Chaturanga – four-handed chess: alliances & empires

I support the claim that Chaturanga, (Sanskrit: चतुरङ्ग; caturaṅga), ancient four-handed chess, is the direct ancestor of common chess. It has a history of over 3,900 years according to Sir William Jones or possibly upwards of 5,000 years by the account of Prof. Duncan Forbes. It has origins in the Gupta Empire north India with references dating from the sixth century CE, and possibly earlier.

Historians favouring the priority of the two-sided chess have tried to defend their case by asserting that early descriptions of Chaturanga as found in the Bhavishya Purana date from no earlier than the 10th Century AD and on the strength of this doubtful proposition rests the foundation of the case of those who support the widespread and conventional view that two-sided Chesse/Shatranj is the original form of the genus and Chaturanga is a mere variant of the same.

It is however obvious that the written Bhavishya Purana account must
have been transcribed from some more ancient verbal tradition – as is
true also of the Vedas and Upanishads. Studying (around 1978/9) Indian
Philosophy and Sanskrit at Surrey University with Professor Sivesh Thakur confirmed me in this view. As the respected Victorian chess historian, Edward Falkener, has pointed out reference to the mythical and not historic characters of Yudhishthira and Vyassa, Mahadeva and Parvati denote an antiquity beyond record.

Several recent chess historians, taking their lead and evidence from the
mammoth “History of Chess’, by HJR Murray, have written in defence of the establishment or conventionalist preference for priority of two-sided chess. A high degree of authority and kudos goes along with the “original and genuine’ tag, and those who make a living from practice of the two-sided game are quick to the defence of their own best interests.

As far as possible I shall present the facts unfiltered. To this ends I have included virtually the entire Forbe’s History of Chess, probably the Most detailed and researched Chaturanga sourcework.

Let us examine the evidence:
1) An individual QueenVizier does not appear amongst
the earliest chess sets found. This is easiest explained by the fact
that the role was originally given to a captured Rajah of an ally
in Chaturanga who then took part in the game under control of his captor in the new secondary role as King’s advisor. The extensive powers of the Queen in modern chess date from no earlier than C15th Europe – the game being known for some time as either “New Chess” also as “L’esches de la dame enragee” and in Italy as “ala rabiosa” – mad chess!

There is no disputing that the modern chess with which we are all familiar is not particularly ancient. But its forebear the arabic Shatranj DID include the Vizier piece, and we would expect this piece to appear in
the very earliest chess sets discovered if two-sided chess is the
most ancient form of the game.

2) Cullin explains the duplication of the pieces (2 bishops, knights
rooks) as occurs in common chess as a result of the amalgamation of the two armies in Chaturanga after the capture of an allied Throne (a well documented rule).

Two-sided chesse is best seen as an adaptation of Chaturanga, missing out the preliminary stages of the game, and facilitating Chaturanga to be played between just two persons. The historian Stewart Cullin (on reflection surely the winner of the great Victorian debate) impressively argues that 2-sided chess is a variant of the 4-sided original whilst I have yet to read any account countering Cullin’s case by showing how Chaturanga could possibly have been adapted from the two-sided game! Murray disputes Cullin’s argument but offers no proper explanation for the origin of Chaturanga, and admits that he cannot make CHATURANGA fit the pattern of known later chess variants.

3) The earliest chessboards were grids, not chequered, since they
were based on the playing cloths of the Ashtapada-Pachisi-Thaayam
group of ancient four-handed race games. There is no dispute about
this. Nor that such games clearly pre-date the more sophisticated
war-strategy “chess’ category.

The traditional Chaturanga board retains the crosses
marking Castle squares from the old Ashtapada-Pachisi game-
board although these play no part in the rules of CHATURANGA itself.

The race games in question were four-handed and it is highly feasible that the pieces in these race-games were given special powers, evolving over time into the complex Chaturanga. The chequered board was a later Arabic innovation more suitable for a game with just two coloured pieces.

4) The connection between early board-games and mystical
rituals based on the four elements or directions has been convincingly demonstrated by historian Stewart Cullin who presents a strong case that recreational games in general have evolved from divinatory processes or perhaps were used to help keep awake during all-night religious observances. Professor Needham and recent work by Yugoslavian Chess historians also support this opinion.

5) There are strong linguistic reasons for suggesting the priority of
four-handed chess. CHATURANGA means “Quadripartite’, and was used to describe the Indian army which had four divisions: Elephants,
Chariots (Ships in parts of Hindustan), Cavalry and Infantry. It is the
name CHATURANGA which gives us variations and abbreviations such as Chatrang, Shatranj, and Chess.

6) There is incontrovertible historical evidence that warfare in
ancient India was rarely conducted between just two parties and that
the middle-most army and supporters of both sides were
normally involved. Chaturanga much more closely resembles actual
warfare in ancient times than does any two-sided representation.

Much other evidence exists to support my case and to dispel
the case put forward by Richard Eales and other modern day disciples
of HJR Murray and Antonius Van der Linde. The full evidence is fairly
technical and is more fitting for the book than for a magazine, but I
hope that having established the historical importance of this game,
I can now proceed to point out something of the degree of neglect with which Chaturanga has been treated. Having been for so long been ignored in favour of its bastardised two-sided offspring its rehabilitation is long overdue.

Reasons for the neglect are several and varied. First of all, medieval
scholars were more familiar with Persian and Arabic traditions than with
ancient Indian culture, and Shatranj may have become the established
Chess form following the crusades.

Also the Christian church of the dark ages issued Papal bulls against the use of dice in games and outlawed gambling both of which are a well recorded facets of Chaturanga which also seem to have been common with early two-sided Chesse in Europe. The doctrine of Good vs Evil and the simple black white dichotomy in which the Church psychologically painted the world must also have favoured the spread of two-sided chess.

Many moralities were written using Chesse as a handy metaphor for conflict between life/death and other accepted philosophical dualisms of those times. A complex four-part game would not have fitted the restricted medieval outlook so well (despite 4 being the natural number for logical types – though I will spare you the full discourse on symbolic logic for now – sighs of relief!). Hopefully in these modern days, as in the times before the dark era, most of us are able to think in shades of colour as well as in simple monochrome.

Chaturanga was played into modern times in some of the remoter parts of India, (see MODERN INDIA, 1874 A.D.) almost exactly as it was when recorded by the traveller and writer Abu-Raihan Muhammad, also known as Al-Beruni (973-1048 ad). As even HJR Murray is forced to admit it is unlikely that Chaturanga is merely a variation of two-sided chess since none of the known variants have demonstrated anything like its longevity.

(Forming and breaking Alliances is part of the rich historical rules options that are built into the software. The ’empires’ gambling system was also a rules option in variants where Rajahs could be ransomed for money, also an option in the app. I wrote this game some time ago but increased processor speeds has meant there hasn’t been any need to optimize the games engine. At the higher and analysis levels, I feel the software in pure strategy variants is unbeatable. There are delayed “time-bomb” moves because each player moves every fourth turn, unlike anything found in chess or shogi).

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