till there was U
amar haciendo el smor
In 10th century India chess players wagered their fingers. The loser cut off his finger with a dagger and plunged the hand into a boiling
ointment that cauterized the wound.
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From history we know that India in prehistoric times (about
3,000 BC) was invaded by a population coming from Dekkan, the Dravida. Towards 1,800 BC this population were
undermined by a race which were gifted with astonishing organization and who
came almost certainly from the Caspian Sea,
the Arii. The Arii (Arya = noble) were
divided into four ranks: brahman (priest), kshatriya (warriors), vaishiya
(craftsmen), sudra (servants). The high
priest (Brahman) had at his command the udgatar,
that is the chanting priest; the hotar,
the priest who called upon the faithful to pray and recited the RigVeda; the adhvaryu,
the priest in charge of sacrifices, the atharvan,
responsible for keeping the fire functioning.
Four are also the Veda - the sacred books, the four aspects of Veda
correspond to the four aspects of life applying to students, head of the
family, teaching (on the forest)
and period of renouncement. The four are inseparably linked up to life,
to culture and to the religion of the Arii.
The square, as we have seen corresponds to Earth, and that is
linked to the number 4. It is in fact
divided in four regions and each region is presided over by a rank and one of
the four different faces (or arms) in which the divinity divides. The swastika
symbol also has four
Some Facts To Think About
Ricardo Calvo, Madrid
Fact 1: Indian literature has no early mentions of chess but Persian
literature does. The first unmistakable
reference in Sanskrit writings is in the “Harschascharita” by the court poet
Bana, written between 625 and 640. On
the other hand, pre-islamic documents have solidly connected chess with the last
period of the Sassanid rulers in Persia (VI-VII century). The “Kamamak”, an epical treatise about the
founder of this dinasty, mentions the game of chatrang as one of the
accomplishments of the legendary hero.
It has a proving force that a game under this name was popular in the
period of redaction of the text, supposedly the end of the 6th
century or the beginning of the 7th. Closedly related is a shorter poem from
about the same period entitled in Pahlevi “Chatrang-namak”, dealing with the
introduction of chess in Persia. Firdawsi wrote also about it in the 11th
century, but his sources are solid and form a continuous chain of witnesses
going back to the middle of the 6th century in Persia.
Label the map of India. Answers
Fact 2 : India has no
early chess pieces but Persia
does. The presence of carved chess men in
Persian domains contrasts with the absence of such items in India. There
are no chess men there from early times, and only in the 10th
century appears an indirect mention from al-Masudi: “The use of ivory (in India) is
mainly directed to the carving of chess - and nard pieces”. Some experts believe that old Indian chess
pieces may be discovered one day. So
far, this is mere speculation. The
three oldest sets of chess pieces closely identified as such belong to Persian
domains, not to India. The most important are the Afrasiab
pieces. They were found 1977 in
Afrasiab, near Samarkanda, and have been dated by its Russian discoverers as
early as the 7th-8th century. Western experts accept at least the year 761
because a coin so dated belongs to the same layer. This seven ivory men, questionable as all
“idols” may be, are Persian, even if the territory was under Islamic rule since
712. Next group of chess pieces, (three
chessmen) comes also from the Persian area.
The so-called Fergana
pieces include a “Rukh” in form of a giant bird, and its antiquity should be
not too distant from the Afrasiab lot.
In the Persian city of Nishapur
another ivory set was discovered though belonging to later times, 9th
or 10th century. These are
not idols anymore and are carved following the abstract pattern which has been
characterized as “Arabic”.
Fact 3 : The Arabs introduced chess in India
after taking “Shatrang” from Persia. Games
upon the “ashtapada” board of 8 x 8, with dice and with two or more players may
have served as “protochess”, but the two types of games already differ too
strongly in their nature and philosophy to make the evolution of “Chaturanga”
into “Shatransh” a simple question of direct parantage via the Persian
“Chatrang”. Arab writers stated quite frequently that they took the game of
“shatransh” from the Persians, who called it “chatrang”. This happens in the middle of a
political-cultural revolution, which has been analyzed in historical texts. The ruling Ummayad dynasty was thrown out
after a fierce civil war by a certain Abul Abbas, who initiated a new era,
founding Bagdad around the year 750 and translating there from Damascus the
Islamic political center. The Abbasid
dynasty was ethnically and culturally of Persian origin. So Persian influences became clearly
dominant in the cultural renaissance which took place inside the Arabic
trunk. A lot of the previous knowledge
from classical Greece, Byzantium, early Egyptian and Middle East civilizations
and even “from the country of Hind” was compiled and re-translated into Arabic
and absorbed in a scientific body which followed its further path towards the
West. Chess was only a part of this
knowledge, packaged together with earlier mathematical, astronomical,
philosophical or medical achievements.
Fact 4 : Etymology is unclear. The
roots of several chess terms may go further to India, but the fact is that the
Sanscrit word “Chaturanga” means only “army”, and it is unclear whether it
referred to our chess, to a possible form of “protochess” with four players, or
to some strategical exercise with pieces over a board with military
purposes. In any case, to be on safer
ground, we must remember the earliest solid evidences about the board game
called chess belong to Persia. The Pahlevi word “Chatrang” means, even
today, the mandrake plant, which has a root in form of a human figure. So, there is a good case in favour of a
different ethymological interpretation: Any game played with pieces representing
figures may be compared with the “shatrang” plant.
Another hint is the nomenclature of the pieces, persistently related to
different sorts of animals rather than to components of an army: In the “Grande
Acedrex” of King Alfonso of Castile (1283) lions, crocodiles, giraffes etcetra
play over a board of 12 x 12 cases with peculiar jumping moves, and the
invention of it is connected to the same remote period in India as normal
chess. They are very atypical in any
context referring to India. (See the reference “Hasb” (War) in “The Encyclopaedia
of Islam”, De Gruyter, Leyden-New York 1967).
On the other hand, elephants are not at all exclusive from Indian origin
(Sir William Gowers, “African Elephants and Ancient Authors”, African Affairs,
47 (1948) p.173 ff. Also Frank W.
Walbank, “Die Hellenistische Welt”, DTV 1983 p. 205-6), not even in military
campaigns: The Persian army had also cavalry, foot-soldiers, charriots and
elephants as well as river ships. In Egypt, the Ptolemaic Kings obtained elephants
regularly from Somalia. Strabo (16,4,5) mentions the foundation of
several cities in Africa with the main purpose
of hunting elephants. The hunters have
even written dedications to Ptolemaios IV Philopator (221-204 BC). Polybios describes a battle with elephants
between Ptolomaios IV and Antiochos III in 217 BC. Pyrrhus and Hannibal used it in the
West. Modern research has confirmed all
Contact the author
ORIGIN OF CHESS
The Birthplace Of Chess - Some Reflections
Kenneth Whyld, Caistor, Great Britain
A personal note first. For fifty
years I was convinced by Murray and van der Linde. I believed that the Indian sub-continent was
almost certainly the birthplace of chess.
Now I am less certain. To be
brief I can outline the factors that trouble me.
1. Etymology. The earliest chess terms appear to be
Sanskrit. Murray shows that Pahlavi
words in the game are adapted from Sanskrit, and the Arabic in turn from
2. The Firdausi legend. It describes the arrival of chess from India, although
written long after the events which it claims to depict. That this provenance was not at the time disputed
by Persians (or Arabs) convinced Murray
that it had a factual basis.
3. Fables. Much of the folk-lore about the birth of
chess is from in the sub-continent.
1. Sanskrit is the most
distinguished member of a family of languages, including closely-linked
contemporary relatives used outside India, such as Avestan.
2. Firdausi describes chess as
arriving from Hind. According to Majid Yekta’i this name was not
used for India
until after the 11th century.
He says that here Hind means Khuzistan.
Others have extended Hind eastwards to include Baluchistan.
There are other puzzling elements in the Firdausi story. As Bidev pointed out, nobody could possibly
generate the rules of chess only by studying the array position at the
beginning of a game. On the other hand,
such an achievement might be made by looking at nard.
3. Any suggestion that, if there
is any historical basis for the tale, the two games have been transposed, might
seem unlikely on the face of it.
However, there are points which need to be made to a Western
European. Firdausi’s purpose was to
extol the virtues of Chosros-I, and his text has as much historical reliability
as Shakespeare’s Henry V, also written long after the events it portrays. There would be more merit in ‘cracking’
chess than nard. Finally, we here
(especially chessplayers) think that games of skill are more worthy than games
of chance, but at the time and place of this legend the opposite was true. Games of skill were mere diversions, but
games of chance engaged the gods in dialogue.
4. The Indian sub-continent is the source of the world’s greatest
literary treasures. The tradition of
story-telling is a rich one, and the proliferation of the (conflicting) Indian
legends about the creation of chess may merely reflect that narrative
tradition. There are similar, if fewer,
stories from elsewhere. We know that
while chess flourished in Baghdad in the 9th
century, the earliest reliable account of chessplaying in India date only
from the 11th century.
Contact the author
ON THE ORIGIN OF CHESS
The Dalverzin-Tepe pieces
pièces de Dalverzin-Tepe
Isaac Linder reports (The Art of Chess Pieces, Moscow, 1994) that on autumn 1972, an
expedition from Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences led by Galina Pugachenkova,
found two small ivory figures of Indian origin, photographed here below:
Elephant and Bull (or
Knight or Vizier?), ivory , dated as early as II c., found at Dalverzin-Tepe,
Southern Uzbekistan. Their use is unknown, some scholars
think they can be game pieces.
Institute of Scientific Art, Tashkent.
They were found in
Dalverzin-Tepe, an ancient citadel of the Kushan empire, now in modern Uzbekistan
. The Elephant is about 2.4 cm high and the Bull is about 1.8 cm. The puzzling fact is that they are dated
from the 2nd century of our era, then about four hundred years before the earliest date advanced for Chess
Some historians believe
that they can be toys or amulets which is quite possible. Also, it has been noticed that there is no
Bull in the chessmen line-up.
Nevertheless, I feel a vague resemblance between this “Bull” and the
flat headed Vizier found in Afrasiab and in Saqqizabad, Iran.
Vizier from Afrasiab (Uzbekistan, 7th c.),
Vizier (?) from Saqqizabad (Iran,
7th or 8th c.).
Are they Chess pieces ?
The mystery remains and would be useful to have
another dating expertise on this unique pieces.
Similar images are found
in North India even earlier, since third
century BC, associated with Buddhist symbols. Another example is a silver coin from the
of Bactria which also
shows an Elephant and a humped Bull.
These Greeks kingdoms were replaced in these lands by the Kushan
empire in the first century of our era.
Silver drachm of Apollodotus I (180-160 BC), an Indo-Greek king of Bactria.
The Enigma of Chess
de la naissance des Echecs
The quest of chess origin
is an exciting riddle. Earliest references are
found in epic romances written in Pahlavi (old Persian) around 600 / 625 AD.
They present Chatrang, Chess, as an Indian invention brought to the Shah’s
court. In China, the first
undisputable source appears around 800 AD although there is an earlier one
dated 569, but some experts argue that the referred game is not Chess. The
similarities between both games are too great to deny a link between
them. Let’s start by a short
presentation of each.
The Persian Chatrang ( and
the Indian Chaturanga) had already two armies of 16 pieces each, with a
familiar set-up, on an uncheckered 64 cases board:
Each side has:
· 1 Shah, whose capture is the aim of the
game and which moves 1 step in all direction as our King.
· 1 Vizier (Farzin, Firzan in Arab), close to the Shah and which moves 1 step
· 2 Elephants (Pil, Fil in Arab) which moves diagonally 2 steps, leaping over
the intermediate case if occupied.
· 2 Horses (Asp, Faras in Arab)moving obliquely exactly as our modern
· 2 Chariots (Rukh in Persian and Arab) which have exactly the orthogonal
move of our Rooks.
· 8 Soldiers (Piyadah, Baidaq in Arab) which move 1 step straight ahead
(never 2) and capture diagonally ahead as our modern Pawn. When reaching the
last row, they are promoted to Farzin.
In China, the earliest
description of Xiangqi, with all its pieces, are more recent. They are from Bei Song Dynasty, around
1000 A.D. and depicted the modern Xiangqi already. They are two armies, one blue and one red,
with 16 pieces placed on the intersections of a 8 x 9 cases board, then 9 x
· 1 General (Jiang for
blue, Shuai for red) whose capture was here again the aim of the game and
which moves 1 step, orthogonally only. It is confined to the 9 points of its
· 2 Advisors or Mandarins (Shi), also
confined in the palace and which moves 1 step diagonally.
· 2 Ministers for blue, or 2 Elephants for
red (both named Xiang but with different ideograms) which move 2 steps
diagonally. They can not jump and are
not allowed to enter the opposite half-board.
· 2 Horses (Ma) whose move is similar to
that of our Knights with, maybe already, the impossibility of jumping over
the first leg case if it is occupied.
· 2 Chariots (Ju) strictly equivalent again
to our Rooks at the corners of the board.
. 2 Cannons (Pao) placed
before most of the troops on the third row.
· 5 Soldiers (Zu for blue, Bing for red) which step 1 case straight ahead as
long as they are in their own half of the board, then which can also move 1
case sideways when they have penetrated the opposite camp. This is their only
form of promotion. As all the other
pieces, their move and capture are identical.
From this presentation, one
can note an undisputable lineage. Non
only, the pieces have similar moves, if not identical, but their names have
often the same meaning and, moreover, their initial set-up follows the same
an exhaustive comparison.
WHY ARE THESE TWO GAMES SO SIMILAR ?
WHAT IS THE EXPLANATION OF THEIR DIFFERENCES?
to Chess origins
Indian Chess Sets
et les Echecs
Krishna playing against Radha on an Ashtapada board.
(Miniature, XVIIIth century, National Mueum, New Delhi)
India, land of
thousands of peoples, religions and languages. Naturally, India is the land of plenty of
Chess. There Chess is called
Chaturanga and that word is used for the regular 2 players game as well as
for the more intriguing Four-handed
For many, India is the
cradle of Chess. This question remains controversial, however the fascinating
diversity of Chess in India gives this country a very special role.
The pieces are first named
in his Haravijaya (849). But India is poor for archaeological
findings and it is not before the end of the XVI th century that the oldest
piece is known.
The pieces were Raja (King), Mantri (Minister), Hasty (Elephant), Ashwa (Horse), Ratha (Chariot) and Padati (Soldier).
In Bengal, a Boat was used
to substitute the Chariot. It is believed
that this is due to a Muslim influence, the Arabic Rukh being assimilated to the Sanskrit Roka which means boat or ship.
Also, the Muslim shape of the piece was like a V which reminds the
hull of a ship. Bengali texts also name that piece Nauka (Ship).
Interestingly, a similar
process occurred in the North-West when Chess was transmitted to Russia where
the Rook is still a Ladya, a
Boat. More directly, the Indian influence persisted in South-East Asia, in Siam (Thailand) and Cambodia.
Knight, Hindu Kingdom
of Vijayanagar, end of XVI th century. With an Elephant which is probably
from the same set, it is earliest Indian chessman known. Conserved at
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Bengal, XVII th century. (Ivory).
The Muslim influence is
also seen in the abstract set. The chief difference with Muslim pattern in
the shape of the Rook which evolved into a low piece with a flat top
whereas in Arabic style it was a tall piece with a distinct head.
Indian Muslim set, similar to the one
depicted by Hyde in 1694. (Colored silver tin).
Another Muslim set, style of Lahore, Punjab, circa
1870. (Wood and ivory).
The Elephant, as a chessman,
was a very weak piece. Then, its position has always been loose on the
In some games, the
Elephant and the Rook exchanged their positions. In other games, they exchanged their
move, and finally, it happened that they exchanged both. Then, in many Indian sets, the Elephant
is sliding orthogonally as our Rook.
Rajasthan, circa 1840. Historisches
Museum, Dresden. (Ivory).
A similar King, India,
XVIII or XIX century. The set is conserved at Musée de Chartres, France.
The Chariot which can be
seen of the set below is very similar to the design found for its
counterpart in Burma.
Most likely, the Indians
were very attracted by the animal chessmen representations. They had Horses, Elephants, then, they
were inclined to substitute another animal to the Chariot. Sometimes it was a Rhinoceros, or a
Buffalo, but most commonly it was a Camel (Ust or Ushthra).
However, the Camel was
generally not moving like the Arabic Chariot which orthogonal move was left
to the Elephant, the most powerful animal.
Rather, the Camel was jumping diagonally like the old Hasty and
later, under European influence, like our modern Bishop.
Hindu style from south India, circa
A Sikh set, Punjab,
circa 1890. Sikh in green against Chinese in white. (Ivory)
The Elephant is a royal animal
in India. Then, most
representations of the Raja
and the Mantri (King and
Queen-Minister) are figured in palanquins on the back of an elephant.
Set from Murshidabad, Bengal,
representing a mogul army. (Ivory).
Set from Jaipur, XIXth century.
(Enameled silver with jewels).
Set from Berhampur, XIXth century.
A contemporary Indian set, nowadays in
sale in India.(Sandal wood).
The images and photographs shown on this page are coming from the
- Jean-Michel Péchiné,
“Roi des jeux, jeu des rois, les échecs”, Découvertes Gallimard, 1997:
this small French book is a wonderful!
- Alessandro Sanvito
(catalogo a cura di), “L’arte degli scacchi”, Edizioni Sylvestre Bonnard,
- Gareth Williams, “Master
Pieces”, Apple Press, London, 2000.
The authors of theses works, books and photographs, are kindly
If there is any problem with their presence here, please do mail me.
Great Chess -
In an 18th century Indian manuscript, this game is
described. The game is mentioned by
several authors. Murray describes the
game, mentioning its Indian source. Gollon bases his
description of the game on Murray,
but calls the game ‘Turkish Great
Chess’. Schmittberger also
describes the game briefly in his book.
Most authors agree: this is one of the nicest variants of great
chess. I agree with them: the game is
nice and interesting, with probably as largest disadvantage the slowness of pawns. The real age of the game is somewhat hard
to estimate, but given the modern type of moves of several pieces, its date of
birth should probably placed after the middle ages.
The game is played on a ten by ten board (uncheckered?). The opening setup is as follows:
King f1; Giraffe e1; Vizir d1; Queen g1; Rook a1,
j1; Knight b1, i1; Bishop c1, h1; War machine e2, f2; Pawn a2, b2, c2, d2, e3,
f3, g2, h2, i2, j2.
King e10; Giraffe f10; Vizir g10, Queen d10; Rook
a10, j10; Knight b10, i10; Bishop c10, h10; War machine e9, f9; Pawn a9, b9,
c9, d9, e8, f8, g9, h9, i9, j9.
Movement of pieces
Rook, knight, bishop, queen, and king move like in
usual chess. (Actually, some of these
pieces were called different in the original game, e.g., the queen was a general, the bishop
The giraffe is a powerful
piece: it has the combined moves of queen and knight, i.e., of rook, knight and
The vizir has the
combined moves of bishop and knight.
The war machine (dabbabah) has the
combined moves of rook and knight.
Pawns move as usual pawns, but have no initial
double step. When reaching the last row, pawns promote to
The player who mates his opponent wins the game.
The rules about stalemate are unknown; play e.g. as in orthodox chess. Castling is not possible in this game.
Eric Greenwood suggests to speed
up this game, by allowing pawns (except the pawns on e- and f-columns) an initial double step on their first or
second move (but not both). The pawns
on the e- and f-columns can make a double step on their first move. This means
effectively that a pawn can make a double step when on the second or third row
(counted from the side of the player owning the pawn). They can be captured
when making a double step.
Eric Greenwood also suggests
to allow castling: the king is moved three squares towards the rook, and the
rook jumps over the king to the next square.
Written by Hans
Bodlaender. With thanks to David
Paulowich for noting an error, and to Eric Greenwood for the variant