On Board!

When the real world shut down happened in 2020, the online world literally just exploded. And I am not talking about the social media-based-existence. With new modalities and functionalities like Netflix Party and Hangout, social connections were built and strengthened to ensure that we didn’t lose our sanity in the process of ensuring safety and social distancing. But this does make you wonder, what social distancing would have been like during the “ancient times” especially amidst royalty when networking and building connections were the sole purpose for many. And this is where I happened across the most random piece of feature within the premise of one of the most famous landmarks – inconscipicious and yet, blatant.

Most commonly, Pachisi is used literally as a reference to a game much like chess. It is a board game built as a cross and circle game. It was known as Pasha, the game of dice in the ancient text Mahabharata which culminated to greatest sibling rivalry of all times! Talk about Thanksgiving gone wrong!

PC: Google. A 19th century illustration from the Mahabharata showing Draupadi’s humiliation orchestrated over a dice game

The game is played on a board shaped like a symmetrical cross. A player’s pieces move around the board based upon a throw of six or seven cowrie shells, with the number of shells resting with aperture upward indicating the number of spaces to move. The name of the game is derived from the Hindi word paccīs, meaning “twenty-five”, the largest score that can be thrown with the cowrie shells; thus this game is also known by the name Twenty-Five. There are other versions of this game where the largest score that can be thrown is thirty. Even today in modern parcheesi which is played with dice, five is still an important number in the game because pieces move into play when you throw a five.

Although the Indian game is supposed to be quite ancient, the oldest testimony for the game dates to the 16th century and refers to Akbar’s love for the Indian custom.

The game of Pachisi was played by Akbar in a truly regal manner. The Court itself, divided into red and white squares, being the board, and an enormous stone raised on four feet, representing the central point. It was here that Akbar and his courtiers played this game; sixteen young slaves from the harem wearing the players’ colours, represented the pieces, and moved to the squares according to the throw of the dice. It is said that the Emperor took such a fancy to playing the game on this grand scale that he had a court for pachisi constructed in all his palaces, and traces of such are still visible at Agra and Allahabad.

To date, these grandiose boards still represent the earliest secure evidence for the existence of the game in India. The game’s role in the history of India still remains to be investigated. It is often assumed that the gambling game that plays so significant a role in the Mahabharata, the classical literary epic, is pachisi, but the descriptions, such as they are, do not tie in with the game, and this conclusion is perhaps erroneous.

Irving Finkel, currently the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures in the Department of the Middle East in the British Museum

The Pachisi Court in Fatehpur Sikri was built close to the Diwan-i-Am. The ground of the courtyard resembles an actual chess board because it is made in a combination of black and white squares.

It is believed that Pachisi was a poor man’s game as it was played with cowrie shells as dice and the Royals played Chaupar – the game with wooden dice. In addition to chaupar, there are many versions of the game. 

So, which is the version that you have heard of, or played? I have heard of Pachisi (of course!), but the only one that I am aware of personally would be Ludo. Let me know the versions that you know of!

Interesting read – History of board games

Related (and not-so related) Posts:

Uttar Pradesh

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