The origins of going back to square one

What I find even more fascinating is that the snake that took you back to square one was usually symbolised by the vice of anger.

Published: 19th September 2023 08:47 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th September 2023 08:47 AM   |  A+A-

Snake and ladders

Image used for representational purpose only. (File Photo)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: My previous article on the traditional game of Snakes and Ladders (Parama Padam, Moksha Path, Vaikunta Pali, Gyan Path) received an interesting response from one of the readers. Gopalakrishnan wrote to me saying, “The English expression ‘Back to square one’ is known to us since childhood because of this game. I don’t know if the English coined it after their experience with this Indian game.”

There are many interesting theories to the origin of this phrase. Some attribute it to the game of hopscotch (thokkudu billa, kunte bille, kith kith or pandi as it is known in India) where players hop around a grid and go back to the beginning. However, this seems unlikely as the phrase does not indicate progress but rather the lack of it. Some attribute the phrase to BBC football commentary, but an analysis of recordings does not seem to find this phrase mentioned anywhere. While some discount the theory of it originating in Snakes and Ladders on the basis that most boards don’t take you back to square one, that could well be disputed. While many modern boards do not take you back to square one, I have seen many old ones that do. One example is attached but sadly many samples I had were destroyed during the 2015 floods in Chennai. We may never know the origin of the phrase but the origin being in the traditional Snakes and Ladders seems very likely.

What I find even more fascinating is that the snake that took you back to square one was usually symbolised by the vice of anger. It is interesting that anger was considered the most corrosive of vices, destroying any progress or growth with one throw of the dice. Truly a lesson to those of us with short tempers, me included!

The snake representing anger is usually Dakshaka — a snake that features in the old mythological story of King Parikshit who was hunting in the forest and got lost. He found himself near a hermitage and sought the help of a rishi. The rishi however was in a deep meditation and did not respond. The angry king draped a dead snake around the rishi to show his frustration. The rishi’s son who had been away, soon returned. Seeing what had happened he cursed Parikshit to be killed within seven days by Dakshaka. The rishi was against this expression of anger and warned the king about the danger he now faced due to his careless rage. The king took every precaution, but the curse could not be undone. Dakshaka took the form of a worm and hid himself in a fruit. When Parikshit bit into the fruit, the worm transformed itself into a snake and killed the king. Truly a story that illustrates the destructive power of anger.

Most of the other snakes represent characters from mythology who are not black or white but shades of grey. From Mahabali, a truly great king who was brought down by his arrogance, to Ravana a devout man who was led astray by lust to even Parikshit whose anger destroyed him, these characters all show a fatal flaw much like the protagonists of Shakespeare’s tragedies. A fatal flaw is a term that refers to a character trait or a mistake that causes someone or something to fail or be destroyed. It is often used in literature, drama, and mythology to describe the downfall of a character.

Interestingly other characters represented by snakes are those who have repented and been forgiven indicating that the downfall can be mitigated by learning, accepting and overcoming the vices much like Surapadman who was forgiven by Muruga and became his vehicle in the form of a peacock or Narakasura who was forgiven by Krishna and is remembered during Diwali each year in some parts of the country. Truly, this traditional game not only is symbolic of our development as individuals but gives us deep insight into human life where one false step can be your downfall and yet, there is always hope for redemption and a future.


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