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Photo: National Museum, Delhi
Photo: National Museum, Delhi

Art of the past: Gyan Chaupar, Rajasthan, 18th century

Third of a six-part series featuring treasures of National Museum, Delhi

Gyan Chaupar, or the game of knowledge, was invented in India as a didactic game where the stairs represented virtue and elevated you towards moksha, while the snakes of vices were impediments in the path. It reflected the common karmic themes of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, but lost its spiritual significance on reaching the West where, retaining only its bare mechanics, it became Snakes and Ladders.

Style: This Jain version is divided into 84 squares, whereas Hindu versions have 72. The painted cloth is richly illustrated and the playing tokens are made of ivory. The inscriptions are in Sanskrit and Hindi and, according to Andrew Topsfield at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford—an authority on ancient Indian board games—the grid has greater significance than merely being used for gameplay: The iconography also depicts cosmological elements, with upper regions depicting divine beings and the heavens.

Look closer: The highest point on the cloth, above the crescent, reads muktikshetra or field of liberation, signifying the ultimate spiritual goal of the game.

This is the third in a six-part series introducing our picks of antique art and sculpture from the National Museum, Delhi

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