Chess is a game that India gave to the world. It was called Chaturanga in India because it comprised of 4 arms of the army – the infantry represented by the Pawn, the horse cavalry represented by the Knight, the elephant represented by the Rook and the chariot represented by the Bishop.
From Ramayana period
While the antiquity of Chaturanga lies in the mists of time, some of the legends suggest that this game was played even during the time period of Ramayana. Mandodari, the wife of Ravana, the king of Lanka, is said to have played a game of war movement strategies.
Mandodari and Ravana playing chess – An Artist Impression
A Sindhi Legend
Chaturanga has been in India for a very long time. There is an interesting legend from Sindh to this end.
Rishi Shashi took the 64 squares of the chess board to the then king of Sindh, Raja Bhalit. He asked the king to give him 1 grain for the 1st square and double it to 2 grains for the 2nd and double it to 4 grains for the 3rd, and to repeat it and double it to 16 grains for the 5th square.
The king, considering this to be a childish request, conceded to this request. Little did he realize that by the 16th square, all the grains in his granary had to be put forth and by the 24th square, all the grains from his land had to be bequeathed to the Rishi.
This incident became the talk of the kingdom and the popularity of the 64 square game spread far and wide.
The Persian Connect
This game was then taken to Persia during the reign of King Cosroe 1 Noshirwan Adel of the Sasanian Dyansty who ruled between the years 531 and 579 CE.
As a reciprocatory gesture, he sent the Persian game Nard to India.
One of the distinct features that the modern game chess has with Persia is the final move in the game of chess, ‘Checkmate’, which comes from the Persian word, “shah Mat”, meaning ‘the king is dead’.
Another interesting reference to Chess can be taken from South India, in Kancheepuram. About 800 years ago, there lived a philosopher, poet par excellence called Swami Vedanta Desika. He composed a poem of 64 aksharas (letters), which was meant to be laid one each on each square of the chess board.
Each time a horse moved on the chess board in its unique pattern, those aksharas resulted in the birth of a new poem. This was a sort of poetry writing which is known as Chithra Bhandhana. This particular form of Chitra Bandhana is called Turaga Bandhana.
That the poet Swami Vedantha Desika had used the chess board as a frame for his poem and the unique L shaped movement of the horse as per the rules of present day chess game, clearly tells us that the chess board and the rules of the movement of the horse had been a common knowledge in this land even 800 years ago.
Thus we see that the game of chess, its components and usage have been an integral part of this land from North West to South, through the ages.
The ancient game, Chaturanga, modernised to chess, is a game that India thus shared with the modern world.
This game in early Samskrt works is also referred to as Kshatra Mruta. Kshatra comes from the word “Kshatriya”, meaning warrior. Kshatra here indicates the training session for the Kshatriya. Mruta comes from the word, “Mrtyu”, which means death. This was a game that taught war strategy to wipe out an enemy army.
In Amarakosa, this game is referred to as Ashta Pada, the 8 steps. There is an exclusive Samskrt text called Chaturanga Dipika which describes in detail the game of chess in its early form. It is from this text that we get the name Chaturanga.
Later in some of the other works, this game has also been referred to as Buddhibala, Buddhi meaning “Brain” and Bala, “Strength”. Such a name is indeed an apt tribute to the talent, intellect and logical reasoning that this game demands.