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Snakes and Ladders is an ancient Indian board game, regarded today as a worldwide classic

Marija Georgievska

Snakes and Ladders is an ancient board, game regarded today as a worldwide classic. It originated in India as part of a family of dice board games, including pachisi. It was known as Moksha Patam, Vaikunthapaali, or Paramapada Sopaanam.

Gyan Chaupar (Jain version of the game), National Museum, New Delhi. Photo Credit

Gyan Chaupar (Jain version of the game), National Museum, New Delhi. Photo Credit

It is played between two or more players on a game board with numbered, gridded squares. A number of ladders and snakes are pictured on the board, each connecting two specific board squares.

The object of the game is to navigate one’s game piece, according to die rolls, from the start to the finish, helped or hindered by ladders and snakes respectively.

Jain version Game of Snakes & Ladders called jnana bazi or Gyan bazi, India, 19th century, Gouache on cloth.

Jain version Game of Snakes & Ladders called jnana bazi or Gyan bazi, India, 19th century, Gouache on cloth.

The game was associated with traditional Hindu philosophy contrasting karma and kama, or destiny and desire. The games have also been interpreted and used as a tool for teaching the effects of good deeds versus bad.

Persian Snakes and Ladders. Photo Credit

Persian Snakes and Ladders. Photo Credit

The morality of the game must have appealed to the Victorians, who took the game and published it in 1892 in England. Called Snakes and Ladders, the gameplay was pretty much the same but some of the vices and virtues were renamed according to Victorian ideals.

Game of Heaven and Hell (Jnana Bagi). This old Indian game, known to us as 'Snakes and Ladders', was originally a vehicle for teaching ethics. Photo Credit

Game of Heaven and Hell (Jnana Bagi). This old Indian game, known to us as ‘Snakes and Ladders’, was originally a vehicle for teaching ethics. Photo Credit

The board of the game was covered with symbolic images, the top featuring gods, angels, and majestic creatures, 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.

Milton Bradley Chutes and Ladders gameboard c. 1952. The illustrations show good deeds and their rewards; bad deeds and their consequences. Photo Credit

Milton Bradley Chutes and Ladders game board c. 1952. The illustrations show good deeds and their rewards; bad deeds and their consequences. Photo Credit

Primary school in Kilmarnock. Photo Credit

Snakes and Ladders in primary school in Kilmarnock. Photo Credit

In popular culture, the game is a central metaphor of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Interested in ancient board games?- Here is another interesting read  from our vault on that topic: Nine Men’s Morris is one of the world’s most ancient games

He was inspired by the game’s philosophy, which captures the eternal truth that for every ladder you hope to climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner, and for every snake, a ladder will compensate.