The Game of Chess

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The Game of Chess

Radha-Krishna chess

Radha-Krishna chessOn or around March 2, 2014, the SBS TV announced the opening of the Islamic Museum in Melbourne, Australia.   The reporter interviewed one of the directors about the importance of such a museum and the answer was to promote the contribution of Islam to the world. As it would be, he referred to the game of chess as an Islamic introduction, claiming that shatranj is an Islamic word.


Shatranj could be associated with ‘Islamic’ culture but not with Islamic language.


What is the Islamic language – Arabic, the language of Quran? It is unlikely that it is an Arabic word. It is an Urdu word but Urdu is an Indian language belonging to Indo-Aryan group of languages. Urdu is a counter language to Hindi of north India and commonly spoken in India and Pakistan. 

Urdu is in full Zahan-i-urdu, ‘language of the camp’ – a Persian phrase that incorporates Turkish word ordu. … The spoken Urdu of the 19th century, one of the major languages of British India, was then called Hindustani – the lingua franca of the subcontinent whose Persian name is Hindustan, the ‘country of the Hindus’. [Andrew Dalby]


Amir Khusrau mentions about chess thus – ‘Chess is a unique contribution of India to the world. It is a wonderful art which has countless moves. Had it been in any other country (on account of its novelty) a special place would have been assigned to its expert (but in India, it is everywhere a popular pastime and no specific importance is given to them). Every chess piece (Muhra) of this game has its own pace and role assigned to it, which the people can hardly grasp and command.’   And so on


(Amir Khusrau was known as ‘Turkullah’ (The Turkish soldier of Allah – God) in lived in 13th century. He was not only a poet and historian but also a saint, a follower of Nizamuddin Auliya. After the death of his guru he also passed away soon after. One of his last Hindi couplets which he composed on the death of the Sheikh in 1325 is:


Gori sowe sj par, mukh par dare kes’

Chal Khusrau ghar apne, ren bhayi chahun des. )


Chess is a board game, but India did not have any real board game and often the pattern was drawn on the ground. The chess boards were in cotton patch work. The square piece of pattern cloth was rolled over with pieces in side. It was a very handy system which has appeared again in 20th century where there are portable game boards. It is interesting that woven carpet, in Bengal is also known as shatranji and these game boards were often the woven pattern, which could have also influenced the name of the game. However, Bengali name of the game is known as Daba-Khela – the game of Daba.  


In rural India there are many variations of similar board games, often just drawn on earth and played with pebbles or seeds of fruits. Most common is the seeds of tamarind trees because of their even size and lasting quality. These did not have any squares for move but lines for movement. Amongst them solo-guti (sixteen pebbles), bagh-bondi (capturing a tiger) are just few.


According to Basham the dice games for gambling began in India during the Vedic Period. Special terminology was employed for the throw of dice like (cater] four, treta (trey), dvapara (deuce) and kali (ace). So important was gambling in the Indian scheme of things that these four terms were applied to four periods (yuga) of the aeon. [Basham]


Board games with dice were popular and some of the games have even appeared in the west. During a cruise on Dawn Princess the library had a good collection of board games, and one of them was known as Indian Chess. It was not a game of chess at all but what is known as ludo in India. Ludo is a board game of which has a cross-plan playing field. It actually originated with game played with kauri shells in India. The game-men were kauris as well as the throw was also of kauris. Seven kauris were used for the throw. Numbers counted on the number of kauris that were upside down. If all seven were upside down then anybody touching them first would get the points, on the other hand if all were standing that was the highest scorer. This game is still popular in Bengal and is known as kori-khela, game of kauri.


This developed into what is known as Chaupar in north India. It was a favourite game of Mughal Emperor Akbar. He had the board carved on the floor of the great court of Fatehpur Sikri and he had real persons as game-men. Chaupar was played with four or two players.


Perhaps from this developed the game of eight spaces – ashtapada – a square board of 8X8 squares or 64 squares total.  It developed into a game of strategy representing the corps of ancient Indian army with English equivalents within brackets – foot soldiers (pawn), horse (knight), elephant (castle) and chariots (bishop, nauka or boat in Bengal). Leader was the king and under him was the general or vizier (queen)


Originally it was started in the Gupta period, a game of dice with four players, later changing to two players and moves without dice introduced; and came to be known as Chaturanga. In 6th century it was adopted by Persians and the change the name to chatrang. During Sassanid Persia it was introduced to Arabs and changing to shatranj replacing ch with sh and ng with nj. As life form of humans and animals are forbidden under Islam real Islamic chess-men are expressed by colour and simple forms. The present forms of chess men are Western introduction.


K. A. Nizami expresses that it was during the Islamic rule with capital at Baghdad that Indian-Islamic interaction was at its climax – “India at that time stood at the pinnacle of its cultural glory and intellectual achievement. Indian contribution to the field of mathematics, medicine, rhetoric etc. had won the approbation of the Arabs intellectuals who transmitted Indian contribution in different fields of art and science to the outside world. Arabia thus acted as a channel for transmitting Indian science to distant land. [Arab Accounts of India]   Thus role of Islam is very limited apart from being the carrier of the game to the West.