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  • Writer's pictureColin Phelan

From Chaturanga to Chess: Successful Cultural Transmission? Or Lost in Translation?

ST. LOUIS --- Still somewhat new to St. Louis after brief, unsuccessful stays in both New York and Miami, The World Chess Hall of Fame remains a hidden gem. Situated in a sort of chess enclave consisting of the STL Chess Club across the street and the Knightside Diner on its west flank, the WCHOF is not yet tainted or want of integrity by swarming tourists; well, here goes nothing.

In the foreground resides the Guinness World Record largest chess piece at 20 feet tall and nine feet two inches in diameter, of African Hardwood. In the background lives the World Chess Hall of Fame, which arrived to St. Louis in 2011 (why the WCHOF resides in St. Louis will be explained later).

In fact, this meditation or reflection, or however you want to label it, will not explain the ins-and-outs of the whole museum and hall of fame galleries. There are websites for that. Forthcoming are some meditations on chess, its history, and thoughts inspired by one of the museums wonderful exhibits on the first floor called ‘Pawns and Passports’ which for your information is on-view until January 2022; as we’ll investigate, this exhibit so effectively documents how different societies around the world represent themselves, their values, and their priorities through their own forms of chess. But before that, just some background on myself as a chess player: I have not, in fact, yet seen the Queen’s Gambit, and as a shamefully amateur player -- as someone acquainted with the game but by no means comfortable -- I frequently lost matches to 13 and 14 year-olds this past year, my students (a few of whom are quite exceptional, and for the record, as you’d learn about on the third floor of this quietly trafficked museum Chess Grandmasters are getting younger and younger every year, many of whom are nowadays 12, 13, and 14 years old. So I feel less embarrassed).

Visual: Youngest Chess Grandmasters Ever. Third floor of WCHOF.

If you’re anything like me, you might sometimes (or perpetually) confuse the initial setup of chess pieces on a chess board. As my matches have been too intermittent over the years, I’ve never gotten around to memorizing the board and its set up; in particular, the set-up of what I’ve always viewed as those intimidating accessory pieces - the knight, bishop, and rook. Because all the pieces themselves don’t specifically represent types of military factions (other than the knight), it’s always difficult for me to intuitively reason how many points — or in chess terms, value — each piece is worth in this simulated war game. If these pieces had been designed and then chiseled - or 3D printed or however they make them these days – with obvious relative value to the other than maybe I wouldn’t shun away from setting the board for my 14-year-old adversaries who, also for the record, are still learning how to write atrocious but effortful topic sentences.

And here is something these students may not know about (and was also unbeknownst to me before visiting the St. Louis World Chess Hall of Fame): the origins of the game of chess, which stems from the ancient Indian game of Chaturanga. When I discovered this via a museum curator, I felt slightly embarrassed as I’ve spent much time living and studying in India and, even in a recent ‘public speaking’ session at my school with some of those chess-master students, I required they each memorize a paragraph about India’s contributions to the global community (blurbs included: Ravi Shankar’s impact on The Beatles and George Harrison, the modernization of cricket through the Indian Premier League, Gandhi’s impact on MLK, among other topics which interest me, and hopefully my students a little more so). I, however, had no clue of this contribution to the global community. As I read that chess began in India on the blurb just inside the entrance to the exhibit, I searched around the room to find the floor chaperone -- a white woman who up to that point I had periodically seen tucking her chin and whispering into her radio with each entrance and exit of museumgoers through the exhibits door. After flashing her my inquisitive eyes (we all know by this point that masks perpetually disorient every social gesture) I asked her, “Was chess created by Englishmen within India, during the colonial period?” I confess my ignorance, and for this comment I’m ashamed, but I truly had no idea that chess in its first iteration was an Indian game. Through the mere fact of British imperial dominance in the 19th century, and the poshness surrounding not chess but the game of chess, of course Brits invented it! Or not.

Initially, this 4th-6th century (date debated by chess historians) game of Chaturanga intended to reflect the four main branches of the Indian Army, in addition to the Raja (King) and Mantri (Sanskrit word defined as ‘king’s counselor’ or ‘minister; this is the word from which the English language word ‘mantra’ stems; the present-day Queen is a derivation of the Mantri): foot soldiers, chariots, elephants, and cavalry. For those of you who have undertaken yoga as a pastime, you’re likely familiar with the ‘Chaturanga’ position in which all four of your limbs are active; in fact, this Sanskrit word means ‘four limbs,’ and originally referred to the four main limbs of the Indian army (war) before becoming a catchphrase for yoga (peace). Perusing the exhibit, which was also lovely and replete with many Indian chess sets, I came to answer my initial query about the orientation of chess set-ups and the respective value of chess pieces:

The purpose of an army, in both ancient and modern terms, is to protect the state, which for purposes here we will define as the government and the citizenry. In war, however, it has been proven again and again that it is sometimes easier to win a battle by going for the brain of the adversary, the government. ‘Total wars’ or an attempt to eliminate entire citizenries are costly, and in some cases it may even encourage citizenries to fight harder or mobilize themselves beyond what is expected of them. So in chess, it makes sense that for the sake of presenting a simulated battle before our eyes, these designers of Chaturanga placed a Raja and a Mantri in lieu of an entire citizenry; in addition, for the sake of making a somewhat legible board, too, this makes sense. You take out the Raja (or arguably the Mantri, which represented the de facto head of government) you then take out the state.

In ancient Chaturanga the preeminent piece is the Raja and thus it is assigned the most value. Unlike modern chess where the Queen has comparable high value to the King, the Chaturanga Mantri originally did not have much value within the game. With respect to where these two pieces are placed on the board, there isn’t too much intimidating symbolism involved, as the Mantri matches the color of its tile. Maybe we could say that the Mantri ‘colors’ or ‘sets the tone for’ the state? And next to the Mantri resides the Raja, who is functionally useless, but the ultimate symbol of power. Often proven to be a fat bastard (evidently not, as hereditary rules go) who sits at home and has his Mantri do all the work, the wheeling and dealing, keeping the kingdom intact. Now, where it gets difficult, at least for me, is that anxiety-provoking question from earlier: where do I place those ‘other’ pieces in modern chess known as the knight, rook, and bishop? And how much are these pieces worth?

Chaturanga🡪 Chess

Raja 🡪 King

Mantri 🡪 Queen

Elephant 🡪 Bishop

Cavalry 🡪 Knight

Chariot 🡪 Rook

Foot-soldiers 🡪 Pawns

In Chaturanga these three sets of pieces were, in the same order: cavalry, chariot, and elephant. To visit the analogy of an army going into battle: If you were the Indian army, where would you place your obvious heavy hitter, the elephant? Well, ponder this: in the modern day, do America and the nine other nuclear nations station their weapons along their periphery, literally and geographically? Of course not. The elephant is the heavy hitter, and so it needs to be close to home, to the state, still able to strike, but protected on its flanks. As this exhibit and early representations of Indian Chaturanga make clear, when Chaturanga evolved and spread westward, these pieces took different forms to suit the societies they encountered along the way. In Europe, especially in England, the elephant became the bishop and this is why the bishops surround the king and queen, the state. Moving outward towards the edges of the board, next to the elephant comes the cavalry, very similar in theory to the modern-day incarnation called the knight. A bit more mobile and with more lateral ability then the elephant, which picks up speed and can bolt distances diagonally; in the spirit of the animal itself, the elephant, unlike more domesticated animals, can thrash through forests, paving its own road, hence why in the game of Chaturanga the elephant was able to skip over pieces diagonally, the only such piece with this ability. As the coloring of the board also stipulates, each elephant’s movements are bound to one color tile. Despite the advantage of moving diagonally, the elephant struggles in mobility; but when combined with the strength of its peer, all tiles - dark or light - may be covered.

On the flank lies the Indian chariots, the most important of these accessory pieces. Why, one might ask? Historically, the flank of an army often decides the fate of an army, and so a state. What if on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union hadn’t stationed Joshua Chamberlain, a most courageous and intuitive commander, on its flank as the Confederacy stormed up the ridge from the West? Well, the South may have won the Civil War. A flank constantly monitors the periphery and protects all those within it, or geographically, inside it. On the flip side, many armies over the years have been susceptible to flank attacks when lacking strength there. As a result, bright military minds such as Sun Tzu (as in his famous book The Art of War), Napoleon, and Hannibal all emphasized the potential effectiveness of flanking as a means to force surrender as quickly as possible. As many are aware, the modern chess set is known as the Staunton 1849 (of course an onomatopoeia of regal English society), and in this set the piece residing on the flank is known as the rook. In the modern form it is ostensibly a watch-tower but according to a curator is named after a type of bird which perches in tall trees and keeps a tight eye on impending movements.

Map: On the second day at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 2nd, 1863), the Confederate forces stormed the Union flank at ‘Little Round Top’ where they were confronted by college professor turned regiment commander Joshua Chamberlain of the 2nd Maine. Without any remaining ammunition, Chamberlain courageously galvanized his troops and led a bayonet charge down the hill, driving the confederate troops back into the peach orchard.

The rook: the modern-day forms of satellite, counterintelligence, maybe still navies and aircraft carriers (depending on your perspective of 21st century war; the historical entities of missionaries, merchant companies, European explorers, always keeping an eye on the outside world in order to protect assets such as the heavy hitters, and of course, the state. Yet in its European iteration such considerations are represented by a castle-looking watch tower, a manifestation of pre-industrial Europe’s priority on grand edifices, on magnificent bastions. And, unlike the Elephant which can only storm diagonally, lashing and carrying momentum for two tiles, the Chaturanga chariots are a bit more versatile; they maintain more force than the elephants, able to sweep across the whole battlefield, yet unlike the elephants one chariot alone may touch all colored tiles of the battlefield, moving vertically or horizontally. In its earliest forms, the chariots were by far the most powerful piece on the Chaturanga board, as the elephant (later, the bishop) did not yet have the ability to travel across the whole board and the Mantri (queen) remained limited to moving only one spot. Conveniently, the Chaturanga cavalry transitions quite well into the European knight, so analysis there isn’t necessary. In fact, the most telling transformation lies in the bishop: symbolically representative of the church, a heavy hitting artery of old European society. Being heavy hitting as was its predecessor, the elephant, the church is only as useful as it is protected on its flanks, by missionaries and colonizers, and looking to both the interior and the common folk, is only as strong of the patronization received from the royalty and the popular support of the pawns.

This last point conveys the dedication to these heavy hitters in both ancient Indian society and in the modern world. In ancient India, the military elephant received much support from both Indian royalty and through the common folk, as the Elephant has for thousands of years been lauded in Indian society through one of the most revered Hindu gods, Lord Ganesh. Beginning in the modern European world, the separation of church and state often straddled blurred lines, with the clergy assuming significant roles and power within society, and thus over the state. As a result, indirect endorsements of the church strengthened the state. And in contemporary America, development of and support for these heavy hitting, intimidating factions have received priority by convincing the populace of external threats, of the imperative to developing potentially heavy-hitting technologies. This has been manifested through: America’s dedication to winning the space race and proliferating nuclearly; or the need to develop sophisticated counterintelligence and 5G technologies, especially when compared to other countries. Different countries’ dedication and commitment to such heavy hitters – be it an animal, an idea, or a technology -- remain consistent over time.

Photo of Lord Ganesha, from Pinterest

The fact is, as Chaturanga became chess and as chess then sojourned around the world and took up forms in many societies, not only was chess appropriated to fit these societies, but these societies ascribed individual pieces varying value and priority. For example: The present day New York City chess set in the museum is not just saying that the Big Red Apples (the rooks) are each worth five points and the Twin Towers are each worth three. Instead, when considered with the spirit and intentions of Chaturanga, such ascriptions and placements on the board carry with them cultural significance and these characterizations have value in both the roots of the game and within the game itself. On this NYC chess board the Twin Towers have replaced the elephants; and we may well ask, how strong would the Twin Towers be without the cultural reach of NY, as manifested in this chess set as the Red Apple (viewing the Red Apple as a microcosm for culture in NY and America)? Or, vice versa: Without the heavy-hitting, financial backing of the World Trade Center, how prolific and far reaching would American culture (as represented through the apple) be through this rook?

NYC Chess Set

As they are often ignored, and as I, too, have essentially done up to this point, the pawns or foot-soldiers should never be overlooked or undervalued. It’s true, at one point per piece the pawns are, in themselves, worth minimal. However, in terms of total value – eight pawns at one point per pawn – the pawns comprise a total of eight points, triumphing both the total values of the bishop and the knight, and third only in total value behind the queen and the rook. Scrappy, resilient, and usually (win or loss) with pieces still remaining on the board, chess designers from varying eras and societies appear to have agreed on at least one point: the value of the common folk, or of strength in numbers. The only difference between Chaturanga foot-soldiers and chess pawns resides in their movement. Whereas the pawn can advance two tiles on its first move in modern chess, in Chaturanga the foot soldiers may only move one tile. For better or worse, the common folk appear to have attained more power over time, if not just the veneer of power.

There we have it, with symbolic and literal value in descending order: King/Raja, Queen/Mantri, rook/chariots, knight/cavalry tied with bishop/elephant, foot soldiers/pawns. With the confusing exception of the Mantri, which increased its value upon entering Europe and changing its gender in becoming the Queen, the relative value of these pieces has remained consistent over time, albeit if they represent different factions or ideas within a society. Nevertheless, the maximum value often belongs to the player; by way of the large metaphor that is the game of chess, what role does I or we, the players, play, and whom does the player represent? Are we merely detached simulators or are we the deceased hereditary line who bestowed power upon the state? Comparable to the dads of their son’s hockey team; or Dick Cheney on Bush II; or Donald Trump on the Republican Party. The seemingly unpresent – at least on the ground – entities that truly drive a vision and an agenda. Regardless, hopefully next time I play chess I, as the player, won’t need to pensively yet casually maintain a poker face as I wait for my adversary to set the board, even if I’m at war with an adolescent.

Navigating upward through the brief stairway exhibit about the Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky Cold-War chess rivalry, such considerations of value and priority transition onto the second-floor exhibit called “Check, please!” Intent on fusing food with chess, this exhibit included Coca-Cola themed chess sets, fruits vs. veggies chess sets, variations of Jack Daniels’ whisky chess sets, all of which again, either intentionally or unintentionally ascribe not only point values to each of the pieces, but cultural and institutional significance. Although humble in theme, take, for example the Campbell’s Soup chess set. Sacrificially stationed at the front reside the Green-Pea pawns; on the flank the Cream of Mushroom rooks; the versatile knights come in the form of (paradoxically drab) Black Bean Soup; the heavy hitter through the Pepper Pot bishop; all protecting the state, you guessed it: the Chicken Noodle Queen and the Tomato Soup King. Again, questions of priority and significance prevail, as eliminating the de facto leader of the Campbell’s Army, Queen Chicken Noodle, takes out the similarly significant brand-name Tomato Soup. The question begs: is King Tomato or Queen Chicken Noodle a more significant other?

Campbell’s Soup Chess Set

Fruit v. Veggie Chess Set

Leaving the exhibit, I realize what I had missed upon my entrance, the bulletin just inside the door, which reads, “food, like the game of chess, brings people together;” I had never thought of the game, or boardgames, that way, as a means through which people from disparate global communities can bond. As a devotee to Anthony Bourdain’s ability to discover culture and companionship through food, I’ve for long tried to discover another means through which people wedged apart by language or other barriers can not only coexist, but catch glimpses of another’s personality and being. While the competition surrounding boardgames exists in other forms – most notably sports – board game matches have an edge on unveiling one’s persona which sports do not; the intimacy of the game, the being face to face, the slight raises of one’s lips, eyebrows, eyes, the sharing of breath over-board. Just as the late, great Bourdain showed us through his willingness to eat virtually anything with anyone, when playing with someone from another part of the world on their region or culture’s chess set (non-Staunton chess set), we are offered a unique opportunity to mingle with both a person and the representations and priorities behind their culture. There is a true and honorable glamour associated with chefs who seamlessly travel, able to connect with anyone on earth through the selected proteins, spices, garnish, or medium of cooking; just imagine if a board-game geek out there – someone as familiar with boardgames as Bourdain is with food – embarked on a global journey situated not around food, as Bourdain did, but around boardgames, learning as he/she travelled and using the board and its inscribed rules and values as a means to relate with a person and our world. I’d tune in, how about you?

Over centuries, Chaturanga took other forms, rules adjusted, and eventually today’s variation of chess earned global preeminence. It may, however, never be fully understood whether the variations of the piece’s abilities, names, and values represent a natural cultural transmission and appropriation, or an instance of being lost in translation. Regardless, the forms designed and embraced by varying societies around the world surely share a bit about the societies from which they stem. While we have already investigated the changing symbolism of these pieces, most notably the transformations of the elephant to the bishop and the chariot to the rook, changed rules share much about the human condition, too. Once settled in Europe, chess underwent many extremely important transformations, all of which worked to accelerate the game. Recall: in Chaturanga, the pawns could only move one tile; in Chess, the pawns can move two on the first move. Recall: In Chaturanga, the elephant could only move two tiles diagonally (although it could jump over a square to reach that second tile); in chess, the bishop could move diagonally across the whole board, seemingly representing the increased power of the church. Recall: In Chaturanga, the Mantri could only move one space, whereas in chess the Queen is virtually unstoppable, unmatched in its mobility. Believe it or not, in these ways, Chess also serves as a microcosm for the human condition and our obsession with an accelerated lifestyle; despite chess being regarded as a slow-paced game with attention-span imperative, when compared to its predecessor, chess is in fact much faster. Despite the realistic metaphor driving the game, a case could be made that Chaturanga – without a board bounding bishop or a powerful queen– represents a more accurate metaphor for war and victory, for no triumph occurs in the 38 average moves precluding victory in chess.

The game of chess has come a long way, with battles waged not only within it, but about it. For with discussions of cultural transmission also come questions of cultural ownership. For example, consider the notion that many contemporary Indian chess sets, such as a Rajasthani set in the museum, has an elephant stationed on the flank as a rook. If you’ve made it to this point in the essay, you know that the elephant should not be stationed on the flank, as in chaturanga the elephant encompassed the state, in the present-day location of the bishop. Now, does such an example represent a natural, inevitable metamorphosis or a shifted understanding and prioritization of the elephant within India? And whose game is chess: India’s or England’s? Nevertheless, despite the consequences of appropriation through standardization, without universal rules we would be without chess’s intimacy.

The World Chess Hall of Fame is there to stay in St. Louis, as are both the ‘Pawns and Passports’ and ‘Check, Please!’ exhibits – at least temporarily - on show until January 2022; come see how different cultures of varying eras choose to represent and prioritize their societies. Did your - or other - societies properly continue the logic and values as had been set forth by the makers of Chaturanga? If you’re Australian, how do you value your kangaroos and koalas, or your Sydney Opera House? If you’re a New Yorker, where would you place the Big Red Apple or yellow taxis, or the Twin Towers? And, as that New York chess set did, if you choose two different street signs for one of your pieces (the set featured a Wall Street Sign for the Queen-side Knight and a Broadway Sign for the King-side Knight), what relative orientation would you ascribe your pieces, and what does this orientation say about their respective value? If you had to make your own board, how would you design it? Of your town? Of your family? Of your values or governing emotions? Of your favorite six-item meal?

A chance to be both the creator and evaluator, and in the end, to see chess not as just a game.

After brief stays in both Miami and New York, the St. Louis World Chess Hall of Fame has found a permanent home along the midwestern bank of the Mississippi. In part, this is due to the growing reputation of St. Louis as a chess city; in 2009 and 2011, St. Louis was hailed as America’s “Chess City of the Year” before being declared by Congress as the Chess Capital of the United States. St. Louis’s Chess History stretches generations, and even served as co-host of the world’s first official World Chess Championship in 1886. Over the years, St. Louis continued to play roles in the World and National chess scenes and fostered the growth of many chess grandmasters. In the present day, Rex Sinquefield serves as the primary financial reason explaining the recent arrival of the WCHOF to St. Louis. A St. Louis native and one area’s most wealthy individual, Sinquefield is committed to teaching values through chess.

Images of Chess Sets from the WCHOF

China Chess Set (not to be confused with a Chinese Chess set*)

*While there is literally an elephant ‘in the room’ or in this case, on the page – albeit much further up from this paragraph - let me quickly address the other astoundingly popular global boardgame which partially derives from Chaturanga and proliferated within the other Asian giant, China. In addition to Chaturanga spreading westward, the game also spread eastward, winding through the Himalaya and the Tibetan plateau before reaching China and other East Asian societies. Unlike in the West where rules for the most part remained consistent, the Chinese adapted chess into their own version which they called Xiangqi, otherwise known as Chinese Chess. Chinese Chess is in fact much more different from Chaturanga than Chess is from Chaturanga. In part, this can be explained by the fact that Chinese Chess appears to have adopted rules from both Chaturanga and the ancient Chinese game of Go. While the abilities of Chinese Chess pieces share many similarities to Chaturanga and Chess, there exist stark differences, such as the fact that pieces move along intersections of lines, instead of within the squares on the board. Similarly, the Chinese Chess board features a river drawn across the board and a demarcated palace space. Distinct from chess, these board modifications both restrict and enable specific pieces’ mobility. Once crossing the river, the foot soldiers increase their mobility; the elephants, however, may not cross it. And from that palaces space the King and guards may not leave. As manifested through Xiangqi, the Chinese adapted Chess but fused it with their existing heritage of board games.

*Photo of Chinese Chess Board from Britannica

Kenya Chess set

Australia Chess Set

The Netherlands Chess Set

El Salvador Chess Set

Don Quixote Chess Set

Coca-Cola Chess Set

Rajasthani Chess Set

San Francisco Chess Set

469 views3 comments


George Vecsey
George Vecsey
Jul 10, 2021

Colin: What a terrific essay....all about chess, ranging from St. Anthony Bourdain. With great photos! Thanks for letting me know about your site. George Vecsey, Port Washington, NY


Will Chang
Will Chang
Jul 09, 2021

So much to chew on! Thanks for sharing Colin! Next up, your Zion adventures!

Colin Phelan
Colin Phelan
Jul 09, 2021
Replying to

Thanks, Will!

Thanks for checking out the site :)

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