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Chaturanga from Rajasthan, India

Chaturanga (Sanskrit: चतुरङ्ग, IAST: caturaṅga, pronounced [tɕɐtuˈɾɐŋɡɐ]) is an ancient Indian strategy board game. It is first known from India around the seventh century CE,[1] but its roots may date 5000 years back, to the Indus Valley Civilization.[2]

While there is some uncertainty, the prevailing view among chess historians is that chaturanga is the common ancestor of the board games chess, xiangqi (Chinese), janggi (Korean), shogi (Japanese), sittuyin (Burmese), makruk (Thai), ouk chatrang (Cambodian) and modern Indian chess.[1] It was adopted as chatrang (shatranj) in Sassanid Persia, which in turn was the form of chess brought to late-medieval Europe.[3]

The exact rules of chaturanga are unknown. Chess historians suppose that the game had similar rules to those of its successor, shatranj. In particular, there is uncertainty as to the moves of the gaja (elephant).[4]


Sanskrit caturaṅga is a bahuvrihi compound word, meaning "having four limbs or parts" and in epic poetry often meaning "army".[5] The name comes from a battle formation mentioned in the Indian epic Mahabharata. Chaturanga refers to four divisions of an army, namely elephantry, chariotry, cavalry and infantry.[6][7] An ancient battle formation, akshauhini, is like the setup of chaturanga.


Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga on an 8×8 ashtāpada


The origin of chaturanga has been a puzzle for centuries. The earliest clear reference comes from north India from the Gupta Empire, dating from the sixth century CE, and from north India. Banabhatta's Harsha Charitha (c. AD 625) contains the earliest reference to the name chaturanga:

Under this monarch [...], only the bees quarrelled to collect the dew; the only feet cut off were those of measurements, and only from Ashtâpada one could learn how to draw up a chaturanga, there was no cutting-off of the four limbs of condemned criminals...[8]

According to Stewart Culin, chaturanga was first described in the Hindu text Bhavishya Purana.[9] The Bhavishya Purana is known to include modern additions and interpolations, however, even mentioning British rule of India.[10]

An early reference to an ancient Indian board game is sometimes attributed to Subandhu in his Vasavadatta, dated between the 5th and 7th centuries AD:

The time of the rains played its game with frogs for pieces [nayadyutair] yellow and green in colour, as if mottled by lac, leapt up on the black field squares.

The colours are not those of the two camps, but mean that the frogs have two colours, yellow and green.

Chaturanga may also have much older roots, dating back 5000 years. Archeological remains from 2000 to 3000 BC have been found from the city of Lothal (of the Indus Valley Civilisation) of pieces on a board that resemble chess.[2] Another argument that chaturanga is much older is the fact that the chariot is the most powerful piece on the board, although chariots appear to have been obsolete in warfare for at least five or six centuries, superseded by light and heavy cavalries.[citation needed] The counter-argument is that they remained prominent in literature and continued to be used for travel and transport, in processions, for games, and in races.

Spread outside India[edit]

While there is some uncertainty, the prevailing view among chess historians is that chaturanga is the common ancestor of the board games chess, xiangqi (Chinese), janggi (Korean), shogi (Japanese), sittuyin (Burmese), makruk (Thai), ouk chatrang (Cambodian) and modern Indian chess.[1]

In Arabic, most of the terminology of chess is derived directly from chaturanga: Modern chess itself is called shatranj in Arabic, and the bishop is called the elephant.[11] The Tamerlane chess was also introduced in Iran later.[citation needed]

The game was first introduced to the West in Thomas Hyde's De ludis orientalibus libri duo, published in 1694. Subsequently, translations of Sanskrit accounts of the game were published by Sir William Jones.[12]

The game[edit]


a b c d e f g h
8 a8 b8 c8 d8 e8 f8 g8 h8 8
7 a7 b7 c7 d7 e7 f7 g7 h7 7
6 a6 b6 c6 d6 e6 f6 g6 h6 6
5 a5 b5 c5 d5 e5 f5 g5 h5 5
4 a4 b4 c4 d4 e4 f4 g4 h4 4
3 a3 b3 c3 d3 e3 f3 g3 h3 3
2 a2 b2 c2 d2 e2 f2 g2 h2 2
1 a1 b1 c1 d1 e1 f1 g1 h1 1
a b c d e f g h
Ashtāpada, an uncheckered 8×8 board, sometimes with special markings, on which chaturanga was played

Chaturanga was played on an 8×8 uncheckered board, called ashtāpada,[13] which is also the name of a game. The board sometimes had special markings, the meaning of which are unknown today. These marks were not related to chaturanga, but were drawn on the board only by tradition. These special markings coincide with squares unreachable by any of the four gajas that start on the board due to movement rules. Chess historian H. J. R. Murray conjectured that the ashtāpada was also used for some old race-type dice game, perhaps similar to chowka bhara, in which the marks had meaning.


The initial position is as shown. White moves first. The objective in chaturanga is to checkmate the opponent's Raja (King) or reducing the opposition to just the Raja.[14]

a b c d e f g h
8 a8 b8 c8 d8 e8 f8 g8 h8 8
7 a7 b7 c7 d7 e7 f7 g7 h7 7
6 a6 b6 c6 d6 e6 f6 g6 h6 6
5 a5 b5 c5 d5 e5 f5 g5 h5 5
4 a4 b4 c4 d4 e4 f4 g4 h4 4
3 a3 b3 c3 d3 e3 f3 g3 h3 3
2 a2 b2 c2 d2 e2 f2 g2 h2 2
1 a1 b1 c1 d1 e1 f1 g1 h1 1
a b c d e f g h
Chaturanga starting setup.[15] The Rajas do not face each other: the white Raja starts on e1; the black Raja, on d8.

Pieces and their moves[edit]

Chaturanga pieces
Images Name
Raja (King)
Mantri (Minister) or Senāpati (General) (Ferz; early form of Queen)
Ratha or Śakata (Chariot; Rook)
Gaja or Hastin (Elephant; later called Alfil; early form of Bishop)
Aśva (Horse; Knight)
Padàti, Bhata or Sainika (foot-soldier or infantry; pawn)
  • Raja (king): moves one step in any direction (vertical, horizontal or diagonal), the same as the king in chess. There is no castling in chaturanga.
    • The General in Chinese xiangqi lacks diagonals, which might be the earliest move of the Raja. The minority view that Chaturanga developed from a form of xiangqi implies such an evolution, but it is also logical to assume such a move as the case for an Indian proto-Chaturanga.
  • Mantri (minister); also known as Senapati (general): moves one step diagonally in any direction, like the fers in shatranj.
  • Ratha (chariot) (also known as Shakata) moves the same as a rook in chess: horizontally or vertically, through any number of unoccupied squares.
  • Gaja (elephant) (also known as Hasti). Three different moves are described in ancient literature:
    1. Two squares in any diagonal direction, jumping over the first square, as the alfil in Iranian shatranj, Ethiopian senterej, Mongolian Tamerlane chess and medieval courier chess. This is a fairy chess piece that is a (2,2)-leaper.
      • The same move is used for the boat in Indian chaturaji, a four-player version of chaturanga.[16]
      • The elephant in Chinese xiangqi has the same move, but is not able to jump over an intervening piece or pawn.
      • The elephant in Korean janggi has the same move, but out ward from an initial orthogonal step, also without the ability to jump over an intervening piece or pawn.
    2. One step forward or one step in any diagonal direction.
      • The same move is used for the khon (nobleman) in Thai makruk and the sin (elephant) in Burmese sittuyin, as well as for the silver general in Japanese shogi.
      • The move was described c. 1030 by Biruni in his book India.
    3. Two squares in any orthogonal (vertical or horizontal) direction, jumping over the first square; begging the questions of whether the one step forward or one step in any orthogonal direction move for the gold general in Japanese shogi is a Japanese invention and whether the camel’s (1,3) move is, according to tradition, Tamerlane’s invention.
      • A piece with such a move is called a dabbābah[17] in some chess variants. The move was described by the Arabic chess master al-Adli[18][19][20][21] c. 840 in his (partly lost) chess work. (The Arabic word dabbāba in former times meant a covered siege engine for attacking walled fortifications; today it means "army tank".)
      • This is reminiscent of the aforementioned chaturaji, where the elephant moves as a rook.
      • The German historian Johannes Kohtz (1843–1918) suggests, rather, that this was the earliest move of the Ratha.
  • Ashva (horse): moves the same as a knight in chess.
  • Padati or Bhata (foot-soldier or infantry); also known as Sainika (warrior): moves and captures the same as a pawn in chess, but without a double-step option on the first move.[22]

Additional rules[edit]

Al-Adli mentions two further rules:

  • Stalemate was a win for a stalemated player. This rule appeared again in some medieval chess variants in England c. 1600. According to some sources, there was no stalemate, as the king is forced to move and consequently be captured.[23]
  • The player that is first to bare the opponent's king (i.e. capture all enemy pieces except the king) wins. In shatranj this is also a win, but only if the opponent cannot bare the player's king on his next turn.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Murray, H. J. R. (1913). A History of Chess. Benjamin Press (originally published by Oxford University Press). ISBN 0-936317-01-9. OCLC 13472872.
  2. ^ a b Greenberg, Henry J. (30 September 2015). The Anti-War Wargame: a Comprehensive Analysis of the Origins of the Game of Chess 1989-1990. iUniverse. ISBN 9781491773536. Retrieved 21 June 2021.
  3. ^ "World Chess Day 2022: History, Significance And Quotes About The Game". News18. 2022-07-20. Retrieved 2022-12-26.
  4. ^ "History and Origins of Chess: From India to Persia and Europe". Profolus. 2020-12-26. Retrieved 2022-05-21.
  5. ^ Meri 2005: 148
  6. ^ Averbakh, Yuri (2012-12-05). A History of Chess: From Chaturanga to the Present Day. SCB Distributors. ISBN 978-1-936490-45-5.
  7. ^ "The Indian case is that chess originated in the Indian subcontinent in or before the early seventh century AD, where it was known as chaturanga Chaturanga or caturanga originally meant four elements or arms, and the term had been used in Sanskrit literature from an early date to describe the four parts of the Indian army: elephants, cavalry, chariots and foot soldiers. These were also the pieces, together with the rajah and mantrin or counsellor, which were used in the game of Chaturanga which was thus a representation on the board of a conflict between Indian armies."Ancient board games in perspective : papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium, with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press. 2007. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-7141-1153-7.
  8. ^ Bana; Cowell, Edward B. (Edward Byles); Thomas, Frederick William (1897). The Harsa-carita of Bana. University of California Libraries. London : Royal Asiatic Society. p. 65.
  9. ^ Culin, Stewart (1898). Chess and playing cards. Washington. pp. 857–858. Retrieved 29 November 2020.
  10. ^ Rocher, Ludo (1986). The Purāṇas. Otto Harrassowitz. pp. 152–154. ISBN 9783447025225.
  11. ^ "Shatranj". www.cyningstan.com. Retrieved 2022-05-21.
  12. ^ Henry Edward Bird. Chess History and Reminiscences. Forgotten Books. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-60620-897-7. Retrieved 21 June 2012.
  13. ^ "Ashtapada". Jean-Louis Cazaux. 2005-07-25. Retrieved 2013-07-16.
  14. ^ "Chaturanga - The Original Chess". Learn and play online chess. Retrieved 2022-02-12.
  15. ^ "The History Of Chess". ChessZone. Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 29 March 2011.
  16. ^ W. Borsodi, etc. (1898). American Chess Magazine. Original from Harvard University. p. 262.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  17. ^ The Chess Variant Pages. "Dabbābah".
  18. ^ "Bill Wall's Chess Page".
  19. ^ Jean-Louis Cazaux, Rick Knowlton (19 September 2017). A World of Chess: Its Development and Variations through Centuries and Civilizations. McFarland. p. 50. ISBN 9781476629018.
  20. ^ Henry J. Greenberg (30 September 2015). The Anti-War Wargame: a Comprehensive Analysis of the Origins of the Game of Chess 1989-1990. iUniverse. p. 133. ISBN 9781491773536.
  21. ^ Thomas R. Trautmann (3 August 2015). Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History. University of Chicago Press. p. 118. ISBN 9780226264363. The chariot and elephant were particularly subject to change.
  22. ^ Pritchard, D. B. (2007). "Chaturanga". In Beasley, John (ed.). The Classified Encyclopedia of Chess Variants. John Beasley. p. 263. ISBN 978-0-9555168-0-1. Pawns advanced one square at a time; no castling.
  23. ^ "Chaturanga Game - Chess terms". Chess.com. Retrieved 2023-03-04.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]