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Krishnaraj Wodeyar III’s contribution to Board games and Puzzles

People have always enjoyed devising puzzles, either for fun or as an intellectual challenge. As the different branches of Mathematics have developed, so too has the range of puzzles (Kraitchik 1943). These brainteasers have helped to advance our understanding in many areas from logic to the study of shapes found in nature, and interestingly these number games and more are preserved as murals, writings, and inscribed copper plates & gaming boards in the Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery, Mysore (Vasantha 2002), which were invented by the Raja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (1794-1868). Surprisingly, one thirty seven year’s later, meager information has been revealed to the board game historians, but the resources that constitute the Raja’s legacy comprise veritable abundant resources. This extraordinary resource is of crucial importance in the study of Indian board games, but no-one has paid attention to the matter so far, because much of it is complex and demanding.

For anyone interested in the traditional board games of India, the name of the Maharaja Krishna Raja Wodeyar III will always be held in respect and admiration. Poets, scholars, musicians and astrologers adorned his court, and he himself was a man of high cultural refinement with a pleasant and dignified appearance, but for the board game historian in particular his name will ever rebound with honor.  The king himself was a highly edifying intellectual, fluent in many languages, more than a competent mathematician, and religious philosopher. Krishnaraja Wodeyar, a skillful player himself at both card and board games, was also possessed of a wider interest in the games of his own country than mere play. This interest prompted him to collect information and preserve it as part of lengthy, illustrated, encyclopedias. In addition, he was responsible for the development of many new and complex symbolic games, or, in some cases, for enterprising new developments of old games. Details of all these accomplishments were included in his court manuscripts. The board-game historian today is presented with a unique range of surviving materials that bear witness to this interest, which may be itemized as follows.

  • Writings
  • Murals
  • Inscribed Copper plates
  • Gaming Boards and Pieces
  • Inscribed Copper Coins

a. Writings
Most informative are the Mysore court writings on board games, hardly any of which have been made available as yet in published form. Krishnaraja Wodeyar’s encyclopedic compilations were written partly in Sanskrit and partly in Kannada.
six manuscripts are in private collections:

  • Chaduranga Sarasarvasvam
  • Sri Krishnaraja Chaduranga Sudhakarah
  • Kempu Kitabu (Red Book)
  • Samkya shastra(numerology used for play)
  • Chaduranga Chmaatkrita Chakra Manjari
  • A polychrome litho print of an abridged version of Chaturanga Chamatkrita Chakra Manjari, in six languages (Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Sanskrit, Persian) written in 1858AD
  • Lose sheets depicting puzzles

Three manuscripts are in public collections:

    • Chaturanga Sudhakarah is in British Library, London
    • Kautuka Nidhi  (the eighth chapter of Sri Tattva Nidhi) in the Oriental Library, Mysore
    • Chadurangada Bannada Mane , in the Institute of Kannada Studies Library, Mysore

Characteristically, the pages of these works contain polychrome illustrations of each game board, often with the necessary pieces depicted and a note of the number of pieces required. Adjacent to this are (more or less) lengthy texts in a mixture of Sanskrit and Kannada, which include rules and other observations. It appears that certain shorter manuscripts represent a digest of the larger work, but the relationship between these manuscripts, and what constitutes the full extent of the textual inheritance, remains to be worked out in detail.

b. Murals
An extraordinary collection of wall paintings  showing a huge variety of board games dating to this reign have survived, almost unnoticed, until the present day.  They adorn the walls of a particular room in what is now in the Jaganmohana Palace, where the Raja presumably sat and played, and invented.  Many visitors skip this last room on the topmost floor, but if they do visit, they will be amazed to see a large number of multicolored boards (of 6x6, 8x8, 10x10 or 12x12 squares) painted on the walls. Many of the paintings present pleasing patterns to the eye or show the figure of some animal or geometrical shapes inscribed in them. Some of the games painted on the walls, such as Devisayujyam and Sivasayujyam (blend of Snakes & Ladder and Pachisi) embody religious philosophy, and are calculated to direct the thoughts of the players heavenward.

The many examples painted on the walls parallel exactly the hand-drawn images collected in the manuscripts.

c. Inscribed Brass Plates
Also housed within the Art Gallery is a group of brass plates, each of which is inscribed with grids for board games, or knight’s tour diagrams, with numbers and notes with rules. These remarkable objects represent, as it were, pages of the encyclopedia collections done in hard metal. More than one set of these plates was made, but the full set preserved in the Jaganmohana Palace has the extraordinary feature that all of the plates are hinged together; and when fully opened, they reproduce the shape of a large cruciform-type race game.

Some of the individual illustrated leaves deriving from these compilations are known to have been engraved on copper sheets, and twenty three such sheets from Mysore that belonged to Krishnaraja Wodeyar are now in the possession of the Department of Asia in the British Museum, London.

d. Gaming boards and pieces
A certain number of fine quality boards together with dice and pieces, which were no doubt used for play and experiment by Wodeyar himself, are also preserved in the Gallery in Mysore. Included among these are certain pieces that represent the three-dimensional objects depicted by the Raja’s artists. These boards may be divided into various groups, such as those for cruciform pachisi and pachisi-derivatives.  Side by side with specimens of the standard four-armed pachisi board are examples of ‘developed’ versions with six, eight, twelve and even sixteen arms. A favored style of board at the court was a mahogany panel with the playing grid inlaid in ivory, often furnished with a ring to allow for suspension. For many games there is also an alternative example in the collection, embroidered lavishly onto velvet.  Some were painted on glass.
Over the intervening years, certain specimens of games that originated in Krishna Raja Wodeyar’s court have been dispersed. Outstanding among them is the complex compendium from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the contents of which effectively exemplify the nature of the Raja’s activities.

e. Inscribed copper coins
King’s love for horses and primary interest in Chess and other Board games is evidenced through the surviving examples and to attest this fact, a round shaped copper currency was issued in which a square board with numerals and a horse or pawn or other gaming pieces formed the blueprint.

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