Jacob Schmidt-Madsen – Snakes, Ladders and the Subtle Body

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11:00 am to 12:15 pm

About this event

Tracing the Grid Behind the Game of Knowledge

It has long since been established that the modern children's game of Snakes & Ladders originated in the South Asian game of gyan chaupar, or the game of knowledge, yet the exact origins of gyan chaupar itself still remain to be decided. Popular descriptions often portray it as an “ancient” game about “virtues and vices,” but a detailed examination of available evidence tells a different story. The earliest known gameboards only date from the late 18th century, and the grids that constitute them have more in common with tantric and yogic descriptions of the subtle body than with the dos and don’ts of everyday life.

This talk briefly outlines the history of Snakes & Ladders before taking a closer look at early gyan chaupar boards and their possible origins in mystical diagrams of the subtle body. One such diagram drawn by an 18th-century follower of the poet-saint Dadu Dayal (d. 1603) suggests the possible development of free-ranging tools for meditation and visualization into formal systems of ludic interaction. Little is known about the purposes to which early gyan chaupar boards were put, but the approach taken to the game by modern day practitioners clearly indicates its potential for self-exploration and self-knowledge.

Jacob Schmidt-Madsen is a postdoctoral researcher and acting director of the Centre for the Study of Indian Science (CSIS) at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He works within the field of historical game studies, with special emphasis on traditional South Asian board games. He has written extensively on the games of chaupar (Ludo) and gyan chaupar (Snakes & Ladders), and is currently preparing a book on the history of games in South Asia.