Gyan Chaupar

Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art

Gyan Chaupar: A Simple Way of Teaching

Pathak, Anamika


Gyan Chaupar, “the chaupar/game of knowledge/jnana or gyan” is the early version of today’s Snakes and Ladders board game.

Like the ancient game of Chaupar, the Gyan Chaupar also has a checker board; however, the Chaupar’s cross board was replaced by the rectangular board in the Gyan Chaupar. Both types of games can be played with the dice, cowries were used as dice or the Chaupar games men and the four sided dice stick. The game can be played by one, two, three, four or even more persons. The main difference between both the games is that instead of Chaupar’s plain squares, Gyan Chaupar’s squares symbolize a spiritual philosophy along with numerals. As the prefix word “gyan” signifies the “knowledge” of moral and spiritual teaching these were inscribed in each block or square of the board. These teachings are related to the theory of karma. Its different stages, good and bad teaching of spirituality and philosophical life of human beings.
Painted and inscribed on cloth or paper, the usual Gyan Chaupar boards are divided into small squares, which illustrate the inscription with numerals along with snakes and ladders. Sometimes other things, like lokapurusha, the Cosmic Man, human and bird figures were added to the board game. The number of small squares in the Gyan Chaupar board often varies according to version of the game: the minimum squares remain seventy-two and maximum three hundred eighty squares that are known so far.
This game was very popular among the people of diverse religious belief in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Different versions from Jain, Hindu, Islamic to Himalayan and Nepalese, are housed in the various museums and art collections the National Museum of New Delhi also has one such example, which has been discussed in de

National Museum of New Delhi has a rectangular Jain version of Gyan Chaupar, which has been
painted on the cotton cloth in a colorful manner. It depicts the usual setting of eighty-four numbered
small inscribed squares along with snakes and ladders and two human figures. The vibrant floral
creeper border is all around, which is in the usual style of nineteenth century Rajasthani style of cloth
Paintings. The line work of human figures, floral creeper, writing style of Devnagri inscription and the color scheme indicates its Rajasthan origin, the piece is dated late eighteenth century or the beginning of nineteenth century.

The eighty-four small inscribed squares have been arranged in a nine x nine grid with three additional squares (one, fifty-six and sixty-six) projecting at the bottom left and on the upper portion at either side. The small chhatri domed pavilions with flags are arranged in a row on the top. Five additional blocks, in two tiers are arranged on the top most rows, probably to indicate the five main senses of the human being. Four squares in two rows are of equal size, while the center block is bigger. These small squares also have the numerals – one to five and a big crescent rests on the center square. Well dressed and crowned two men stand on either side of the center square. Yama, God of death, who wears the printed attire in black color (signifies inauspicious), stands on the left side, holds the hunter. While divinity stands on the right side in a red printed costume. The illustration of stylish sideburns and big moustaches is the most interesting aspect of these figures, a reminder of the Rajasthani rulers’ of nineteenth century.

Snakes and ladders remain the most essential aspect of the Gyan Chauper board game. As the snake which has the natural instinct of biting symbolizes the readiness to demote the journeying jiva /soul. While the ladder, is the most commonly used tool to assist rise has been chosen to symbolize climbing upwards. The arrangement of snake and ladder in this Gyan Chaupar is slightly different from the usual pattern. Here ten snakes and five ladders have been arranged in place of nine snakes and five ladders. In fact the snake placed in square number forty-nine appears to be a ladder as the colors and style of this snake is different from other snakes on the board. This gives the impression that snake number ten is actually a ladder which is the usual consistent pattern of the Jain version of game. The first snake in the square number seventeen is pancha-mithya-bhed. which mean the five folds foul action of human beings. The final snake encountered in the topmost square number seventy-six, is the mohaniyakarma, the residual karmas which bring confusion and desire to the as yet unperfected soul. More dangerous are the two preceding snakes, destructive types of ego-consciousness, tamas-ahankara in square number sixty-seven and rajas-ahankara in square number seventy- five), which compel the player far down to the earliest stages of the game again.
Ladder number seven, which according to Hindu philosophy is considered to be number for completion, will take the player to dharma-magan in square number forty-four, means person will be fully devoted to the Almighty. The journey of life starts from narak-dhwar, the gate of hell, at the bottom and reaches to the top as mukti-dhwar, the gate of salvation. The crescent inscribed with 84,000 and fitakasila, which probably references to the 84,000 birth circles of humans. Ten chhatri domedshaped pavilions with flags and banners are on the upper most rows, which probably signify the victory point.
Accept one increased snake and one less ladder this Gyan Chaupar follows all the features of early Nineteenth century board game. Jain version of the game is the earliest and only few cloth Gyan Chaupars are preserved, which makes this National Museum Gyan Chaupar an important work of art in the collection. The Rajasthani, Gujarati, Marathi and Pahari artists had shown their skills in making the board game of Gyan Chaupar more interesting attractive and colorful. While making the game may be they had followed the rules of the game by doing squares in prescribed numbers or using these squares for writing the spiritual teachings, but while painting the human figures their attire, their hair style and their ornamentation shows influence of their own regional painting style. While studying such objects of amusement, these should be looked from painting style too, done on different medium. It often happened that the same painting school had different versions or medium, besides the popular tradition of painting on paper.
The way the National Museum’s Gyan Chaupar has been painted is predominantly in black and red colors, which signifies the good and bad elements of the society. The two human figures, their attire, their stylish sideburns and big moustaches, floral creeper border clearly reminds us of the regional style of Jodhpur or Jaipur of Rajasthan School. Remaining portion of the Chaupar is decorated with small floral butis/flower motifs, around the figures that makes the composition balanced and gives a pleasing look to the painting, which should be seen from painting point of view, an important aspect of rich cloth painting tradition of Rajasthan.

History and other versions of Gyan Chaupar
The present simplified western version of Snakes and Ladders game is the shallow thing, in comparison to its ancient version, which was filled with spiritual wisdom. It is believed that several centuries age the game of Gyan Chaupar was conceived in India. Although it is not very clear when it happened and who did it, however, the earliest literary reference of Gyan Chaupar comes from the tenth century Jain manuscript which says :

Like gamesmen,

the living beings on the gaming board of Samsara (the cycle of rebirth), are carried away by the dice (/or senses), but when they see you, O Jina, the place of refuge (or: square) on a game board, they become free from possession by prison, slaughter and death.

-Dhanapala. Rishabhapanchashika,3

The earliest dated example, known so far, is from Rajasthan, possibly Mewar (modern Udaipur) was made in 1735. This cotton cloth painted Gyan Chaupar has all the usual features of Jain version. 4

The theme of Siva and Parvati playing dice is a very interesting aspect of Indian history of board games, which is known through literary references and also found in the famous Kailasa temple of Ellora caves. 5 Several stone sculptures portray the theme of Siva-Parvati playing the dice game have been found from Western Maharashtra, Northern India, Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and Central India. During the Mughal period many Pahari, Rajasthani and Deccani paintings also show the emperors, queens playing the dice game.

Traditional Hindu Gyan Chaupar board also reveals a rich conceptual doctrine of its philosophy. Often these games are layered with the Sankhya, Yoga and Vedanta or Tantric philosophy along with a strong unifying thread of the bhakti devotionalism which prevailed in north India from the thirteenth century onwards. The Hindu version of the game perhaps has developed in emulation of Jain model, at a relatively early phase of the bhakti era7. Hindu boards are predominantly Vaishnava in inspiration, with Vaikuntha (the heaven of Vishnu) as the winning square. Hindu version of Gyan Chaupar has many variations; seventy-two squares (eight x nine grids) 8, hundred and twenty-four squares (fourteen x ten grids), three hundred and sixty -one (nineteen x nine teen grids), three hundred forty-two (nineteen x eighteen grids) 10 and three hundred eighty (twenty x nineteen grids) 11 etc. As the number of squares increases number of snake and ladders also changes, which is not the case in the Jain version of the game as it is considered to be more conservative. Like the Hindu and Jain version, this game was adopted by Islam also with the stages of Sufi mystical path. The board was expanded to an auspicious hundred squares (ten x ten grids) or hundred and one squares (by adding the throne of Allah) 12. Like the other versions, Islam Gyan Chaupar, inscribed in Urdu in each square starts from non existence and birth and as the player progresses ultimately to the throne of Allah.

In the beginning of nineteenth century, this game lost its popularity in India and became more popular in England and other parts of the world. It is believed that the Gyan Chaupar was initially played by the adults, later on with the western influence it was adopted for children’s snake and ladder game in the 1890s. Around I940s only boards of a plain numerical type were produced and this had remained the general practice ever since. 13


In all versions of Gyan Chaupar wether Jain, Hindu, Muslim- the play is driven by a dynamic, dualistic opposition of the regressive snakes and ladders, mirroring the conflict between karmic hindrances and spiritual progress. Game starts from ignorance, proceeds with devotion, spirituality and good karma and ends with the attainment of salvation . Innovation of Gyan Chaupar certainly was the brilliant idea to propagate the karma theory, probably started with the Jain doctrine and cosmology. It gives emphasis towards the individual soul (jiva) and its manifold workings for the spiritual quest for liberation and ultimately for Enlightenment. Later on, the theory and concept of game was adopted by other communites so there are many version of Gyan Chaupar. In fact, if one look at the history of teaching the karma theory and life teaching in a simple way, Indian parents will be the most creative ones right from the ancient days. Therefore the stories of Jataka14, Panchatantra 15, Hitopesdha16, stories from Epic and Purana17, Akbar and Birbal18 and Tainalirama and Krishna Deva Rai19 and many more are prevalent throughout the Indian history. All these teachings in the form of stories are the bed time story of almost every child and it passes from one generation to other.


  1. Painted in colourful manner in red, black, white, yellow, green and blue colours on off white cotton cloth base. Ace no: 85.315.
  2. Topsfield A., Instant Karma the meaning of snake s and ladders in Marg, The Art of Play Board and card games of India, (ed.) Andrew Topsfield. vol. 58. no.2, Dec. 2006. (ed) . pp-75-89.
  3. Micaela Soar, India in the history of backgammon in I.L. Finkel. ed. Board games in perspective. London. 2007.
  4. This Gyan Chaupar is in the collection museum of Indology, Jaipur, Rajathan.
  5. Soar M., Shiva and Parvati at play. Backgammon in Ancient India in Marg. ibid , page no.46. pl-2.
    Wall painting of Ajanta Cave number 2 (c.483 CE). Gupta period (c. 400 CE) terracotta sculpture from
    Northern India. early medieval period (5th -6th century) stone sculptures from Kashmir region . Rani Durgavati Museum. Jabalpur. Madhya Pradesh (10th century) has a stone sculpture. Madhukeshvara Temple Mukhalingam, Andhra Pradesh (late 8th century) has a stone lintel frieze. Munich museum, German y, (10th century) has stone sculpture from Madhya Pradesh, all these sculptures depict Shiva and Parvati playing dice .
    7. The earliest dated Hindu version of Gyan version is in the British Library which was commissioned at
    Lucknow in the early 1780s by the British official Richard Johnson.
  6. In the Late Sangram Singh of Nawalgarh collection. Jaipur, there is Gyan Chaupar with 72 squares.
  7. Early 19th century, 124 small squares Gyan Chaupar board on paper from early 19th century is in the Royal Asiatic Society, London.
  8. Early 19th century, 342 small squares game in Pahari style is in the private collection of Bharany collection. New Delhi.
  9. Mid 19th century 380 small squares Gyan Chaupar in Kangra is painted on handmade paper is in the
    collection of Bhuri Singh museum. Chambha. Published by Sharma v., Vision of Enlightened Kings , Chamba, 2008. p-1 56.
  10. Early 19th century, 100 small squares Gyan Chaupar painted on paper belongs to either Ajmer or Delhi is in the Royal Asiatic Society, London .
  11. A., ibid. p-87
  12. The Jatuka: or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Birth , edited by E. B. Cowell, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 1895
  13. The Pancatantra written by Pandit Vishnu Sharma is the world oldest stories for children, which has been
    translated in numerous languages across the world. Several paintings and art work also illustrate these
  14. The Hitopadesha (Hita’ refers to welfare and ‘upadesh ‘ means advice ) is written in Sanskrit by Narayana
    Pandit is a remarkable compilation of short stories. Its origin is understood like other stories, around a thousand years ago.
  15. Ramayan and Mahabharta and 18 main Puran mention many stories based on moral values, and teachings.
  16. The great Mughal ruler Akbar (r. 1526- 160 AD) and his friend Birbal who was one of the nine gems of
    his court was the most important figure of medieval history whose stories are very famous.
  17. Around 16th century in South under the rule of Krishnadeva Raya there was the famous courtier, known as
    Garlapati Tenali Ramakrishna, who is popularly know n as Tenali Rama. His and his master’s stories of
    wisdom is popular in South as Akbar-Birbal stories are known in North.

First Published in Kala – The Journal of Indian Art History Congress, Vol. XVI, 2010-2011






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