History and Origins of Chess: From India to Persia and Europe

History and Origins of Chess: From India to Persia and Europe

Tracing the history and origins of chess can provide intriguing insights into the development of human civilization. Furthermore, because chess has become a cultural artifact, examining its historical roots helps unravel how societies across various periods and regions invented and cultivated this board game through cultural exchanges. Several anecdotes and assumptions surround the historical origins of chess. In his book, “The Immortal Game of Chess: A History of Chess,” American lecturer David Shenk highlights that numerous poems and prose dating back from thousands of years ago convey allegorical explanations for the invention of this popular board game.

Looking Into the History and Origin of Chess

From Myths to H. J. R. Murray: When Did Chess First Emerge? Where Did It Originate?

Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras devised a similar game to illustrate abstract concepts related to numbers and mathematics. The Greek military leader Palamedes is said to have invented a game demonstrating the strategic art of battle positions. There was also an extraordinary story about the vicious Babylonian King Merodach who lived during the sixth century BCE. Xerxes tried to influence people from the unjust kingship of Merodach by inventing chess. The game instilled how rulers should behave and how subjects should fulfill their roles in protecting their superiors and territories. Another account suggests that the origin of chess can be traced back to India wherein it gained widespread popularity during the Middle Ages as a tool employed by the military to visually and persuasively present battle strategies and specific strategic maneuvers. Shenk made it clear that the aforementioned are mere lore. Historians have come across different chess narratives delving into themes such as social consciousness, freedom of choice or free will, political and societal struggles, the nature and mystery of the divine, the capacity of the mind, the essence of competition, and the brain-versus-brawn assumptions. Nonetheless, when it comes to pinpointing the true origin of chess, the eminent educator and historian Harold James Ruthven Murray stands as the definitive authority. In his 1913 work, “A History of Chess,” he asserted that chess traces its roots back to India. Motivated by a singular goal, Murray delved into the study of Latin and Arabic, driven by the necessity to decipher historical and archaeological manuscripts integral to his research. This dedicated pursuit spanned seven years and culminated in a comprehensive 900-page tome that stands today as an invaluable resource for chess historians.

An Ancient Board Game from India: Was Chaturanga the Predecessor of Modern Chess? 

Murray specifically explained that chess originated in India around the 7th century and it resembled an ancient Indian board gamed chaturanga. The word “chaturanga” literally means “four arms” and has been associated with the word “army” in Sanskrit. The four arms of chaturanga coincide with infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariot. But what exactly is chaturanga? The exact rules and instructions remain unknown although they have a notable resemblance with modern chess. Historians have assumed that it is closer to the rules and instructions of its Persian successor called shatranj or chatrang. Comparisons across other chess predecessors led historians to assume that the gameplay of chaturanga involved an eight-by-eight board. The major pieces were positioned along opposite board edges and the foot-soldiers were placed on the subsequent rows. The pieces of chaturanga were as follows: the Raja which is the equivalent to the modern king, the Mantri or Senapati which corresponds to the contemporary queen, the Ratha or the chariot which is similar to the modern rook, the Gaja or elephant which represents the current bishop, and the Padati or foot-soldiers which is akin to the modern pawn. Furthermore, with the exemption of the Gaja, the moves of the other pieces mirror their respective modern chess counterparts. The objective of chaturanga was to capture the Raja. This is similar to modern chess in which the gameplay centers on capturing the king. It was during the 6th century when Persians adopted chaturanga around. Some historians have asserted that the Persian variant called chatrang is the closest ancient board game to resemble modern chess. It is also worth mentioning that the origin of chaturanga could be traced further back to China and had evolved along the trading routes of the Silk Road. The routes along the Silk Road also served as avenues for cultural and informational exchange for centuries. Participants include the Xinjiang Province of China, Delhi in India, Tehran and Baghdad in the Iran-Iraq region, and Kabul and Kandahar in Afghanistan. The same routes allowed the board to spread in the Middle East and the Muslim world.

From Shatranj to Chess: What Was the Role of Islam and Muslims in Popularizing the Game?

Nonetheless, the arrival of the Indian board game chaturanga in Persia and its adoption into the specific Persian variant called chatrang marked the beginning of the spread of the core principles of the earlier Indian board game in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Remember that chatrang or shatranj was the Persian version of chaturanga and it specifically emerged around 600 CE. This period coincided with the time when the Sassanid Empire ruled Persia and occupied territories outside modern Iran including Central Asia and Eastern Arabia, as well as the Levant and Caucasus. The influence of the empire was extensive. However, around the same time, Islam was also spreading in the Middle East, Near East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. The Sassanid Empire eventually succumbed to the Muslim conquest and became part of the Muslim world between 633 and 644 CE. The Muslims also adopted the game chatrang. Hence, when Islam advanced in Europe around 700 CE and beginning with the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the Persian board game was also introduced. They dropped the middle Persian word chatrang for an unexplained reason in favor of the closer Sanskrit derivative Persian name shatranj. Chess historians have noted that there were three paths through which the board game entered Europe. These were Spain from North Africa, Italy through the trade routes across the Mediterranean, and European Turkey up to the Balkans from Asiatic Turkey. The board game further spread in Northern and Western Europe to reach Britain and further in Eastern Europe to reach Germany. It became widespread across Europe at the start of the first millennium it was called chess around this time. The exact origin of the name “chess” and how its usage became prevalent in the Western World were also examined. Murray provided a plausible explanation. He noted that several words used in medieval Europe were traceable back to Arabic and Persian languages. The Persian word “mat” corresponded to the European word “mate” and the more modern “checkmate” word. The Persian and Arabic words “shah” corresponded to the European words “scac” and “check” which further evolved to the English word “chess” and the French word “echecs.” Take note that the modern Spanish name for chess “ajedrez” came from the Arabic word “ash-shatranj” which corresponds to the Persian board game chatrang or shatranj. It is now apparent that the history and origin of the modern word “chess” are traceable back to the Persian word “shatranj” and the middle Persian word “chatrang,” which can be traced further back to the Sanskrit word and ancient Indian board game called chaturanga.

Summary: Understanding the History and Origins of Chess Game

The book of Harold James Ruthven Murray remains the foremost and definitive source on the history and origin of chess. His meticulous research which spanned for seven years and delved into manuscripts and etymologies contended and explained that modern chess originated in India around the 7th century from the ancient strategy board game called chaturanga. However, some historians have hypothesized that this ancient board game also evolved along the Silk Road trading routes. Nonetheless, when it arrived in Persia, it was called chatrang and shatranj and it later spread in the Middle East and the Muslim World. The Muslims adopted the game when it conquered the Persian Sassanid Empire around 633 to 644 AD. The Muslims brought with them the board game in Europe around 700 AD under the Persian name shatranj. The conquest of the Iberian Peninsula was one of the starting points. It further spread in Northern and Western Europe and further in Eastern Europe. Europeans were playing the board game and called it chess at the start of the first millennium. It is worth mentioning that other similar board games existed alongside chaturanga. Murray mentioned that it is possible that the board games sittuyin in Burma, chandaraki in Tibet, chator in Malaysian Peninsula, shatra in Mongolia, and shogi in Japan, among others, all descended from the similar strategic ancient board game that emerged in India The evidence about the relationship and shared origins of the aforementioned board games remains unclear. However, based on the prevailing assumptions, it is clear that a single board game emerged from a particular region. This resulted in the simultaneous emergence and evolution of various board games similar to chess across the world. FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
  • MacDonell, A. A. 1898. “The Origin and Early History of Chess.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 117-141. JSTOR: 25207939
  • Murray, H. J. R. 1913. A History of Chess.
  • Shenk, D. 2006. The Immortal Game of Chess: A History of Chess.