How Pachisi, An Indian Board Game, Became Ludo

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Senior wives playing chaupar (Lucknow, c.1790) Source: A Second Paradise: Indian Courtly Life 1590-1947, by Naveen Patnaik (New York: Metropolitan Museum, 1985), p. 72; scan by FWP, Sept. 2001. "Senior Wives Playing Chaupar in the Court Zenana with Eunuchs; possibly by Navasi Lal after a lost original by Tilly Kettle. Mughal, Lucknow; ca. 1790; 18 x 10.5 cm. James Ivory Collection."
Pachisi AKA Ludo, an ancient Indian game which Akbar was addicted to, is now a strategy game taught at business schools.

On August 29, 1891, Alfred Collier applied for a patent in England, claiming that a board game, which he named Royal Ludo, was his invention. The Patent with the number 14363, approved after a few months, on October 31, 1891, granted him full commercial rights and barred others from replicating the game. Since then, ‘Collier Ludo boards’ and its ‘rules leaflet’ were sold across the world with the patent number inscribed on them.

But centuries before Alfred Collier applied for a patent in England, the Mughal emperor Akbar used to play a very similar game, known as Pachisi, in his courts and palaces at Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. The French author M L Rousselet, in his book India and its Native Princes, describes how Akbar used to play this game:

The game of Pachisi was played by Akbar in a truly regal manner. The Court itself, divided into red and white squares, being the board, and an enormous stone raised on four feet, representing the central point. It was here that Akbar and his courtiers played this game; sixteen young slaves from the harem wearing the players’ colours, represented the pieces, and moved to the squares according to the throw of the dice. It is said that the Emperor took such a fancy to playing the game on this grand scale that he had a court for pachisi constructed in all his palaces, and traces of such are still visible at Agra and Allahabad.

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Akbar plays draughts with living pieces at Fateh pur Sikri, 1575. Source: https://archive.org/details/hutchinsonsstory00londuoft. Image: Public domain/Wikipedia

Akbar was just one of the many who got hooked onto this game. As Abul Fazal, his historian and Vazir says:

From times of old, the people of Hindustan have been fond of this game.

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From ‘Peoples of India’ by J. F. Watson and J. W. Kaye, 1860′

Though the exact origins of the game remain uncertain, for centuries, people played similar versions of the game on cloth and slate, using staves, shells and seeds. For instance, Chaupar or Chausar is a similar game which finds a mention in ancient Indian sources.

Derived from the Sanskrit words ‘Catur’ meaning four and ‘Pata’ meaning cloth, this ‘random-thinking game’ spread quickly to other parts of the world; Chinese records mention its introduction from India with the name Chatush-pada, as early as 220-65 AD; Paricheesi is considered to be the Spanish variant; and the similarities between the Aztec game of Patolli and the game of Pachisi has also been a reference point for the pre-Columbian contact between the old and the new world.

But why did this game assume such significance? How did it manage to hook millions of people across cultures and continents?

It is a game that can enthral, educate and entertain people like no other. But the answer lies in its ability to act as a ‘social lubricant.’ The Pachisi spread across continents and facilitated interactions across diverse social groups. In India, people across the spectrum – barring caste and religious lines – came together to play this game. As a report in the Calcutta Review [xv, 1851] puts it:

The throws of the dice are accompanied with tremendous noise, and the sounds of “kache-baro” and “karo-pauch” and “baro-pauch” are heard from a considerable distance. It is altogether a lively scene … laying aside for a season the pride of wealth and even the rigorous distinctions of caste, Brahmins and Sudras may be seen mingling together for recreation. The noisy vociferations and the loud laugh be token a scene of merriment and joy.

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“Group of Marwaree men playing chess [actually pachisi],” a photo perhaps by Taurines, c.1880’s. Source Columbia University
In the twentieth century, the game emerged as an economic lubricant – a serious money spinner and a roaring commercial success. In 1938, Transogram Inc., a Pennsylvania based company, launched Pachisi as the ‘Game of India (later promoted it as Pach-i-si). It took the company from a small toy making company to a large gaming behemoth with an initial public offering. Its commercial success is now recorded in the Harvard Business Review as a classic case study of entrepreneurship. Today, as the game has taken on a digital avatar – as an appthe cloth, the board, the cowrie shells and the dice have virtually vanished and millions of people download the app and play the game on their mobile phones.

But in the recent past – in the twenty-first century – anthropologists, social psychologists and management gurus started taking great interest in the game. Professors Wu and Choi, for example, use Pasichi to show how and why firms form coalitions and alliances. It is now taught as a game of strategy and is considered to be a crucial aid in decision making.

Today, the game of Pachisi is a testimony that an idea – a game – can capture the imagination of millions of people, break the barriers of culture, travel across continents and continue to thrive for centuries. It is also a classic case study that informs us about how ideas can be appropriated by some who wish to keep them tied to the shackles of commerce.

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