Indian Chessmen

East Indian John Company

East Indian John Company type "Clive of India" chessmen, made in Murshidabad, Bengal. Ca. 1790. Carved ivory on black stained bases on one side and green stained bases on the other. Representation of H.E.I.C. troops - officers in Georgian costume on elephant and horseback, and sepoy soldiers. Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, South & South East Asia Collection.

A very ancient Hindu game – called Chatarunga – has been played in India for centuries. The name Chatarunga is a compound of the Sanskrit words Chatur (four) and Anga (a component part). The word Chatarunga has much in common with ‘quadripartite’ and is usually applied to an army or force of four distinct and separate forces. The Sanskrit Chatarunga means the four divisions of an Indian army: elephants (bishop in the familiar chess of today); cavalry (knight), chariots (represented by the rook/ castle), and foot soldiers; added to these were a shah (king). 

When Alexander the Great invaded India around 327 B.C., he was astonished at the first sight of the Indian army that opposed him. Raja Porus had 50’000 foot soldiers, 1’000 chariots, 130 war elephants and 3’000 horsemen under his command. Alexander was looking at a living chess set (source: G. Williams Master Pieces)

Rajasthan set

Rajasthan bone set, late 19th century. Contrary to other Indian games, elephants have a trunk here raised and fangs severed, and only pawns rest on a base. Height: King 15cm. Source : CCI Italy.