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A die found in excavations at a Harappan period site. Note that thesix is not opposite the one.

Indian games: A die found in excavations at a Harappan period site. Note that the six is not opposite the one.

The first games in India

People brought the idea of throwing the knucklebones of sheep or pigs to tell the future, or to play a game of skill like jacks, when they first came from Africa to India about 40,000 BC.

Early African games
History of games
All our early India articles

The invention of dice

But people in India may have been among the first to get the idea of carving those knucklebones and turning them into marked dice.

History of dice
When was backgammon invented?

The earliest known dice in the world come from a backgammon set from Iran, from about 3000 BCHarappan people certainly used dice about 2500 BC, and the Rig Veda and the Mahabharata – Indian books – both tell stories about dice.

Indian board games

Certainly Indian people invented a lot of board games, and they liked to play them. By the 300s AD, in the Guptan Empire, people in India were playing Pachisi (we know it as Parcheesi). They made the boards out of cotton cloth, and threw six cowrie shells to determine the moves. They made the pieces out of wood.

Ancient Indian coins
History of money

Chess and playing cards

About 600 AD, under people in India began to play chess. They may have gotten the idea partly from China, where versions of chess were a variation on earlier games of Go.

Chess soon spread from India to the Islamic Empire and from there to EuropePlaying cards reached India from China around 900 AD; many people in India changed the rectangular cards for circular ones.

Playing chess: a project
Where are playing cards from?

Indian Snakes and Ladders game (1700s AD)

Indian Snakes and Ladders game (1700s AD)

Snakes and Ladders game

Sometime around the 1200s AD (or possibly earlier), people in India also began playing a game they called Snakes and Ladders (we know it as Chutes and Ladders).

Hounds and Jackals
Hinduism in India
What is Nirvana?

It might come from a much earlier African game, Hounds and Jackals. But this was a Hindu game. Each space was called a house, and each house represented a kind of emotion.

You threw dice to see how far you should go, and used a cowrie shell for your piece. The ladders stood for good feelings, while the snakes stood for bad feelings that took you farther away from Nirvana.

Mancala in India

People in India also played the game of mancala, which also probably started as an African game.

What about athletic games?

Athletic games were also popular in ancient India. Wrestling matches and archery, as in Central Asia, were very common. Camel racing and boat races were also common.

Where do camels come from?
Central Asian wrestling

Learn by doing: play a game of chess, Parcheesi or Chutes and Ladders
More about dice
History of board games
More about Ancient India

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Indian games:

More about ancient India
Games in ancient China
Central Asian games home