Framing Games in Sacred Spaces: a Case Study from North-West India

In one of the Hindu myths, Shiva plays dice with his consort Parvati and loses miserably. The oldest of the Pandavas brothers in the Mahābhārata even loses wife, family and kingdom all at once because of a rigged dice game. The theme of the cosmos as a playground in which players’ abilities are subjected to a mixture of destiny and randomness is well illustrated in the mythical and epic Indian literature and by the Sanskrit word lila, “the divine play” that governs all the realities.

However, playing dice was not exclusive to these worlds apart. Playing was an integral part of the daily life of ancient India. Games were played indoors but mostly outdoors in markets, streets, under trees or at the ghats by rivers and lakes, as they are still today.

Even Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, was represented by Gandharan craftsmen as playing dice with his wife Yashodhara in one of the rare emblematic family pictures before his departure from the royal palace.

Nevertheless, some Indian texts indicate that the practice of throwing dice was not restricted to a leisure activity and form of entertainment, but it was also associated with divination.[1] In particular, the Pāśakakevalī (“System of Dice”) preserved in the Bower Manuscript dated to the mid-4th century CE (Hoernle 1914) describes how to predict and control worldly matters such as marriage, love and fertility by throwing three oblong dice. Daniel Michon has recently suggested to reinterpret the stick dice found in several Early Historic sites in the Ganga valley, Deccan and North-West India as ritual objects used for oracular gambling.

As highlighted by Michon, these objects, usually reported under the definition of playthings in the archaeological records, were in fact found in the city of Sirkap at Taxila (North-West Pakistan) in ritual contexts associated with finds connected to a ritual concerns with fertility, prosperity and protection of children, such as stelae of local goddesses, the so-called “votive tanks” and “toilet or libation trays” (Michon 2015: 171-183). Moreover, a connection between dice divination and spirits associated to fertility and sexuality (e.g. apsarasas and yakshinis) is strengthened by several tales narrated in Jātakas, the previous lives of the Buddha, and avadānas, edifying tales narrated by the Buddha.

Thus, dice, usually made of ivory or bone, could have different layers of meaning according to the context and actors engaging with them.

Although the history (much less the archaeology) of dice games has drawn the attention of several scholars, other – much more common but less attractive – gaming remains have been somehow overlooked.

When we look at the small finds from the Early Historic Indian cities, we notice that from the 5th century BCE onwards hundreds of circular (more rarely square or conical) pawns made of terracotta, shell, ivory, stone or from reused potsherds are frequent in the archaeological record. Unfortunately, the spatial configuration of these small finds within the urban space is not easy to reconstruct since common pawns were not always properly recorded or identified by archaeologists especially in earlier excavations.[2] As a consequence, ancient behavior patterns associated with these kinds of finds are quite elusive. While playing games is a worldwide practices, differences and changes in forms, contexts of use and players involved can, in fact, offer a glimpse of the habits of ancient societies.

What follows is a first attempt at a close-up on the spatial distribution of these small finds in the urban context of the Indian subcontinent and some inferences concerning social behaviors responsible for such intrasite spatial configurations.

Our case-study is the site of Barikot, a main urban centre of the middle Swat valley (North-West Pakistan), where counters for board games were found and inventoried during the excavations of the South-West periphery of the city and on its hill-top, making spatial plotting possible.[3]

The survey of the available data reveals that out of a total of around 200 pieces almost half are made from potsherds in red ware while one third is made of stone (usually in grey phyllite, but also a couple of specimens in precious stones were found) and the other third of terracotta. Except for one square and another conical specimen, pawns are generally circular or sub-circular disks, though small balls of unbaked clay and polished river pebbles might have been used with the same function. Though generally plain, pawns can sometimes bear incised (dots; radial or parallel lines; diagonal patterns; two depressions on both sides) or painted decorations for differentiating the opponents’ pieces.

The seriation – that is, the chronological ordering – of the gaming pieces indicates that this class of artefacts was continuously used throughout the life of the site, from the 5th century BCE (Achaemenid phase) until the 10th century CE (Hindu Shahi phase), without any substantial morphological change over centuries.

When plotting the spatial distribution of these finds, a significant pattern emerges. As shown in Figure 2, these finds were concentrated in (a) the dump areas immediately outside the city wall and (b) in public spaces, while only few specimens were located in the open domestic court of residential unit E.

Since games, today as in the past, are a worldwide form of sociability, we are not surprised to find pawns in the streets (Indo-Greek and Saka Parthian phases of unit K) and quarters’ courts (courts 105 and 115). Instead, what is somewhat striking is that most of the pawns come from the public (never from domestic) religious spaces of the city, that is from the three open courts of the Buddhist complexes in units B and K (Figs 2-3), and from the main religious complexes built on the top of Barikot hill, from where the 45% of the total amount of counters comes. Here, an earlier Buddhist sanctuary – partially uncovered during the latest archaeological fieldwork – was replaced in the second half of the 7th century CE by a Brahmanical temple. The fact that several sets of tokens, both from red ware potsherds and in gray phyllite, were found in layers associated to the floors of both Buddhist and Brahmanical temples clearly indicates the trans-religious character of the game played.

Judging from the data collected, it seems that an alignment board game requiring two players, one using red the other grey pawns, was regularly and continuously played by the inhabitants of Barikot in public urban space of the city but mostly in temples’ courts.

Boards for games, probably in terracotta, wood or simply sketched on the ground, did not survived in the explored area of Barikot with the exception of the “chequer board” type carved in the rock on the top of the hill for which a date cannot be suggested (Olivieri 2003: pl. XXXVIII,b). Therefore, we do not have a clear idea of the type of games played at the site.

A significant clue is, however, offered by the two game boards found, along with circular pawns of both red and grey colour, in the nearby Buddhist site of Amluk-dara (ca. 5 km from Barikot; Fig. 4), corresponding to the Historic and Late Historic occupation of the city (Olivieri et al. 2014).

Figure 4: The main stūpa of Amluk-dara (Swat, Pakistan), © ISMEO.

The boards, published by Schädler at the end of the excavation in 2014 (2014, 2018), consist of two sub-rectangular flat slabs (42×48.5×7 cm; 43x38x7.5cm) in phyllite belonging to the original floor (in use between end 1st-3rd centuries CE) of the square body of the main stūpa on which the pradakshina-patha (the paved path used for the circumambulation rite) and the dome are set. On the upper surface of these slabs a “Nine Men’s Morris” or “Merels” board for the navakankari game is roughly carved (Fig. 2).

The aim of this well-known game, played by two players with pawns of different colour, is to make a row or column of three counters and by doing so the player can remove an opponent’s piece until the other player remains with less than three pawns. “Nine Men’s Morris” boards are well known in Byzantine and Medieval times and according to Schädler (2012: 21) they may have been introduced to the West by the Arabs. The origin of diffusion of this type of board in the Indian subcontinent is hard to track since, except from Amluk-dara, most of the engraved boards are difficult to date. At any rate, the game seems to be quite popular from antiquity until the present in several regions of South Asia. In fact, “Nine Men’s Morris” boards (as other types of game boards) are often engraved on the floors of mandapas (pillared halls) of Hindu temples and around Buddhist stūpas, always in proximity of steps or comfortable places to sit (Fig. 5).

The fact that the two game boards from Amluk-dara, as those from other Indian sites, were directly incised, and not simply sketched (sketches do not leave traces in the archaeological record) on the floor of the last body of the main stūpa suggest that the board game was a regular activity at the site.

Although the possible symbolic meaning of this “Nine Men’s Morris” pattern cannot be excluded (Schädler 2018: 174; see Berger 2004, Umberti 2012), by drawing on the data from Amluk-dara and Barikot, a few preliminary observations can be made.

Alignment board games using pottery and stone disks as counters were played in the area of middle Swat since at least the Achaemenid time when the area, as part of the satrapy of Gandhāra, became a crucial crossing hub between the territories east and west of the Indus with a subsequent intensification of relations with both northern India and the Iranian plateau (Iori 2018). The navakankari or “Nine Men’s Morris” board of Amluk-dara was engraved on the first floor of the stūpa between the end of the 1st and the mid/end of the 3rd centuries CE and we can presume that the same board, or a similar one using the same type of counters, was also in use at the nearby city of Barikot. Besides being a social activity performed in shared spaces as streets and quarter’s courts, these games seem to have been played quite regularly in sacred, both Buddhist and Brahmanical, sites inside and outside the city. The particular concentration of gaming remains in public sacred areas suggests that board games represented a sort of social ritual probably performed by (urban and non-urban) religious actors[4] for leisure, rather than for religious purposes, when ritual activities were not taking place on site. Seated on the benches of Buddhist complex’s courts (Temples B, K) or on high platform (Amluk-dara) and terrace (Barikot hill-top) under the shade of a stūpa or of a Brahmanical temple, religious actors may have engaged with peers or devotees in entertainment activities with normative feature – concentration, self-control and respect of rules are basic ingredients of board games – that fit well with the doctrines of their own religiosity.

— Elisa Iori.

Elisa Iori is a post-doctoral researcher in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity”. She is an archaeologist specialising in the religious history of South Asia.


Berger, F. (2004) From circle and square to the image of the world: a possible interpretation for some petroglyphs of merels boards. In Rock Art Research 21, 1: 11-25

Bhatta, C. P. (1995) “Antiquity of Indian board games. A new approach”. In New Approaches to Board Games Reasearch, Asian Origin and Future Perspective. International Institute for Asian Studies – Working Papers Series 3: 125-133.

Hoernle, A. F. R. (1914) The Bower manuscript. Bombay: British India Press.

Iori, E. (2018) The Gandhāran region (NW Pakistan) from the late Iron Age to the Hellenistic period:  a study in the rise of a complex culture across local traditions, Iranism and Hellenism based on ceramics. 2018 PhD thesis, University of Bologna Digital Library.

Michon, D. (2015) Archaeology and Religion in Early Northwest India: History, Theory, Practice. London-New York-New Delhi: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Olivieri, L.M. (2003) The Survey of the Bir-kot Hill. Architectural Comparisons and Photographic Documentation. Bīr-koṭ-ghwaṇḍai Interim Reports I, IsIAO Reports and Memoirs, Series Minor, 4. Rome: IsIAO.

Olivieri, L.M., et al. (2014) The Last Phases of the Urban site of Bir-kot-ghwandai (Barikot). The Buddhist sites of Gumbat and Amluk-dara (Barikot). ACT Reports and Memoirs, II. Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publisher.

Rogersdotter, E. (2012) “Split Appearance. Patchy and Coherent Features in Fragments of Gameplay, Mohenjo-daro, Sindh”. In Iranian Journal of Archaeological Studies, 2: 87-106.

Schädler, U. (2012) “Jouer par terre”., In Bardiès-Fronty and A.-E. Dunn-Vaturi, eds., Art du jeu, jeu dans l’art. Exhibition Catalogue Musée de Clunys: 21. Paris.

Schädler, U. (2018) “Game boards and counters from Amluk-dara”. In Journal of Asian Civilizations 41, 1: 173-176.

Schopen, G. (2008) “On Emptying Chamber Pots without Looking and the Urban Location of Buddhist Nunneries in Early India Again”. In Journal Asiatique 296: 229-256.

Schopen, G. (2009) “The Urban Buddhist Nun and a Protective Rite for Children in Early North India”. In M. Straube et al., eds, Pāsādikadānāṃ. Festschrift für Bhikkhu Pāsādika (Indica et Tibetica 52) Marburg: 359-380.

Umberti, M. (2012) The Merels Board Enigma. Rome.

[1] For a general discussion of textual sources on dice games see Bhatta 1995.

[2] For a spatial analysis of gaming remains in the much earlier site of Mohenjo-daro (Sindh, Pakistan) see Rogersdotter 2012.

[3] Research at the site was carried out by the ISMEO-Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan since 1984, initially under the direction of P. Callieri (until 2000), then of L.M. Olivieri. Units G, H and I, excavated in the early ‘90s, are not included in this study.

[4] While Buddhist monks, living in monasteries (vihāras) outside the city, were responsible for the Buddhist sites in the countryside, who exactly was in charge of the liturgical services in the city is hard to say. In Buddhist texts there seem to be no references to regular liturgical duties in urban temples amongst the urban services that Buddhist monks have to performed for donors. Instead, according to vinayas, cities were the domain of Buddhist nuns who must have had their monasteries (varṣakas) within the city wall in order to avoid rape or robberies by delinquents (Schopen 2009). Although the suggestion to identify urban Buddhist sites and attached structures as part of convents (Schopen 2008: 249) is indeed very appealing, it cannot be archaeologically proved yet. Moreover, the existence of other urban religious actors or the employment of specific members of the Buddhist community, like novices, for urban duties cannot be excluded.

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  1. 06/07/2020

    […] Framing Games in Sacred Spaces : a Case Study from North-West India, sur Religion and Urbanity : Reciprocal Formations […]

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