By Soumya Manjunath Chavan

India is a land of many arts, thoughts and so also games. It has a rich heritage of games some lost through times but some still living and inspiring people all over the world. The concept of games finds a unique development through the Sindhu Saraswathi civilizations, the Vedic period and mention of many games are made in the Indian epics also. A comprehensive view of the idea of games and sports finds interest here and discusses its presence through the times.


Games are a natural activity that one engages in for amusement and the number of games that are in practice today are countless. It further moves to be competitive and entertaining also. Every country has its own indigenous games of which some influence other people and countries. Whereas some remain as the source of inspiration and undergo several transformations to still remain as a cultural part of the land. While there are yet other games which lose its practical applications over a period of time and become a part of history.

The History of sports and games is a part of the History of man as a social animal, his interrelations with other individuals and groups, his civilization and culture, and specially his play. In ancient India a holistic growth and development of a person was designed through education and introducing good exercise for keeping the body, mind, intellect and soul in a rejuvenated state. Games and sports were means of the physical development and sometimes used for defense also. Leisure is one of the great gifts of civilization to man; games and sports fill that leisure with joy Along with this the games were treated as interesting for an overall development of children and recreation amongst the adults. Some of the significant games included the indoor games like the board games, games with stones and naturally available materials and playing cards. The outdoor games included water sports, archery and martial arts.

Game has many synonyms as play which is difficult to define. As Subodh Kapoor defines “Play demands nothing, play is innocence. Play is creativity. Play transmits no academic or social skills. It encourages an aesthetic appreciation of the world. When the reason for playing is to win, the play ceases to be a pastime or leisure.” Game defined in the Oxford dictionary is a form of competitive activity or sport played according to rules. The Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines sports as something to amuse oneself’. In the Indian perspective the concept of games can be analyzed from two viewpoints. The first one is the understanding of the cosmos as a game or leela and the other being games as an action of pastime, recreation and a contest.

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Game –as play or the Cosmic Leela

Leela or Kreeda are two words which are close to the words games and ‘play’.  The philosophy, spirit and cultural dimension of Indian games is extended into Kreedas, Leelas, Vinod and Utsavas. The Sanskrit word Lila is defined as a play, sport, diversion, amusement, pastime, child’s play, ease of facility in doing anything, a synonym Krida also means play, sport, amuse one’s self or gambol. Lila also defined as the divine ‘stage’. Lila, understood as play, wealthier than the word, extends to mean divine play embracing the play of creation, destruction, and re-creation the feat of the folding and unfolding of the cosmos. Lila, free and deep, is both the delight and enjoyment of this moment, and the play of God. Indian philosophy considers the Cosmos as the playground of the Divinity and the Earth as the playground of Man.

The Lalitasahasranama (Thousand names of the Goddess described in the Brahmanda Purana)  in its one thousand names devoted to the goddess Tripurasundari explicates in the name numbered 648 – lilaklptabrahmandamandala – As to the one who formed the world systems as if it were a sport, ie. Meaning, She created the cosmos as if it were a game. In another name numbering 965-966 – mention is made as Balalilavinodini – meaning a Girl who is fond of the lila or the cosmic play. Tripurasiddhanta also says, “O beloved one, as thou dost play like a child thou art called Bala” (child). Taking pleasure in amusement, lila, the play (of the activity) of the universe. Similar epithets are mentioned in the writings of Vaishnava texts, especially among the Gaudiya Vaishnavas (Bengal school founded by Caitanya), the contemplation of divine sports (lilas) according to eight praharas (units of three hours each) like, Japa (almost silent chanting of a mantra), Vrata (fasting and other vows), dana (alms giving), snana (holy dip), visarjana (immersion) of the image is prescribed.

The Indian perspective of creation as lila or the cosmic play is in one way or the other an inspiration to the development of some of the Indian games. The games can be understood as a purpose of leisure, amusement and pastime. India has been the source of many games, which were later spread to others parts of the world.

Indian Games through the ages:

A development of a rich heritage of games in India can be observed through the archaeological excavations of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, the Vedic literature, Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Puranas, the literary works of Kautilya, Kalidasa, Panini and Dandin as well as a whole lot of Buddhist and Jain literatures. In the Indus valley civilization (3250 BC to 2750 BC) many references of games and pastimes are found. An interesting example of a pastime can be seen as the famous figurine of the dancing girl as shown in Fig 1  measuring about 4 in. in height found in the Mohenjo-daro remains, speaks about the fact that dancing and singing were very good pastimes of this civilization.


One of the remarkable buildings, unearthed at Mohenjo-daro is a public bath or swimming pool. The swimming pool covers an area of about 12,000 sq.ft. This bath, which was rendered watertight, is provided with steps leading down to the water, and several rooms adjoining the swimming pool obviously served the bathers to change clothes before and after bathing. Ingenious arrangements for filling and emptying the pool are provided. The pool which remains to this day speaks about the engineering skill of the people of the Indus valley as depicted in the Fig 2. The existence of a public swimming pool with flights of steps on the ends, similar to our modern pools, warrants us to the conclusion that these people who lived in the far off centuries indulged in swimming and water-sports. All evidences point out that the swimming bath existed for public use.


Besides the water sports, marbles, balls and dice were used for games and dicing was the important game as is evident from lots of dices unearthed shows that the Indus people were fond of dice. Besides, a type of board game resembling the modern chess was also prevalent. A cylindrical gamesman resembling the present-day game of Draught has also been excavated at Harappa.

Hunting was the next important game. Seals showing men using bows and arrows for killing wild boars and deers have been found. Punching or boxing was also played. A number of toys of children made of clay have been found which shows that children engaged themselves with lots


Games in the Vedic period (2500 BC-600 BC)

Marbles, balls and dice were used for recreational games in the Indus Culture. The favorite recreations of the Vedic period were hunting, taming elephants, chariot-racing, dancing, music and gambling. Some mantras which exhibit the gambler in the Vedic time invoke the aid of his gods for the destruction and defeat of his opponents in the game of dice.

Evil be mine opponent’s luck! Sprinkle thou butter over us.

Homage to you, bearers of arrows, and to you

Bowmen, homage!

Homage to you, fetchers, and to you, makers

Of bows!   Taitarya Samhita, IV 5-3-2 and 4-2

 Stones were also used for weights, marbles and dice, which are among the most remarkable relics discovered. It is interesting to note that, the Vedic Aryans were very fond of the dice games. Playing with dice became a popular activity. The dices were apparently made of Vibhidaka nuts.

Gambling was so popular in ancient India that a gambling hall was even attached to the King’s palace in later Vedic times for organized gambling parties. Arthashastra advocates strict control of gambling by the state and five percent tax on the stakes; the ‘Gamester’s Lament’ in Rig Veda testifies to the popularity of gambling. Dice and games were submitted to certain magical treatments and incantations for success. Gaming dens abounded, subject to state control, heavily taxed and watched over by spies.

The coronation prays that the king should become pre-eminent among his peers. Either the king was elected or among many other possibilities was a dice play and chariot race are found forming part of the coronation rite. The successful candidate in one or two of these games which seems to be the one that was selected by the people for the coveted post.

Vedic women received a fair share of masculine attention in physical culture and military training. The Rigveda tells us that many women joined the army in those days. A form of chariot race was one of the games most popular during the Vedic period. People were fond of swinging. Ball games were in vogue in those days by both men and women. Apart from this, a number of courtyard games like “Hide and seek” and “Run and catch” were also played by the girls.

Vedic terms for ‘martial art’ include Dhanur Veda (from Dhanus ‘bow’ and veda ‘knowledge’) in Puranic literature, later applied to martial arts in general, and shastravidya (knowledge of the sword). The earliest description of Dhanurveda in the Agni Purana (8-11th Century CE) states that it was revealed to the sages Vishvamitra and Bhrigu but Prashurama was the first guru (master) of this art. Thus the ancient Indian scriptures exhibit a very developed knowledge of games.

Games in the Ramayana

People took much interest in games during this period. Ayodhya, Kiskindha and Lanka the three great places related with this period were centers of many games and sports. Chariot -riding and horse- riding were popular. Hunting was taken as a royal sport. Swimming was also popular and it is learnt that Ravana had a beautiful swimming pool in Asoka Vatika where he used to sport. Gambling with dices was also well known. “Chaturang” or chess as we call it today developed during this period and India is proud to be called the homeland of this great sport. Ball games were popular with the women.

Rama was known for his mastery in archery, horse and elephant, and of the vyuhas of war, and he drove the chariot like wind. In one of the instances when on the path to the forest Parashurama mentions to Rama, “I have heard about your archery, princeling; the people of the earth speak of nothing else. I have heard you broke Siva’s bow in Mithila and I have brought another bow to test you with. For I don’t believe what I have heard.” His Archery is appreciated to be transcendent compared to the skills of Indra, and left people in awe, and slayed demons and Ravana mercilessly.

Games in the Mahabharata

The post-Vedic epic, Mahabharata, describes the performance of Rajsuya by Dharmaputra. Rajasuya, Asvamedha and Vajapeya were associated with the coronotaion of kings stress upon physical fitness.  Throwing and lifting of weights, swimming and water sports, comprehensive physical activity, with several minor and major games which were played by men and women in the days of the epics. The one hundred Kauravas and five Pandavas played various kinds of games of strength, skill and amusement in their childhood under the able supervision of Kripacharya and Drona.


Special mention has been made of games and gymnastics during this period. Jumping, arms contracting, wrestling, playing with balls, hide and seek, chasing animals were some of the games prevalent during this period. Ball games were popular and it is said that Lord Krishna played ball-games with maidens on the banks of the Yamuna.”

The Mahabharata also narrates about Arjuna as an unmatched hero in the art of Archery and shooting successfully from the bow of Shiva. Yudhistira had a great liking for dicing and it is known that he lost his whole kingdom, his brothers and his wife in this game to his opponents. People also enjoyed water sports. Bhima was a great swimmer. Duryodhana was an expert in swimming. All the Pandava and Kaurava Princes, on the invitation of Duryodhana, went to the Ganges for some water games.

Games in the Buddhist period

The monks lived in a very strict discipline and restriction of monastic life. But they also had a lighter side for games and sports which have their own appeal in human nature. A list of such permissible games and sports is given in the Chullagga (I,13,2), which mentions even dancing with ladies, besides the following: “Games with stones tossing up; hopping over diagrams formed on the ground; removing substances from a heap without shaking the remainder; games of dice and trap ball; sketching rude figures; tossing balls; blowing trumpets; having matches at ploughing with mimic ploughs; tumbling, forming mimic wind-mills; guessing what measures; chariot races; archery matches; shooting marbles with fingers; guessing other peoples thoughts, mimicking other peoples acts; riding elephants, horses; driving carriages; swordsmanship; wrestling; boxing with fists; and spreading robes out as a stage on which girls are invited to dance.” Perhaps the most significant items in this list are those related to dancing and acting, suggestive of Art of the Stage. As regards the admissibility of Gambling, we must recall its Vedic origins, showing that it has figured in all ages as a national indoor game in India. It found its way into the severe and serious atmosphere of Nalanda. Archaeological excavation has found there a gaming-die, and gaming dice in Monasteries Nos, I and Ia and at other Buddhist sires, proving that the austere monks gave it to such innocent recreations.

The game of chess is found mentioned in the canonical texts of Jainism. Chess was found prevalent in the campus of Nalanda. Archaeological excavations have found gambling dice in monasteries and other Buddhist sites. Another item of amusement was swimming. The Viharas offered the pleasure of bathing pools.

Jataka stories

Archery is found mentioned in the Jataka stories. The Bhimsena Jataka tells that Boddhisatva learnt archery at Takshila. Wrestling was popular and descriptions of such breath-holding bouts in wrestling are available in the Jataka stories. Two kinds of games called Udyana Krida or garden games and Salila Krida or water sports are also mentioned.

Games in the Jaina Manuscripts

Great Universities like Takshila and Nalanda developed during this period. Takshila was famous for military training, wrestling, archery and mountain- climbing. In Nalanda, swimming, breathing exercises and yoga formed an integral part of the curriculum. Swimming must have been a favorite pastime in those days in the number of great pools of water near Nalanda. University of Takshasila was famous seat of education and it attracted students from all parts of the country and also from outside. Dhanur Veda or the science of Archery was one of the important subjects taught in the University of Takshasila and as many as 163 princes coming from various parts of the country learnt archery there. Harshavardhana, of the Gupta dynasty was a great sportsman and he encouraged his subjects as well. Another great contemporary of Harsha, Narasimhan or Mamallah of the Pallava dynasty was a great wrestler.

Archery was also popular among the women during this period, as can be seen from the Ahichatra images. Hunting, elephant fighting, Ram fighting, and Partridge fighting were the other important games of this period.

Ball games (kanduka-kreeda) were popular with men and women alike since ancient times. Poet Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava and Raghuvamsa and poet Bharthihari’s Nitisataka, as well as Bhagavata Purana and Yadava Prakash are well known literary sources of information on ball games. Kanduka-krida – as described in the ‘Padmaprabhritakam’ of Sudraka, which throws light on some outstanding features of social life of its age. The poet describes that the damsel (Priyaṅgu-yașṭikā), while holding arsenic coloured (mānaḥśila) ball in her hand with its coral like red fingers moving to and fro, and also bending and uplifting her-self, looks like a ‘kadamba’ creeper, striking flowers with its leave-ends.

Pakșī-krīḍā – (recreation with birds), descriptions of which occur prominently in early Indian literature: such as the writings of Vātsyāyana, Śūdraka and Śyāmilika.  Teaching the bird the art of speaking and amusing herself with the dance of peocock.

In the Așṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini, the term Śālabhañjikā connotes a type of favorite game of ladies in garden (Udyāna-krīḍā) in the eastern India and also suggests a greater antiquity of these folk-traditions. On such a joyous occasion, they used to bend the branches of the Sala trees, coming within the reach of their arms, in some neighboring grove, pluck their full-blown flowers and throw them on each-other in order to amuse themselves. Since the Śāla trees were not to be found in western India, no such game was prevalent there and this was why Panini had designated it as ‘Prāchya-krīdā’ of the women-folk.

Polo, Chariot racing, bullock racing, archery, matial arts, boxing, wrestling, gladiator contests, dueling, cock, quail, buffalo, bull, ox, peacocks, horse, elephants fights, have all been mentioned in literature as favorite pastimes while archery was the preeminent aristocratic sport. Bullfighting was a game of danger to test the manhood but was confined to the Dravidian south. The herdsman entered the arena and ‘embraced the bull’ that was neither irritated nor killed. Polo was the national sport of the Tibetans but modern polo is derived from games in Manipur where the Imphal Polo Ground is the oldest in the world.


Games are looked upon as a very important activity for a holistic development of a human being. It has many benefits to begin with keeping a fit mind and body, it also entertains and recreates both the player and viewer. Games also bring together people on the social context and created a sense of unity among them. On one side makes one play with innocence and on the other sharpens the levels of concentration and comprehension. India with its rich history of indoor and outdoor games forms an important part of the cultural mosaic. Many games are in vogue even in the contemporary times, where as some have undergone transformations but still practiced and few more have become extinct but symbolically still remembered through festivals and celebrations.

References and Further reading:

  • Agarwal M. K., The Vedic Core of Human History, iUniverse, USA, 2013
  • Kapoor, Subodh, Ed, Ancient Hindu Society, Cosmo Publications, New Delhi, India, 2002
  • Krishnaswamy Rajagopalan , A Brief History of Physical Education in India (New Edition): Reflections on Physical Education, Author House, 2014
  • Lalithasahasranama
  • Monier Williams – Sanskrit to English Dictionary
  • Olympic Review, Issues 231-233; Issues 235-242, International Olympic Committee, University of Michigan, 1987, Digitized 9 Oct 2008
  • Rao, U,N, Salabhanjika in Art Philosophy and Literature, Rajkamal Prakashan Pvt Ltd
  • Vatsayan, Kapila, ED. Kalatatvakosa, A Lexicon of Fundamental Concepts of the Indian Arts, IGNCA, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt. LTD. Delhi, 1992
  • Nandagopal, Choodamani, Arts and crafts of Indus civilization ; introduction by S.R. Rao,: Aryan Books Intl, New Delhi, 2006