Origin of chess aka Chaturanga

The origin of Chess is unclear to date. There is a clear line of divide between the Modern game historians and the ancient text records. Having said that, even the ancient texts only provide references to the past form of modern chess, with no evidence of who really invented chess or how it came into being? In the chronological order, eminent chess historians say that chess began in India around 600 A.D., in Persia in around 700 A.D., and became popular in Arabia in around 800 A.D.


The Initial-Stage References


The earliest reference to chess is said to be (evidently) made in the 7th century. Interestingly, ‘chess’ was first mentioned in Bhavishya Purana around 550 BC. However, this thesis of chess is not based on any concrete evidence. It is said that an Indian named Radhakant told Sir William Jones (a popular linguist) in the 18th century that Chaturanga (ancient base of modern chess) was mentioned by a Vyasa in the Bhavishya Purana. However, it has no scholarship basis or proof, which leaves us with no firm conclusion.


Coming to the 7th century, there was a mention of chess in the romantic Harshcharita   Banabhatta is the poet who composed Harshcharita (a biography of Indian Emperor Harsha - 606 to 647 BCE) in Sanskrit. There was a reference to the ashatapada board used in Chaturanga.  


A line reads, “Under this king, only bees quarrel in collecting dews, the only feet cut off are those in meter, only ashtapadas [chess boards] teach the positions of the chaturanga [four members], there is no cutting off the four principal limbs of condemned criminals.”  


In the Persian text - Karnamak - there is a reference to chess. The text was officially addressed as the Records of Ardashir, son of Papak, who was a Persian Ruler from 226 to 241. The original copy was written in 600 A.D. Its earliest manuscript dates to the 14th century. The text mentions that Ardashir was skilled at Chatrang.  


A line reads, “Artakhshir did this, and by God's help, he became doughtier and more skilled than them all in ball-play, in horsemanship, in shatranj [chess], in hunting and in all other accomplishments.


However, this too has been dismissed as a shaky historical theory since scholars believe  there were glaring errors in poetic ancient stories. An example is a book on Alexander the Great by Edison Marshall, which says Alexander (reign in 331-323 BC) was too rash in the chess game, which makes it evidently clear it is the author's work of fiction. 


Many people, prominently the chess historians, believe that Chess originated from its Indian version namely Chaturanga. Chatur and anga are Sanskrit names for four arms that are symbolic of the game of chess.


In its ancient usage, it related to the arms of the military, representing chariots, cavalry, elephants, and infantry. It was a game played like a situation of war. In addition, there was a King and his advisor. Chaturanga was played on an 8x8 board called an ashṭāpada. The idea of using the same board from an earlier race game was the crux. The board, however, had marks which are not understood till date. It was a simulation of war, thus, attaching itself to royalty and for the select.

Is there a Conflict of Origin?


There is an alleged non-Hindu origin of chess. It is believed to have been invented during the period of Biblical King Solomon, or Greek god Hermes, or to the Chinese mandarin Hansing.


The brilliant Linguist Sir William Jones, who was conversant in many ancient languages particularly, Sanskrit, Old-Persian, Greek and Latin published his writings on the Asian origin of Chess.


In his essay of 1790, titled ‘On the Indian Game of Chess’, he narrated and described the meaning of Chaturanga as referred to the four (chatur) anga (arms) of the Indian Military force. Jones also shared a traditional story which was told to him by an Indian, Radhakant who said that chess was invented by Ravana's wife. Even though Jones was not entirely convinced of this myth, he was apparently convinced that chess originated in India. He believed that the original chess was a two-player game instead of four players. 


Further, in 1799, Captain Hiram Cox, a British Diplomat who served in Bengal and Burma reinforced that chess originated in India.


Later, the English Orientalist, Nathaniel Bland, in his 1851 book titled ‘On the Persian Game of Chess’ claimed that the game of chess was of Persian origin. He argued on the basis of no hard evidence in the Sanskrit texts.


It was in 1860 that British Linguist Duncan Forbes compiled information of the origin of chess in his book titled 'The History of Chess'. He too reaffirmed the fact that the chess was a two-player game but was originally played by four players as a game of dice. It was essentially the ban (no use of dice) since gambling was considered to be a religious offence then. The dice-ban meant it was played as a strategic game by two-players only. The Forbes theory is popularly addressed as the Cox-Forbes Theory.


The 1898 publication called Chess and Playing Cards displayed as an exhibition catalogue of the most impressive games at the time by the American Ethnologist and a Game Specialist- Stewart Gulin - presented chaturanga as a dice game of four players. It, however, did not confirm any link of its foundation with India, implying through its statement that the Captain Hiram Cox theory in 1799, later developed by Duncan Forbes, is not widely accepted by the game specialists anyhow. He did confirm that chess was a four-player dice game in which the pieces were used as dice, cowries or knuckle bones.


The big breakthrough in origin of chess came with H.J.R Murray through his research work titled, A history of Chess published in 1913. It is still referred as the monumental evidence on the origin of chess. The work is referred to by modern scholars as well. Murray in his work established that the representatives of ancient Indian God and Goddesses played the game in prominence and that, there was no religious ban on a dice game as was generally perceived. He further confirmed that there is no mention of chess in the Bhavishya Purana. These statements were a clear dismissal of the Cox-Forbes theory.


He also found Gulin’s reference to Chess origination from a racing game as ‘hypothetically incredible’. Unfortunately, since Murray’s work, there has been no credible research on the subject of chess and it still goes the Murray way - calling the two-player game origin from four-player race game as attractive but unfounded.


So, What Was This Four-Player Dice Game Referred to?


The ancient reference of the four-player, chess-like game was called Chaturaji. It was a game of chance in which dice pieces were rolled to move the pieces. A diceless version of the game is believed to have been played until the 19th century. The game has been described in a book by Al-Biruni (973-1048) a Persian Scholar.


Mahabharata also has a reference to the game which is likely Chaturaji. The reference reads as follows:


“Presenting myself as Brahmana, Kanka by name, skilled in dice and fond of play, I shall become a courtier of that high-souled King. And moving upon chess-boards beautiful pawns of ivory, of blue and yellow and red and white hue, by throws of black and red dice. I shall entertain the king with his courtiers and friends.” 


However, it still does not confirm that the game is Chaturaji.


Other Early References Which Were Like Chess


Liubo is an ancient Chinese board game of two-players. It means six-sticks. The game involved moving of six pieces held by each player on a symmetrical board pattern. Their moves were determined by throwing six sticks on the board. The game was invented in the 1st millennium BCE. The game rose in popularity during Han Dynasty (202-220 BCE) and declined with the decline of the dynasty. Modern archaeological evidence resurfaces the popularity of the game with game boards and game equipment’s discovered in ancient tombs. 


Shatranj is an old form of chess which originated from Sassanid Persia. The word Shatranj is derived from the Sanskrit word chaturanga. In the Middle Persian, the word reads as chatarang. In Persian folk etymology, this word is sometimes re-bracketed as (sad) and ranj (worries), showing close meaning to the state of mind of players. The word was adopted by the Arabic language as Shatranj, in Portuguese as Xadrez, and in Spanish as Ajedrez.


Chess in England came via France who got it from Persia where it reached from India between 3rd-7th century. The medieval period Persian Book titled Karnamak-i Artaxshir-Papakan carried this reference.

Modern Chess and the European Connect  

In the middle of the 12th century, the knightly lifestyle of Europe became a subject of art, perfectly drawn on the chess board with crafted chess pieced. These chess pieces symbolised Kings, Queens, Bishops, Knights and armed men. This is the time when ivory and ornamental chess pieces started appearing up to the mid-13th century.

By the mid-12th century, the chess pieces were described as Kings, Queens, Bishops, Knights and men-at-arms. A notable change was the pawn (is the most numerous piece of chess and the weakest too) seeming more relevant as it found a new association with the footman/pedes/pedinus, association with footman now, depicting loyal domestic service and infantry, together.


Chess reached Europe from Persia, first in Southern Europe and evolved into a full-game practice by the 15th century.


Similarities between Shatranj and Modern Chess

The early settings of Shatranj and modern chess are very similar. Shatranj had the following pieces:

=         Shah like the King in Chess.

=         Fers also called Wazir moves exactly one square diagonally, which was renamed Queen in Europe.

=         Rukh (from Rokh in Persian) connoting chariot which moves like a rock in chess.

=         Pil, Alfin, Aufin, similar to the elephant in Persian, which moves two-square diagonally jumping over the squares in between. Pil is replaced by Bishop        in modern chess. 

=         Faras meaning horse in Arabic, Persian, is like the Knight in Chess.

=         Baidaq from Persian was a foot soldier which is similar to pawns in the modern chess, except that it did not move two squares on the first move.


The modern descriptions of chess refer to king, rook, knight and pawn as shah, rukh, faras and baidaq.


Comparing Shatranj to modern chess, there were few notable differences. Castling was not permitted as it was invented later and the player who delivered stalemate was declared the winner. Even capturing an opponent’s pieces (only one opponent) apart from the King was equivalent to winning the game. There were few exceptions to this golden stalemate rule. In the Islamic World, after one player delivered the stalemate, the opponent was given a last chance to make a move. And in Medina, such a delivered stalemate by a player was not considered a win; instead, it was considered a game draw.


About Author: Pooja Bhatia is an avid history and politics reader and she frequently shares her knowledge on the subject in short-form articles. Her writing depicts that she enjoys reading the subject as much as she likes sharing her thoughts on the subject.


Picture courtesy and copyright http://history.chess.free.fr/ . To buy chess related products click here

Receive Site Updates