Friday 25 January 2013

The Indian saint who invented the game of snake and ladders

It originated in India as a simple device to highlight the virtues and vices of life. If the snakes represented the evil or vices of life, the ladders stood for good, gain and virtue.
Over the years the device of vice and virtue soon became a must in almost every household in India and in the last century it made its way to the West. Today, this device is one of the most well-known games of the world and this is Snakes and Ladders.
The game of snakes and ladders is most popular in almost all houses and across all countries of the world. In India, there could be very few households where the elders would have sat and either watched or participated in the snakes and ladder game with their younger ones.
The credit for the game should go to the 13th century Marathi saint poet composer Gyanadev, Jnanadeva , also known as Jnanashwar.
When the saint invented the game it was called Mokshapat.
The saint  used the game to effectively bring across to the people the virtues and vices of life. The ladders in the game were virtues and the snakes vices.
The  Mokshapat was played with  cowrie shells and dices. Once a person climbed the ladders and reached the end point, he was said to have attained moksha.  The end point represented the house of good or the full house of virtues.
Jnaneshwar made use of this game of chutes and ladders to explain the virtue of good living and  high thinking. His board was made out of clothe and divided into blocks called houses which represented different emotions such as Karuna or mercy, Darr or fear, Daya or sympathy, joot or lie, Sathya or truth. Most of the negative emotions were represented by snakes and positive feelings, emotions and thoughts by ladders.
The ladders were called as steps to heaven or Vaikuntapalli.
Very soon, the game became popular and when the English came to India in the 16th century, they carried it back to England where it quickly caught the imagination of the public.
The basic rules of the game came to be framed in England and subsequently, it travelled to the United States thanks to the efforts of Milton Bradley (1836-1911), a game pioneer, credited by many with launching the  board game industry in North America with Milton Bradley Company. He called his game “The Chequered Game of Life” and it was a runaway success after it was introduced in the US in 1860.
By the way there is a Jain version of the game called Leela and it dates back to the 16th century. 
In the original game, square 12 represented faith, 51 stood for reliability, 57 for generosity, 76 for  knowledge and 78 was for asceticism. These were the squares were the ladders commenced and went up the squares.
Similarly, the snakes were found in Square 41 which stood for  disobedience, 44 was for arrogance, 49 for vulgarity, 52 for theft, 58 for uttering a lie, 62 for alcoholism,  69 for debt, 84 for anger, 92 for greed, 95 for pride and false prestige , 73 for murder and 99 for lust. The Square 100 represented Nirvana or Moksha or a house full of all virtues.
Jnaneshwar was born in Alandi in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra in 1275 and he entered jeeva Samadhi in 1296, at a young age of 21. He is even today known for his beautiful work on the Gita called the Bhavartha Dipika. This is among the first vernacular commentaries on the Gita. He composed this text when he was just 15 years of age.
He has more than a thousand devotional songs in Marathi to his credit.
When he was young, Jnaneshwar confounded the orthodox people of Paithan and won the right to wear the sacred thread (Janivara) by making a water buffalo recite the Vedas. He is also called Dhyaneshwar.


  1. Thank you. We appreciate your comment.

  2. Very good post, I like it most. Please write more like this...

    1. Thank You, Ms. Vaishali. Our endeavour is to bring to light little known facets of India, its rich culture and history. Thank you again for the encouragement.

  3. It would appear that the game of snakes and ladders is much ancient that the thirteenth century when Sant Jnaneshvara lived. Perhaps he was the first to call it 'Mokshapata'? I have seen a version prepared by Gulabrao Maharaj from the Vidarbha area of Maharashtra also knwon as 'Mokshapata.'