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Where the Hell Did Snakes and Ladders Come From?

Apparently, it was supposed to teach us lessons in morality.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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As a child, one of the easiest board games to play was Snakes and Ladders. It remains a classic board game that people can play at any age without the need for strategy like chess or Monopoly—which, we admit, can bring out the worst in anyone with a competitive streak

Snakes and ladders is pretty straightforward. It has two main rules: if you land on a snake head, you fall down, and if you land on the bottom of a ladder, you go up. It’s the kind of game that doesn’t require much thought, and winning it is entirely up to a roll of the dice. This seems fitting enough as it further brings out the notion that fate or destiny lets events happen as they should.

While most of us are familiar with Snakes and Ladders, probably having played a game at least once in this lifetime, not much is known about its origins. And curiously enough, the game wasn’t created to be a game, but a lesson–on morality and heaven and hell. Go figure? 

Believed to be of ancient Indian origin, the game was designed to determine if your morals on earth leaned more towards heaven or hell. A Hindu game with deeply philosophical roots, snakes and ladders was actually known then through other names like Moksha Patamu, Mokshapat, or Gyan Chaupar. In English it meant, “Game of Knowledge,” and was believed to have been played since sometime around the second century AD. 

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It wasn’t always played on a board; it was actually played on painted cloth or paper. The Hindu philosophy of Karma and Samskara were two of the main drivers of the game. The former is familiar to most people as a causality that is reliant on good or bad actions, while the latter is a word for ritual life events. In this version, the snakes lead down to asuras, also known as power-hungry demons. Meanwhile, the ladders allowed players to climb up to a god or even a different version of heaven: Kailasa, Vaikuntha, and Brahmaloka. 

Some historians credit its invention to Saint Gyandev (Sant Dnyaneshwar), a 13th-century poet with a focus on imparting moral instruction to children. There were apparently more snakes in the original Hindu game. The number of squares also varied from 72 to 100. The last square of the game represents attaining liberation, and the winner is usually who gets there first. 

In 1892, the game made its way to the British Market and became a beloved hit, also slowly morphing out of its philosophical purpose to a more entertaining one. In fact, there are early versions recorded. During the 1910s, there was a version of Snakes and Ladders labeled, “The Oriental Pastime Of Snakes & Ladders: The Latest Improved Edition,” in Britain. Another version represents Indian origins in its packaging and make, which was manufactured by Spears Games Ltd. in Bavaria, Germany. The design credits are in England, and the box is printed with a snake charmer playing for English children. 

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Meanwhile, in 1943, the game became “Chutes and Ladders” in the United States by Milton Bradley. This redesign was supposedly for a more child-friendly approach with chutes replacing the snakes and simpler, more light-hearted illustrations of good and bad deeds as a toned-down counterpart to its moralistic origins. An interesting version of the game from 1998 includes the Philippines in its frequent players, popular with children in Mindoro and La Union. Apparently, this variant of the game was used in health programs in many developing countries.

Knowing the long journey snakes and ladders took to get to us, we can see that we owe the rich culture of India much more than just their cuisine. It makes us wonder: what other childhood games and legends have the same mind-blowing history that we didn’t know about?

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Marielle Fatima Tuazon
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