It is highly likely that at some point in our young lives, most of us have played some version of the humble game of Snakes and Ladders. There is evidence that Snakes and Ladders goes back thousands of years, and the relatively simple design of the game has ensured its survival. But its origins involve much more than mere child’s play. It has been a potent teaching tool that has been used for centuries, arguably even millennia, as a way to embody and reinforce religious teachings and cultural values.
Surviving forms of this board game suggest that the game originated in ancient India, invented by Hindu spiritual teachers. The moral of the original game reflected Hinduism consciousness around everyday life, in that a person can attain salvation through performing righteous good deeds, whereas the evil ones, which are the snakes, take rebirth in lower forms of life.
Centuries ago the game had titles which, roughly translated, mean the “Game of Self Knowledge”, the “Ladder to Salvation” or “Steps to the Highest Place”, which indicate the weight of the morality it was originally designed to convey.
The original boards were adorned with elaborate illustrations of religious phrases, figures or architecture, flora, fauna, and symbols of spiritual planes. Rows of squares are sometimes arranged by levels of enlightenment, simultaneously reflecting concepts like karmic paths, chakras, or other conceptions about ascending levels of the spiritual realm. Children in ancient India were taught the game as part of their spiritual education in order to know the effects of good versus bad. The ladders represented values such as kindness, faith and humility. The snakes represented bad omens, bad luck, anger and other negative traits.
Over centuries the game travelled and evolved and its basic design concept served as a durable framework for many cultures to adapt it to their own moral and spiritual beliefs.
When the game made its way to Victorian England in the late nineteenth century, the Indian symbolism was replaced by English virtues and vices which better reflected Victorian doctrines of morality. Squares of grace and success were accessible by ladders of thrift, generosity, penitence, obedience and industry. They were offset by snakes of indulgence, pride, disobedience and indolence causing one to end up in illness, disgrace and poverty.
While the Indian version of the game had snakes outnumbering ladders, the English counterpart contained each in the same amount, assuring players of the ideal that for every sin one commits, there exists another chance at redemption. The phrase “back to square one” either originates in the game of Snakes and Ladders, or, at least, was influenced by it.
Modern adaptations of the game are much less overt in the messages they try to impart, and have comic drawings and simple moral lessons, if any. But even today in playing, we always get a tiny taste of experiencing the course of fate, because implicit in the game is an unchanging duality of up against down, good against evil and the consequences attached to virtues and vices. The game of Snakes and Ladders captures the eternal truth that for every ladder you hope to climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner, and for every snake a ladder will compensate.
Rachael Garland worked as the events coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.