On a weekend in Mumbai, a bunch of youngsters have gathered for an exciting evening of high adrenaline. TableTop India, as the group is known, represents a growing tribe of board-game enthusiasts who have chosen to eschew laptops, mobile phones and gaming consoles for board games.

Aniceto Pereira, one of the oldest and most prolific members of TTI, explained why he prefers analog gaming: “For me, gaming is a purely social hobby. I like being around people. I was driven to find a hobby that helped me meet people and make new friends. Board games or tabletop games just clicked – I met people from disparate backgrounds and I enjoyed the company.”

Pereira is right – the social worth of board games is something that computer games cannot offer. While several members of TTI prefer imported games such as Castles of Burgundy, Terra Mystica, Kingdom Builder and Lords of Waterdeep, there are other gaming groups such as the Creeda Board Game Cafe in Mumbai, that specialise in traditional Indian games. When people walk into these spaces, they come looking for more than just a game.

A screenshot of the Buddhi Yoga board. Image courtesy: Khol Khel

The revival of interest in board games is a homecoming of sorts, because these games have enjoyed a long and popular run in India from the Vedic or even the proto-historic Harappan period. Archaeological and literary evidence proves that Indians love to settle down with a good board game. Several popular modern games like Ludo, snakes and ladders, and chess originated in ancient India, and featured prominently in the social pastimes of our ancestors.

Who can forget that ignominious episode from the Mahabharata, when Yudhishthira gambled away his kingdom, his brothers and his wife in a game of chaupar? Or the legend of Akbar playing pachisi with actual slaves as pieces? Ritualistic gambling is still practised during Diwali, and in some homes, the stakes still run pretty high.

Unbox to play

The ancient tradition of playing board games is what propelled Aman Gopal Sureka, an information technology entrepreneur from Kolkata, to revive one of India’s oldest games through his company, Khol Khel. The name of Sureka’s company means to open and play, and is deeply significant for him – here, unboxing is limited not just to the game, but to one’s mind and soul.

Aman Gopal Sureka. Image courtesy: Khol Khel

Sureka’s journey began early. “I played Snakes and Ladders and other board games since childhood and what attracted me to them was their simplicity and intuitiveness,” he said. “I found these elements missing in the formal education of schools and colleges. When I graduated from college, I felt a keenness towards the idea of enquiry-based learning, or a school where children came, relaxed, talked and played without inhibition. I realised this was exactly the way our ancestors lived and learned in the Gurukul tradition and I became inspired to learn more about the Upanishads.”

But it was when Sureka first saw an ancient scroll of snakes and ladders on the Wellcome Trust’s online archive that he began to think of innovative ways to reintroduce the board game. The game of Buddhi Yoga started to reveal itself to him, he said, the more he engaged with it. “I do not know if it is a passion, an obsession or fate that makes me a conduit to the game,” he said. “Using the knowledge of our seers and the skills of rural artisans, Khol Khel is bringing back old games such as Gyan Chaupar and it has been immensely personally satisfying for me.”

Snakes and Ladders is the simplified, modern version of the ancient Indian game of Gyan Chaupar. Translated as the game of knowledge, it is meant to inspire players to introspect rather than compete with each other. There are many versions of the game: Hindu (Advaitic or Tantric), Buddhist, Jain, Islamic and Sufi, each packing in its own philosophical lessons.

In olden times, people would play with pieces of jewellery or other objects that they shared a personal connection with. It was believed that only when a player became one with the pieces of the game, that she would truly begin to learn from it.

Broadly speaking, the aim of any Gyan Chaupar is to lead its player from the lowest to the highest plane of existence. The squares – between 72 and 124 in number – are symbolic of the journey of life. Each square represents a positive or negative choice or its consequence. Being bitten repeatedly by a certain snake, vice, for example, should encourage a player to introspect on his own weaknesses in life. Conversely, an easy passage to Vaikuntha (Vishnu’s abode) or Allah’s throne, as the case may be, would highlight the importance of morality in life.

In the 1890s, the game travelled to England via the British, where it was customised to suit Christian sensibilities. The Indian religious connotations were replaced by Western morality, and the game was named Virtue Rewarded and Vice Punished. Over time, the game was further simplified, and stripped of moral lessons altogether. It became a simple game of chance with 100 squares, and was christened Chutes and Rockets. In its most recent avatar, the game came to be known as Snakes and Ladders.

Buddhi Yoga

Sureka wants to remind the new generation that there is more to the game of Gyan Chaupar or Snakes and Ladders, than the thrill of victory. Buddhi Yoga is a name borrowed from the Bhagvad Gita and the game is designed to be yoga for the mind – an act of tethering meaning to existence, of awareness to action.

Sureka’s version isn’t the only one – author and scholar, the late Harish Johari, also (re)created a similar game, called “The Yoga of Snakes and Arrows: The Leela of Self-Knowledge”.

An extraordinary number of ideas are compressed within a span of 72 grids of the Buddhi Yoga board. Replete with concepts from Samkhya, Yoga and Advaita philosophies, the game manages to teach its players a whole lot of esoteric ideas and their applications. Take, for example, the four famous ashramas of Hindu life: Brahmacharya, Grihasta, Vanaprastha, and Sanyaas. Each is represented in the rows of grids on the board. The grids represent ideas of heaven (vaikuntha/ goloka), liberation (moksha), the six vices (shadripu), the different planes of existence (bhuloka, bhuvaloka, svargaloka, tapaloka), the chakras and dharma. The placement of each concept in each grid is laced with deep symbolism and meaning. For those unacquainted with the terms, a free app helpfully offers lucid meanings.

For example, the grid numbered 35 in the fourth row from the bottom spells naraka. Double tapping the square will offer the player a number of options to help understand the concept better.

“Naraka” :[Meaning] A place regarded in various religions as a spiritual realm of evil and suffering.

[Interpretation] Naraka is the cleansing experience of a player who has reached this stage where he is not cleansed enough to experience the divine. It is a stage of atonement through suffering. The player is responsible for her actions and must bear the consequences thereof. This is the place where she bears the consequences of her ‘bad karma’. Yama, the lord of naraka, also known as Dharmaraja, is not a ‘sadistic devil’. He is rather a deva, whose job is to set ‘wrong frequencies’ right, so that the future evolution of the spirit can take place.

— Text explaining the square 'Naraka', from the Buddhi Yoga app.

Sureka chose to revive this Hindu version of Gyan Chaupar because of his familiarity with the core concepts but he plans to do the same with all known versions. After all, everyone ought to equally partake in the game of life.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz writes and researches on culture. You can read her other work here.