The Origin of Chess: from philology

L'origine des échecs : d'après la philologie


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For the linguists, the Persian word chatrang  would derive from Sanskrit chaturanga. Old Persian (as in the Avesta) and Sanskrit were related languages like modern French and Italian. Then, I don't know why chaturanga could be native in Sanskrit and not chatrang in Old Persian, but I'm not a linguistic expert. Then, assuming this is true, it is a strong argument for an Indian origin of Chess.

The counter-argument is that the game could have been invented in a peripheral region influenced by the Indian civilization. This is for example the case of Sogdiana (around Samarkand, today Uzbekistan) where it is known that scenes from the Mahâbhârata have inspired the artists (wall paintings for example). A Sogdian game making use of the four types of military units could naturally be called Chaturanga by cultural loan.

No other Sanskrit word were transmitted to the Arabs. All remaining Chess nomenclature, name of the pieces, technical vocabular, is from Persian origin. Shah mat -> checkmate, rokh -> rook are just two examples of what has come from Persian but, as the matter of fact, almost all words used in Arabic for Chess were of Persian roots. If Chess was really an Indian game, should not there be more traces?

The Elephant presence is also an argument for an Indian birth. But, the military use of elephants was common in Persian empire too and Chineses may remark that only one side makes use of an Elephant. On the other side, xiang means a Minister, an homophon which is written with a different sinogram. The xiang-elephant could be a later loan. Moreover the Chinese tradition evokes the intrusion of furious animals, including elephants, in the armies of some ancient kings. Elephants do not eliminate China.

The Chariot is also a problem. The war chariot is found on Indian and on Chinese Chess. Persians did not name the angle piece as a Chariot (rah) but as an officier controlling the flanks (rokh) of the army (Panaino). However, the most ancient sets, such as the one from Afrasiab in Sogdiana, include Chariots with driver. Even some mediaeval of Arabic influence, set such as the so-called Charlemagne set, show Rocs as chariots. Chariot was no more used in warfare for several centuries when Chatrang emerged in Persia, but officiers were still using them to review over their troops. That is the meaning that should be applied to that piece. Chariots do not eliminate Persia.

Finally, it is noticed that there nothing coming from China in the vocabulary used either in India or Persia. This is a strong argument against a Chinese origin of the game.


Owing to the precedence of Sanskrit chaturanga, India won the stage. But the arguments are not without counter-arguments. Persia and China are not far behind.

  • India: 2 points
  • Persia: 1.5 points
  • China: 1.5 points



 Les arguments présentés sur cette page sont développés dans L'Odyssée des jeux d'échecs, (Praxeo Editions, 2010).