Tag Archives: Chaturanga

Chess: A Game Full of Foreign Languages

I’ve never been good at chess. It’s one of the most challenging & mentally taxing games in history. The amount of strategy & it takes a lot of hard thinking to outsmart your opponent. Some people are very good at it.

Games can take hours or days & those who play professionally take it extremely seriously. They have every right & whether you’re good at it or not, the game deserves the recognition & respect.  Putting strategy aside, it’s extremely old. “How old? The Dark Ages?” you might ask. Nope. It’s way older. Reports of a Japanese version of chess date back five thousand years, but for the purpose of this entry, we’re going to stick with the variant we know.

Chess as Westerns play it, is believed to have been invented in the Second Century in the middle of the Gupta Empire in India. The game consisted of the same basic principle, with a few different pieces & rules, reflecting life in India, rather than the West. The pieces were:

Raja: King
Mantri: General (later the Queen)
Ratha: Chariot (later the Rook)
Gaja: Elephant (later the Bishop)
Ashva: Horse or Knight
Padati: Foot Soldier (now known as the Pawn)

By the Sixth Century, the game was being called chaturanga, which is Sanskrit for “having four limbs.” As you can assume from the name, it was a four player game. After spending a good chunck of time circulating around the Indian nobility, merchants who did business with the high classes picked it up. Any history buff can tell you that trade & the spread of culture go hand in hand & chaturanga was no different. Chess had begun its global popularization.


The layout of a four player Chaturanga board. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user MSouza)

By 1000 AD, chess had split into two branches. The first, known as Asiatic chess, spread North & East, through Asia, no doubt lending influence to the ancient Japanese game I mentioned before. The other version is the one we know, & it’s called Occidental or European chess.

As awareness of the game traveled through Western Asia & the Middle East, cultures accepted it very quickly. The original Indian words were absorbed into the hundreds of new languages they were meeting & rules were added. For example, two fundamental changes, which made European chess unique, have their origins in Persia. The first is that chess started to be a two-player game, instead of requiring four. Players also started to warn their opponents of their king’s danger. The changes stuck & once people in England started playing, they began using the word “check” to make the other player aware of the king’s jeopardized safety. In the Middle Ages, the word referred to a temporary stoppage, as nothing can be done until the king is moved out of harm’s way.


The two person Chaturanga board. It resembles European chess quite a bit. (Photo released into public domain by Wikipedia user Adhe)

Now for everyone’s favorite part: victory. Upon realizing that the rival player had no moves left, the winner would say, “shah mat.” Though the common though among the general public is that this means, “The king is dead,” that’s not true. It’s understandable, though because, upon hearing the words, the loser lays the king piece on its side. The death allusion is just coincidence, though; shah mat’s literal translation is, “The king is stumped/helpless/ambushed.” Coupled with the fact that the word “check” was already being used, English ears heard an Anglicized version of the phrase, & adopted “checkmate.”


An illustration showing Moorish nobility playing European chess. (image is in public domain)

The name chess, itself, comes from the old French word for the game, “echecs.” The French used this word because the board resembled an accounting table called an eschequier, a word which has survived to become a term we use to describe an agency set up to collect royal revenue. Interestingly enough, it’s also where we get the term “checkered,” when we describe the color pattern & obviously the name of the game checkers.


Chess has a much more interesting complicated history than you’d expect. Its popularity & the fact that it’s held in such high esteem is a wonderful testament to the game’s rich history. It’s been around for a good portion of human civilization & I expect it to stick around for a long time in the future.

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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