Snakes and Ladders was not just a game…

Anyone who’s spent time in India with family has surely played Snakes & Ladders (and not the wussified Western Chutes & Ladders). It’s a simple game of chance where you roll a die, move the number of spaces defined by the roll and – if you land on square at the bottom of a ladder or a snake’s mouth – move up or down. These days I loathe games of chance where there’s no skill involved but as a kid, Snakes & Ladders was a nice way to pass some time.

What I did not know was the history of the game as a moral teaching tool:

Surviving game boards suggest Snakes and Ladders emerged somewhere in Northern India or Nepal. In its earliest identifiable form it was called Gyan Chauper, though other versions have gone by names like Leela, Moksha Patamu, and Paramapada Sopanapata. These titles translate roughly to terms like 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.

Here’s a beautiful board design from the 19th century:

Jain version Game of Snakes & Ladders. Gouache on cloth, India, 19th century
Jain version Game of Snakes & Ladders. Gouache on cloth, India, 19th century

It’s fascinating that play was used to reinforce religious or moral concepts. That’s certainly a better approach than rote memorization. There’s more info at the source (link below).

Source: The Timelessness of Snakes and Ladders with a special hat tip to I, Mummy

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