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Many were thrown as the city buzzed with entertainment, games and gambling before turning into a mound of dead.  Dice were discovered almost on every level of Moen jo Daro. This was noted by Sir John Marshall, the Director General of the Archeological Survey of India, under whose supervision the site was excavated. Moen jo Daro (translated: Mound of Dead) was the capital of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BCE).  Known for its non-violence, its citizens tested their strengths only on board games.  The stakes can be surmised from mythology and folklore wherein kingdoms were lost on a throw of dice. What was the nature of that game played in Moen jo Daro?

Much before the discovery of Indus Civilization it was speculated that chess had its origins in India.  Sir William Jones was more specific and suggested West India as the place and chaturanga as the predecessor of chess. Chaturanga, meaning four limbs, denoting the four divisions of the Indian army do not befit well with the ancient Indus way of life.  Nonetheless, a few game pieces showcased in the Moen jo Daro Museum are labeled “Chessmen” and placed on a modern chess board suggesting the possibility of the existence of chess in Moen jo Daro. Things change, concepts evolve, and sometimes they are even capable of representing just the opposite of the original concept. The four limbs of chaturanga may have denoted non-martial ideas in its earlier versions. The existence of dice in Moen jo Daro brings to mind other board games and chaturanga may have evolved from these.

This week I saw ‘’A Throw of Dice,” a vintage Bombay film belonging to the silent era and was made in 1929. However, it has been digitally restored and is available on Netflix.  You can watch a trailer here. The film, inspired by the Mahabharata, included a scene where King Ranjit gambled away his wife and his kingdom.  The superb restored picture quality allows a clear view of the four armed board game, the game pieces, and the dice which is not cube shaped but a set of three rectangular sticks etched with simple designs. Moen jo Daro site museum has few specimens of the stick dice. Archaeologists may be interested in knowing that these are still used by the Sindhi snake charmers, for fortune telling. As for the four-armed board in the movie, perhaps it was pachisi and who knows Arjun too may have lost his wife over such a board.

Pachisi, meaning twenty five, has survived in India and it has an older version known as chaupan. It is played by four players and until recent times, was a favorite ladies’ game in rural Sindh. Chaupan set consists of 16 game pieces, seven cowrie shells and a board, which is actually not a board but just a four-armed cloth piece marked with squares, the same as the one shown in the movie. Logically, chaupan should be the closest to the version played in Moen jo Daro. The use of cowrie shells instead of a cube dice is interesting. Perhaps this throws some light on the urban and rural divide of the Indus Civilization. Whereas the urban centers used dice since the days of Moen jo Daro, the use of cowrie shells, which is much ancient, continues in the remote villages of Sindh. So dice too has taken various forms.

What Marshall discovered in abundance are the cube shaped dice which have survived to present times and are widespread, found in almost all the countries and cultures of today’s world. In Moen jo Daro these were made of terra-cotta, one of these was inscribed with numbers on opposite sides adding up to seven another had made its way to Ur in Mesopotamia confirming the trade links between the two civilizations. The connection between dice and chess is however not yet established.

In a game of chance coincidences abound. The co-producer of ‘A Throw of Dice’, Himanshu Roy, played the role of the villain and won King Ranjit’s wife. In real life however, he had lost his wife, not on a throw of dice, but to the charms of one of the actors he had hired. This is a story better told by Sadaat Hasan Manto, captured here is an English translation.

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