The King’s Indian

From Chaturanga to Modern Chess

The most popular board game to have ever been invented shares a little-known connection with a temple nestled in southern India. Constructed some centuries ago, the Sree Krishna Swamy Temple in Ambalappuzha, Kerala, is famous for offering visitors paal payasam: a sweet made from rice and condensed milk. Legend has it that this practice began over a game of chess. As per the tale, the then king of Ambalappuzha—a brilliant chess player—challenged a wandering hermit to a game. Certain of his own victory, the king asked the hermit to name any reward he desired should he win. The hermit humbly replied that he only wanted some grains of rice—one for the first square of the board, two for the next, four for the following square, and so on, doubling between each of the 64 squares. The game commenced, and the king lost. True to his word, he had his men fetch a bag of rice and began placing grains on each square of the board. However, the king soon realised that he would never be able to pay off his debt to the victorious hermit—the first few squares were fine, but the 29th square alone would need several tonnes of rice. Upon seeing the king’s dilemma, the hermit revealed his true form to be that of Lord Krishna. The deity reassured the king that he needn’t pay the debt at once; instead, he could offer grains of rice to devotees until the debt was paid off. And so the Ambalappuzha Sree Krishna Swamy Temple offers visitors rice payasam to this day.

The fable of a king, a humble opponent, and chessboard-determined quantities of grain is hardly limited to Ambalappuzha. Some variants of the story replace rice with wheat and the hermit with the inventor of chess. The rituals of the Sree Krishna Swamy Temple, however, move the legend beyond the realm of oral literature, and into the domain of living practice. The game of chess is thereby not only the subject of folklore or history to the people of Ambalappuzha—it lives on in the pulse of their daily lives.  It is quite fitting that a community with such a deep connection to the board game resides in India—the subcontinent is, after all, regarded as the birthplace of chess. 

The story goes that chess was derived from an already popular board game in northernwestern India in the 6th Century CE, named chaturanga. Chaturanga (Sanskrit for ‘four limbs’, but used in epic poetry to refer to an army) was, in all likelihood, a military strategy game named after the four ‘limbs’ of armies at the time: elephantry, infantry, chariotry, and cavalry.  Much like modern-day chess, the core of chaturanga subjected various pieces to different rules of movement. So ‘horses’ (knights in today’s game) moved in L-shapes, while ‘chariots’ (today’s rooks) moved in straight lines. Just as in chess, victory was tied to the fate of a lone, crucial piece: the king. Chaturanga, according to one Arab scholar from the tenth century CE, was not only used to study the strategy of war but also to gamble and make mathematical calculations (using its eight-by-eight board). Soon enough, its popularity spread westward. 

In Persia, it arrived as chatrang. According to chatrang-naamak, a Persian text dated by some to around 800 CE, an Indian king gifted his Persian counterpart aboard and set of pieces, challenging him to interpret the game and its rules. On the fourth day of the challenge, one of the Persian king’s men correctly described to his Indian peer the manner and rules of the game. Soon after, he defeated the Indian twelve times, prompting the latter to expound on his opponent’s wisdom and glory. Where this story lies between history and legend is anyone’s guess—what is certain, however, is the prevalence of the game at the time. 

With the Islamic conquest of Persia, chatrang would become shatranj, and spread further west, coming closer to the game we know and love today. The Persians, for example, had already brought in rules such as preventing the king from being prematurely captured, or from moving into positions where it may be captured. If a player threatened to capture their opponent’s king, they would instead declare ‘shah’—the Persian word for ‘king’, and the forerunner to the modern ‘check’. On a similarly lexical note, the ‘chariot’ piece (‘ratha’ in Sanskrit) was now a ‘rukh’—derived from the Persian ‘rokh’ (again, ‘chariot’), and from which we’d eventually get a rook. 

The Moors would then take the game to the Iberian peninsula, while other members of the Muslim world brought it to Europe via Turkey and the Mediterranean. It took root in Britain and much of Europe through the end of the medieval period, and by the 1600s it had spread as far north as Russia and Scandinavia. By this time chess had come to closely resemble the modern game. As they expanded their empires, the Europeans continued to play and develop chess, through the growth of chess theory, organizations, and competitions. Finally, in 1924, the World Chess Federation—or FIDE, as it is more commonly known—was founded. FIDE operates to this day, and is the governing body of international chess competition responsible for everything from calculating Elo ratings to organizing the World Chess Championship.

And what was happening in India at the time? Well, the British arrived in India and discovered the already popular status of shatranj among its locals. (This tracks with the subcontinent’s Islamic history by that point.) They then proceeded to introduce, and perhaps enforce, the game’s modern version among Indians—a thousand years after it had sprouted from the very same soil. The British found that some locals excelled at it. One of these people was a man named Mahesh Chandra Bannerjee (or, as the British would spell his name, ‘Moheschunder Bonnerjee’). Bannerjee lived in a village near Kolkata and had never gone far beyond its confines. He had an unorthodox playing style and was known in his village to have not lost a single game of chess. A member of the Calcutta Chess Club heard about the man and challenged him to a game, only to suffer defeat. The Club member brought Banerjee to Calcutta and introduced him to John Cochrane, a chess master who had published several books on the game. Bannerjee began to play Cochrane frequently and produced several examples of what are now known (due to the identity of Bannerjee and other players like him) as the Indian Defenses—chess openings that are a crucial part of chess theory. 

But for all the promise shown by players like Mahesh Chandra Bannerjee, India didn’t yet become a significant force in competitive chess. As the game grew into a global phenomenon, it was mostly Europeans and Americans that dominated its upper echelons, with Soviet Russia eventually conquering world chess. And while the Soviets won consecutive world championships through most of the 20th century, it would take until 1988 for an Indian player to even gain the title of Grandmaster (for context, most players at the top level—let alone world champions—are Grandmasters). That Grandmaster, however, would have a lasting impact on Indian chess.

Vishwanathan Anand started playing chess around the age of six and quickly rose in stature as a junior player. At 14, he won the Asian Junior Chess Championship; at 15, he became the youngest Indian to earn the title of International Master; and at 16, he became the national chess champion. Then in 1988, at the age of 18, Vishwanathan Anand became India’s first Grandmaster. He would go on to participate at the top level, competing against the likes of Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov.  Finally, in the year 2000, Anand had done it—he was world champion. He would lose the title the following world championship, but regained it in 2007, and won another four consecutive world championships, before being dethroned by a young Magnus Carlsen—now considered by some to be the greatest player of all time. 

Anand’s greatest success, however, was off the board. He became the face of Indian chess and brought domestic popularity to its competitive side. An entire generation of children—myself included—was raised seeing the chess master on everything from television to newspapers. He appeared in commercials for children’s nutrition supplements. His interviews featured across print media and his face was plastered on billboards. Anand’s fame and success prompted large swathes of Indian parents to encourage their children to play chess. After-school chess classes multiplied, and children like me were taught the game not only in terms of its basic rules, but also through formal theory. For most of these kids, including myself, chess class didn’t stick for too long. But what really mattered was that the pool of chess players had expanded; the base of the pyramid had grown, pushing players at the top higher. 

It took until 1988 for India to have its first Grandmaster. Thirty-three years later, India now boasts a total of 67 Grandmasters. Twenty-three of them only attained their title in the past four years, and several of them aren’t even adults yet. This brings us to the present state of the Indian game. Currently ranked fourth in the world, India is without doubt a rising force in competitive chess. And while it would be an oversimplification to say that the country’s rise is all thanks to Anand’s legacy—increased coaching, funding, and competitive opportunities have just as much to do with it—India’s first Grandmaster has heralded an exciting time for chess in the country. 

Some issues do linger. Many rising players in the country, for example, still don’t receive as much financial backing as their Russian or American counterparts. The result is that Indian players find it hard to travel to tournaments around the world or afford elite coaching—constraints that might explain why India’s Grandmasters haven’t yet made the jump to challenging for the world championship. But with the increasingly digital turn the game has been taking—streaming chess on Twitch is now lucrative, and online tournaments host some of the world’s best players—these financial hurdles may become less significant. The possibility, therefore, remains that the land of chaturanga and chess-playing Gods will once again become the home of the game. 

For a quick history of the game, read Henry A. Davidson’s book A Short History of Chess. For more on the Indian game shortly prior to and during British rule, read this very well researched post on Excerpts from a translation of the chatrang-naamak can be found in H.J.R. Murray’s book A History of Chess, and more on the Ambalappuzha Temple here.

Gaurav Kamath

Gaurav Kamath is a staff writer at ALMA MAG. He hopes his degree in philosophy will get him more than a job at McDonald’s, but that is still a working hypothesis.