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Explained: In Netflix’s Ludo, recall of an ancient, popular game that the Covid-19 pandemic revived sharply

Ludo: The game found in almost all Indian homes – and whose popularity surged during the recent days and nights of lockdown – has its origins in Pacheesi, which has been mentioned in the Mahabharata.

Written by Ektaa Malik , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: November 19, 2020 11:27:26 am
Ludo, Ludo Netflix, Ludo review, Ludo movie, Indian ExpressLudo is directed by Anurag Basu. (Netflix)

A newly released Hindi film, titled Ludo, premiered on Netflix this week. The film, directed by Anurag Basu, is a comedy around the popular board game. Members of the cast, including Pankaj Tripathi, Abhishek Bachchan, Rajkummar Rao, Aditya Roy Kapur, and Fatima Sana Sheikh, get into a variety of situations in which they cross each other’s paths, rather like the tokens in ludo. One character says: “Life is ludo, and ludo is life.”

Four Corners

The game found in almost all Indian homes – and whose popularity surged during the recent days and nights of Covid lockdown – has its origins in Pacheesi, which has been mentioned in the Mahabharata.

The version in our homes today typically has four colours: red, yellow, green and blue. Two or four players can play. Tokens move around the cross-shaped playing area with the throw of the dice, trying to get to the designated safe house. The player who gets all four tokens into the safe house wins.

The board can be of humble, foldable cardboard with plastic tokens, or an ornate wooden, hand-carved one that costs upwards of Rs 5,000. With applications like Ludo King and Ludo Online, enthusiasts can play the game online with other players.

Patented Glory

The game as we see it today, can be credited to Alfred Collier who patented it in England as ludo, which forbade replicas of the game and its paraphernalia. Old Collier ludo boards are now collectors’ items.

Story in History

The earliest verified version of the game, which was called Pacheesi, can be found in the cave painting of Ellora. There are references in the Mahabharata to Pacheesi, which was played with cowrie shells; 25 was the highest score you could get from the throw.

In the well known Mahabharata incident, the Pandavas were challenged to a game of Pacheesi by the Kauravas, who used the special ‘cursed’ set of dice made by Shakuni, which could never lose a hand. Yudhisthir ended up gambling away his kingdom, his brothers, and finally put Draupadi up for grabs. Later, when the Pandavas were in anonymous exile, Yudhisthir adopted the identity of Kank, and played dice with the king of Matsya. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

Mughal Version

Emperor Akbar enjoyed the game, and the courtyard of his palace at Fatehpur Sikri had red and white squares. Women from the harem would dress up in colours of the patron, and move around as the roll of the dice dictated.

Abul Fazl, Akbar’s grand vizier and his court historian, wrote that “From times of old, the people of Hindustan have been fond of this game”, and that Chaupar/ Pacheesi was popular with the masses.

Also read | Ludo review: Hijinks in the time of Corona

Ludo, Ludo Netflix, Ludo review, Ludo movie, Indian Express Ludo is streaming on Netflix.

Western Versions

Most western versions such as ludo are considered to have been inspired by versions of the ancient Pacheesi. A similar board game was played in China during the reign of the Wei dynasty c.250 AD.

In the Levant, a game called Barjis was popular, and in Morocco and Spain, a version called Parchis was played.

The Swedish board game is called Fia; the Swiss version, Eile mit Weile, literally meaning ‘Haste makes Pace’. The Colombians play Parques.

A Pakistani variant uses a pair of dice, and allows for backward movement of the tokens. The Vietnamese version, C? cá ng?a, is based on the principle of a horse race, and even the tokens are modelled as horse heads. The horse reference is also invoked in the French variant Jeu des petits chevaux or the Game of Little Horses.

Pandemic Popularity

The Covid-19 pandemic, which forced people to stay at home, led to an unprecedented spike in the popularity of ludo and other board games. Catan, formerly known as Settlers of Catan, is hugely popular, along with the old favourites Monopoly, Scrabble, and Game of Life. In India, snakes and ladders — the western variant is chutes and ladders — remains very popular.

Don’t miss from Explained | ‘Lockdown’ is Collins Dictionary’s word of the year: A history of lockdowns before Covid-19


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