Will you be getting the board games out this Christmas? Victorian and vintage board and parlour games are fun to collect and attractive too with striking graphics and bold colours. One perennial favourite is Snakes & Ladders – it is such a British game isn’t it?
Except it is Indian. According to Christie, a blogger on the subject (medievalboardgames.wordpress.com), ‘It was based on an Indian game of morality which was called Vaikuntapaali or Paramapada Sopanam ‘The Ladder to Salvation’ and reflected the Hinduism consciousness around everyday life.’ The game was very popular throughout India and was possibly used to illustrate to children the difference between good and evil deeds and their consequences.
Snakes and Ladders Painting, Indian c. 1850
I can imagine how attractive that lesson would have been to Victorian families.
‘The ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith, humility, etc., and the snakes represented vices such as lust, anger, murder, theft, etc. The moral of the game was that a person can attain salvation (Moksha) through performing good deeds whereas by doing evil one takes rebirth in lower forms of life (Patamu).’ There were fewer ladders than snakes as it is always easier to fall into bad company and sin than it is to attain the virtuous life. I don’t think I will ever play this game again with the same enjoyment but Victorians loved it when they introduced a more modern version of the game in 1892 – and the game has never left our family homes since.
The number of ladders was less than the number of snakes as a reminder that treading the path of good is very difficult compared to committing sins. Presumably the number “100” represented Moksha (Salvation). Impressed by the ideals behind the game, a newer version was introduced in Victorian England in 1892. Snakes and Ladders was eventually published in the USA 1943 by game pioneer Milton Bradley.
So now we can play all we like knowing that far from wasting time we are actually exercising our moral compass!