I’m going to do something a bit unusual for this site and focus on a particular country rather than a particular time period. Normally, I like to use time periods to set the stage for the games I present, but that’s just not going to work here because there is something special about games from India. These games just defy attempts to keep them in convenient little time categories, and I simply can’t combine information about games from India effectively with information about other countries. It’s not that these games are too unique to India for them to be found elsewhere. In fact, it’s just the opposite. India’s most famous games have so uniquely spread everywhere and can be found throughout so many different time periods that it’s difficult to find a time period that I want to cover that doesn’t have them in some form. I’ve already touched on some of these games in other categories, but it’s worth looking at them in the context of the place where they were originally from. India didn’t invent the concept of the board game, but it did shape many of the modern concepts of what board games are and should be with its contributions. In fact, some scholars believe that the concept of the square game board might be an Indian invention (Botermans "World", p. 33).
India has a long and ancient history, and throughout its long history, its civilization has taken many different forms. Over thousands of years, its borders have shifted. It has been collections of small kingdoms, home to mighty and influential empires of its own, and part of foreign empires. It has influenced and been influenced by many other civilizations, and it has traded with the rest of the world throughout that time. People from various religious and cultural backgrounds have become part of its society (Dhar 3-4). It’s helpful to understand some things about the history of India in order to understand the history of its games because India’s interactions with other civilizations explain how some of these games came to be and how they spread around the world.
It’s difficult to explain the entire history of a country in just a brief description, but I’d like to mention a few key periods in India’s past. Some of the historical periods described below overlap with each other because some describe more general social and cultural movements and some describe specific political dynasties. I've chosen to list a combination of the two because I want to emphasize India's historical and cultural connections to different civilizations around the world, connections that go back hundreds and thousands of years.
- Vedic Period (c. 1500 – c.500 BC)
- Sanskrit-speaking Aryans (self-named people of Indo-Iranian descent, exact point of origin unknown, but probably around the regions where the European and Asian continents connect, probably migrating into India to seek better grazing grounds for their lifestock) arrived in the Indus Valley. They composed the Vedas and the Upanishads, the oldest written Hindu religious texts, and they also instituted the caste system of India, where professions were passed down in families. The original four castes were Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and, by extension, royalty), Vaishyas (traders, artisans, and farmers), and Shudras (servants and laborers). At first, there was some flexibility to the system. Members of different castes associated with each other, and it was possible for people to marry members of different castes or even train to become a member of a different caste. However, as time went on, the system became more strict (Dhar 6-9).
- Second Urbanisation (800–200 BC)
- This period overlaps with the Vedic Period. During this time, new urban settlements were being created, and there was a rise in ascetic religious movements, particularly Jainism and Buddhism. Buddha (original name Siddhartha Gautama) was born into a royal family (in the warrior Kashatriya caste) and lived a very luxurious and pampered early life. However, as an adult, he became preoccupied with the concept of human suffering, particularly old age, sickness, and death. He left behind his wealthy and privileged life to set out on a journey to find the answers to these human problems. Eventually, he concluded that much of human suffering is due to greed and selfishness and that neither an overabundance of pleasure and comfort or the other extreme, severe deprivation, could make people truly happy. From these conclusions, he developed a code of behavior to help people to lead better lives called the Eightfold Path and the concept of the Middle Path between luxury and pure ascetism. For the rest of his life, Buddha continued to travel and teach others about his system (Dhar 16-19). Now, Buddhism is one of the largest religions in the world. Toward the end of this period, Alexander the Great entered India on his campaign of conquest (Dhar 21). By this time, Alexander had already conquered Egypt, ending the reign of the pharaohs. His army managed to subdue some of the smaller kingdoms that made up India at this time, but eventually, his people began to tire of the campaign and insisted on returning home. They sailed down the Indus River to the sea and began the journey home (Dhar 21-22). However, Alexander never returned to Greece. He died a short time later in Babylon.
- Maurya Empire (322 to 185 BC)
- Meanwhile, back in India, Chandragupta Maurya, a young general from the kingdom of Magadha (the next kingdom that Alexander had aimed to conquer, if his army hadn't revolted and insisted on heading home) was inspired by Alexander's exploits. After a failed attempt to overthrow his own king, Chandragupta found a helpful adviser, Chanakya, who also had a grudge against the king of Magadha. With his help, Chandragupta managed to raise an army of his own, reconquer the smaller kingdoms that Alexander had previously conquered, and return to conquer Magadha. For a time, Chandragupta and his successors created, expanded, and ruled over a prosperous empire. His grandson, Ashoka, was a particularly powerful king. He was a follower of Buddhism and known for being the first Indian king to use stone as a building material, creating stone pillars as monuments to mark important Buddhist sites and to promote the philosophies of Buddhism and his personal statements as a king (Dhar 22-24). However, their empire eventually ended due to weak leadership in following generations, conquest by other Indian rulers that led to the Shunga Empire (185 to 75 BC) and the conquest of other parts of the empire by Greek leaders (Wikipedia). Aspects of Greek culture, which had been present in and around India since Alexander's time, mingled with Indian culture, and this particularly led to the creation of Buddhist statues that were adapted from the Greek style of stone statues (Dhar 25).
- Classical India (c. 200 BC to 543 AD)
- This was a high point for Indian culture, covering the period from the end of the Maurya Empire through the Gupta Empire. In particular, the Gupta Empire is known as the "Golden Age of India" because of its intellectual, artistic, political and economic achievements. However, the Gupta Empire was disrupted by invading Huna people from Central Asia. Although they eventually managed to repell the invaders, the empire's hold on its territory was weakened, and the empire collapsed, leaving India as a collection of smaller kingdoms once again (Wikipedia)
- Medieval India (543 AD to 1526 AD)
- This period, covering the period from the end of the Gupta Empire to the beginning of the Mughal Empire, was contemporary with the Middle Ages in Europe.