Snakes & Ladders

BY GARETH PETERSON

Snakes and ladders originated as part of a family of Indian dice board games that included gyan chauper and pachisi (known in English as Ludo and Parcheesi). It made its way to England and was sold as “Snakes and Ladders”, then the basic concept was introduced in the United States as “Chutes and Ladders”.

The game was popular in ancient India by the name Moksha Patam. It was also associated with traditional Hindu philosophy contrasting karma and kama, or destiny and desire. It emphasised destiny, as opposed to games such as pachisi, which focused on life as a mixture of skill (free will) and luck.

The underlying ideals of the game inspired a version introduced in Victorian England in 1892. The game has also been interpreted and used as a tool for teaching the effects of good deeds versus bad. The board was covered with symbolic images, the top featuring gods, angels, and majestic beings, while the rest of the board was covered with pictures of animals, flowers and people. The ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith, and humility, while the snakes represented vices such as lust, anger, murder, and theft. The morality lesson of the game was that a person can attain salvation (Moksha) through doing good, whereas by doing evil one will be reborn as lower forms of life. The number of ladders was less than the number of snakes as a reminder that a path of good is much more difficult to tread than a path of sins. Presumably, reaching the last square (number 100) represented the attainment of Moksha (spiritual liberation).

When the game was brought to England, the Indian virtues and vices were replaced by English ones in hopes of better reflecting Victorian doctrines of morality. Squares of Fulfilment, Grace and Success were accessible by ladders of Thrift, Penitence and Industry and snakes of Indulgence, Disobedience and Indolence caused one to end up in Illness, Disgrace and Poverty. While the Indian version of the game had snakes outnumbering ladders, the English counterpart was more forgiving as it contained equal numbers of each.

The association of Britain’s snakes and ladders with India and gyan chauper began with the returning of colonial families from India during the British Raj. The décor and art of the early English boards of the 20th century reflect this relationship. By the 1940s very few pictorial references to Indian culture remained, due to the economic demands of the war and the collapse of British rule in India. Although the game’s sense of morality has lasted through the game’s generations, the physical allusions to religious and philosophical thought in the game as presented in Indian models appear to have all but since faded.