for this purpose is known as “Jellicut“. In May 2014, the Supreme Court banned the sport citing animal welfare issues. Bullfighting was common among the ancient tribes who lived in the ‘Mullai’ geographical division of the ancient Tamil country. Later, the sport became a platform to display bravery, win prize money and a form of entertainment. The term “Jallikattu” originated from the words “Jalli” and “Kattu“, referring to silver or gold coins tied to the bulls’ horns. A seal from the Indus Valley Civilization depicting the sport is preserved in the National Museum, New Delhi. A single painting discovered in a cave about 35 km west of Madurai shows a lone man trying to control a bull. The painting, done in white kaolin is estimated to be about 1,500 years old.
Kho Kho was started in India way back and it was played by the people of Maharashtra. Kho-Kho ranks as one of the most popular traditional sports in India. The origin of Kho-Kho is difficult to trace, but many historians believe, that it is a modified form of ‘Run Chase’, which in its simplest form involves chasing and touching a person. With its origins in Maharashtra, Kho-Kho in ancient times, was played on ‘raths’ or chariots, and was known as Rathera.
It is an ancient game of the undivided India, pssibly derived from the different strategy and tactics of the “Kurukshetra” war in the Mahabharta. The chariot fight during the war and the zigzag pathways followed by the retreating soldiers indicates the formation of Chain Play-Defense Skill in the game of Kho-Kho. On the 11th day of the war, the Chief of Kaurava Army, Guru Dronacharya drew a typical strategic circular formation- Chakravyuh, keeping Jayadratha at the main entrance with seven soldiers to draw in and kill the enemy. Veer Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna, entered into the trap but could not get his way out and in the process got killed. He fought gallantly alone against seven soldiers. The method adopted by Abhimanyu resembles the idea of “Ring Play” – a Defense tactic in Kho-Kho. It became popular in 1935 when the first edition of the rules were published by Akhil Maharashtra Shareerika Shikshan Mandal. It is also called “Game of Chase” . Over the years the rules have gone under a major change. The first Indian Kho-Kho Championship was held in 1959 under the Kho-Kho federation of india. In the year 1982, the game was included in the Indian Olympic Association.
Gilli Danda is an ancient sport of India, possibly with origins over 2500 years ago. It is believed to be the origin of Western games such as Cricket, Baseball and Softball. It is called dānggűli in Bangla, chinni-dandu in Kannada, kuttiyum kolum in Malayalam, viti-dandu in Marathi, kitIti-pullu in Tamil, gooti-billa in Telugu, and Lappa-Duggi in Pashto. This sport is generally played in the rural and small towns of the Indian subcontinent. It is widely played in Punjab and rural areas of the North-West Frontier Province and Sindh (Pakistan) and Sultanpur district, Uttar Pradesh. The game requires two sticks. The bigger one is called “danda” and the smaller one is called “gilli“. The player then uses the danda to hit the gilli at the raised end, which flips it into the air. While it is in the air, the player strikes the gilli, hitting it as far as possible. Having struck the gilli, the player is required to run and touch a pre-agreed point outside the circle before the gilli is retrieved by an opponent.
Kabaddi is a contact sport that originated in Ancient India. There is concrete evidence that the game is 4,000 years old. It originated in the state of Tamil Nadu. The game is derived from group hunting and village defense tactics. Kabaddi is an umbrella term which encompasses various forms of the game including International rules of Kabaddi and the Indian Kabaddi styles – Sanjeevani, Gaminee, Amar and Punjabi. Kabaddi also encompasses similar sports known by their regional names, such as hadudu in Bangladesh, baibalaa in Maldives, chedugudu in Andhra Pradesh, sadugudu in Tamil Nadu and hututu in Maharashtra. India is the most successful team on the world stage, having won every World Cup and Asian Games title so far, in both men’s and women’s categories.
It is a combative sport with seven players on each side and is played for a period of 40 mins. The basic concept of the game is touching a player on the other side and eliminating him by coming back to the origin side of the player. It is a team sport, which requires both skill and power, and combines the characteristics of wrestling and rugby. The game originated from Ancient India and the modern Kabaddi became popular in 1930. Dhopkel is also a similar to Kabbadi but is played more in Assam areas. Dhop is the name given to a rubber ball that two teams throw across a central line into each other’s courts. Each team sends a player into the opponent’s court; the aim is to catch the ball his team throws and make his way back to his team without allowing the opponents to touch him to earn points.
Yubi Lakpi, a traditional football game played in Manipur using a coconut, has some notable similarities to Rugby. Despite these similarities, the name is not related to the game of Rugby or the Rugby School in England. It is in fact of Manipuri origin, and means literally “coconut snatching”. Perhaps this was the root of modern Rugby. Most Manipuris are quite adamant that the modern world stole the idea from them and made it into Rugby . This game which has been around for centuries is so similar to Rugby, which evolved a great deal later, that it must be more than just a coincidence. The game is traditionally associated with autochthonous forms of Hinduism. It is said to have started as a ceremonial re-enactment of the celestial snatching of the pot of nectar after the Samundra Manthan. An official game is held on the occasion of the Yaoshang Festival of Shri Shri Govindajee at palace ground with Royal presence.
Unlike Rugby, it is an individual sport and not a team one. Before the start of the game, players rub their bodies with mustard oil and water to make it slippery to catch each other. Each side has 7 players in a field and one of the ends of the field has a rectangular box, a side of which forms the central portion of the goal line. To score a goal a player has to approach the goal from the front with his oiled coconut and pass the goal line. The coconut serves the purpose of a ball and is offered to the king or the judges who sit just beyond the goal line. However, in ancient times the teams were not equally matched but the player with the coconut had to tackle the rest of the players. The ultimate goal of yubi lakpi is to present the coconut to the King or the head of the tribe . It is a game of individuals because each player is vying to win the coconut and get the reward. In the original games, the King would watch the players to see who was the most skillful and who possessed qualities for the battlefield . Each player would therefore try to impress.
Martial arts is a part of India’s ancient culture and is a traditional game. Originally, the traditional form of martial arts started in the southern part of India and now it not only has different names but also has different forms that’s practiced in the different regions of India. Khusti – The Indian Wrestling is also a part of Indian Martial Arts and is found throughout India. Indian martial arts has an important influence in the development of modern Asian martial arts. Nowadays, people have started opting martial arts training for self-defense as well as for for fitness. Indian martial arts can be roughly divided into northern and southern styles. A detailed list of the various forms of Martial Arts that has its origins in India will be discussed in the next blog!