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Discovering Chaturanga (Game): 24 Key Facts (A Chess Predecessor)

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

There’s no doubt that games evolve over time and are essentially products of the time and place from which they originate. So too, has chess evolved from other games, including chaturanga. However, a lot of mystery surrounds the game of chaturanga, and we will try to clear that up for you!

Chaturanga is an ancient Indian game that is known to be an ancestor of chess. Chaturanga originated during the Gupta Empire’s reign, and its rules are similar to chess. The game is also played on an 8×8 board called an ashtāpada. The queen equivalent was much weaker in chaturanga than in chess.

Chaturanga and chess share many things but also bear stark differences. Read on if you would like to learn more about the differences between chess and chaturanga. 

These are 24 facts about chaturanga, the predecessor of chess: 

1. Chaturanga, An Ancient Indian Game, Was Chess’ Ancestor

Chaturanga is often thought of as chess’ earliest direct ancestor. Many nations and people tried to take credit for chess before the publication of the 1913 A Short History of Chess by H.J.R. Murray. However, there is now relative consensus among chess historians that chess has its origins in India.

2. Chaturanga Originated From The Gupta Empire

Chaturanga specifically originates in Northwest India (Punjab) during the Gupta Empire’s reign. Chaturanga was played at least as early as the 7th century, if not the late 6th century. 

3. Chaturanga Has Unknown Origins

In the past, game rules were scarcely written down and were usually passed down through oral tradition. As a result, many stories exist about how chaturanga became a game. 

One of these includes that when the youngest son of the Gupta Empire died in battle, his brother fashioned a manner of showing his mother what happened, so chaturanga was born. However, no reliable sources corroborate this, and it seems to be more of a legend.

4. Chaturanga, Precursor To Chess, Is A Sanskrit Word

Chaturanga means having four limbs, and the word was first found in the Ṛg Vēda, a sacred Hindu text. The term refers to four divisions: elephantry, infantry, cavalry, and chariotry. These were the four divisions of the Indian army when chaturanga was created.

5. In Chaturanga, The Word Ashtāpada Indicates An 8×8 Board

The word ashtāpada is one of the few words that gives historians an indication of how chaturanga was played. Like chess, the board consists of 64 squares. Ashtāpada was used not only for chaturanga but also to play many games, including dice games.

Ashtāpada means “spider,” as a comparison was drawn between the spider’s eight legs and the board’s eight sides.

6. Various Indian Texts May Have Referred To Chaturanga

The first potential reference is the Vasavadatta by Subandhu, but this reference needs to be clarified. An early 7th-century text called Harsharcharita by Bana mentions the words ashtāpada and chaturanga together. 

7. Chess’ Predecessor, Chaturanga, Used An Uncheckered Board

Although both games use an 8×8 board, chaturanga can be distinguished in that an uncheckered board was used. Markings on the board were most likely inherited from another game; they had no bearing on the chaturanga game.

8. Chaturanga Was Described By An Iranian Scholar

Renowned Iranian scholar al-Biruni described a four-player game (also known as chaturaji) on an ashtāpada board. In this game, the object was to capture as many soldiers as possible and thereby earn points. 

This is one of the earliest comprehensive sources on the rules of the game, even though mentions of chaturanga date back to the 6th century.

9. Chaturanga May Have Been Played By 4 People Or 2

Scholars disagree whether the earliest form of chaturanga was a 2-player or 4-player game. The four-player game can be distinguished from chaturanga as it is a game of chance. Therefore, chaturanga, not chaturaji, is typically seen as the earliest ancestor of chess, a game of strategy.

10. Chaturanga Was Possibly Initially Played With Dice

A theory is that chaturanga was initially played with a die. However, this contravened tenets of the Hindu faith, and the dice were removed. However, this has yet to be conclusively proven.

It seems more apparent that chaturaji was played with dice, but, as stated previously, it was more of a game of chance. Therefore, it cannot be seriously considered a predecessor of chess.

11. Chaturanga’s Pieces Each Moved In A Particular Way

Like chess, each piece had rules about its allowed movement. For example, some could only move diagonally, and some only move one square at a time. 

12. Chaturanga and Chess Have The Same Number Of Pieces

Both chess and chaturanga have 8 pawns or foot soldiers and 8 unique pieces. Chaturanga has a king, a minister, two chariots, two horses, and two elephants.

13. Chaturanga Possibly Had No Checkmate, Unlike Chess

Many historians agree that initially, the king had to be captured instead of ending up at checkmate. However, these chess rules were later implemented in India for the game of chaturanga. 

According to some historians like Henry A. Davidson, the ideas of check and checkmate were introduced only by the Persians.

14. Instead Of Chess Bishops, Chaturanga Had Elephants

War elephants were used, which were later changed to bishops for chess. Elephants could move diagonally two squares. Some historical debate has occurred about whether the original chaturanga allowed the elephant to jump over other pieces.

15. Chaturanga Had A Horse, Whereas Chess Has A Knight

The horse moves in the same way as the knight in chess. In other words, knights move in an L-formation. 

16. The Chariot In Chaturanga Is Comparable To Chess’ Rook

The chariot in chaturanga moves the same way as the rook in chess. In other words, the rook moves vertically or horizontally for as many places as are open for it to do so.

17. The Pawns In Chaturanga Initially Only Move Once

In chess, the pawn can move two squares the first time instead of just one. However, this is different from the pawns in chaturanga. Pawns in chaturanga were called foot soldiers.

18. Instead Of The Chess Queen, Chaturanga Had Advisors 

Although advisors are in the place of the queen, advisors are not as strong pieces as queens.

19. In Chaturanga, Pawns Can Be Promoted To Advisors

Pawns can be promoted to advisors in chaturanga when they reach the last row.

20. The Advisors’ Moves Are More Limited Compared To The Chess Queen

In chaturanga, the minister or the advisor (Mantri) could move diagonally one square only. The queen in modern chess can do much more, including diagonal, horizontal, or vertical moves for any number of open squares.

21. The Chaturanga Rajah Moved Like The Chess King

The Rajah or king in chaturanga functioned similarly to the king in chess and moved in the same way. In other words, the king in chaturanga moved one square horizontally, vertically, or diagonally.

22. Some Chess Rules Weren’t Available In Chaturanga

Several of the rules set in chess were not available in chaturanga; en passant and castling were not possible.

23. Chaturanga Was Adopted By Arabs To Create Shatranj

Shatranj is a closer ancestor to chess than chaturanga. After the Muslim invasion of Persia, which led to the fall of the Sassanid Empire, shatranj was created based on chaturanga.  

24. Shatranj, Chaturanga’s Successor, Then Led To Chess

A few modifications were made to shatranj, and chess was born out of this.

In Brief

Pieces like the king, bishop, and knight equivalents moved in the same way in chaturanga as they do now in chess. The minister or advisor in chaturanga was a much weaker piece than the queen in chess. A few rules were different, but chaturanga carries many of the most important elements of chess and made chess the brilliant game it is today.

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.