The gates of paradise
Detail from late 17th century Indian game board in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The gates of paradise


Here's a totally different type of chess puzzle for you to solve.

I invite you to post your answers in the comments.

The less I say about this puzzle now, the better. I'll leave it to you to figure out even what type of puzzle it is.   

I will simply note that its solution will unlock quite a few interesting stories (and perhaps even a better understanding of our game), which tie into some of my recent posts and which we can explore further in future posts. In other words, there are several correct answers to figure out beyond simply solving the word puzzle

The chessboard as art object

While you're working on this puzzle, let me talk about this chessboard. Here's an overview photograph unadorned by the overlay of words that I added.

This game board is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's stunning collection of Islamic Art. I chose this board as the backdrop for today's puzzle both because it's beautiful and because today's puzzle is connected to Islamic culture. (Hat tip to the Met for adopting an Open Access policy placing photos of its collection in the public domain!)

Fatima Quraishi, who was a Hagop Kevorkian Fellow doing curatorial research at the Met's Department of Islamic Art and who is now an assistant professor at University of California—Riverside, offers this appreciation of this item: 

Among the new objects [then on display in the Met's galleries showcasing art from Mughal South Asia] is a hinged wooden game board from the late seventeenth century. This gorgeous board is two-sided, featuring a chess board painted on one side and a backgammon table on the other. Made of wood that was painted, varnished, and then gilded, the board was meticulously decorated with minute details, likely by an artist who had been trained in preparing bindings for manuscripts. One of the interesting details that the artist included was the variation in flowers; one set of squares in the chess grid is made up of eight different flower varieties.

The Mughals were very interested in the natural world. In fact, Babur (r. 1526–30), the founder of the Mughal dynasty, devoted significant portions of his memoirs, the Baburnama (Autobiography of Babur), to descriptions of the flora and fauna he encountered in Central and South Asia....

I would like to add my own thoughts focusing on two aspects of this board — its chequering and the place of chess in the Mughal dynasty.

The chequering of the chessboard

First, as you can see from the detailed blowup I've posted at the very top of this page, the unknown artist carefully chequered the board, alternating between flowering plants on the dark squares and symmetrical arabesque designs on the light squares. We're used to playing on chequered boards so the fact that this particular board is chequered seems wholly unremarkable to us; however, a deeper look unearths a surprise.

In his exhaustive study, A History of Chess, H.J.R. Murray reported that "all native Asiatic game-boards" were unchequered. Murray noted that the "older Muslim literature of chess makes no reference to the existence of marked squares." Murray observed that "it became usual in Europe to use a chequered or parti-coloured board" by a very early date, which he identifies as no later than circa 1100. From those premises, Murray concluded that the "chessboard has only begun to be chequered in Asia in our own time [Murray's book was first published in 1913] as the result of European influences." Accordingly, Murray dismissed evidence of earlier chequered Asian boards as misinterpretations or rare incidental decoration. 

So, given Murray's argument that Asian chessboards were not chequered until the 19th or 20th centuries, it comes as a surprise to see this board, which dates to the late 17th century, where the artist quite consciously chequered the board into dark and light squares. While this single item doesn't disprove Murray's contention that Europe invented chequering, it does call into question his conclusion that Asian chessboards began to be chequered only in the modern day.

The place of chess in the Mughal dynasty

Second, since we view chess as a game or perhaps a sport, I believe that it's useful to understand that the place of chess in the days of the Mughal dynasty was much closer to that of the Persian shatranj and the original Indian chaturanga, which grew out of warfare and, in particular, the four divisions of an army, namely infantry, cavalry, chariotry and elephantry.

As a footnote to Prof. Quraishi's essay, in my post Guarini's problem — the puzzle of the four knights, I had mentioned in passing that chess was popular in Tamerlane's court. To illustrate how history is a tapestry woven of many threads, Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India whom Prof. Quraishi mentions, was Tamerlane's great-great-great-grandson. In fact, Babur was a direct descendant of Shah Rukh, the son whom Tamerlane named after the Persian term for castling, so it's fair to say that chess ran deep in the blood of the Mughal dynasty.

Little of that history remains in our modern-day chess culture. While most players grasp the connections between pawns and infantry soldiers and between our chess piece the knight and medieval and ancient mounted knights, i.e, the cavalry, few players appreciate that our rook derives from the Persian rukh, meaning a war chariot. Far fewer realize that our bishop originally symbolized the war elephant. While that linguistic link has disappeared in English, it survives in Catalan (and some other languages) where the bishop to this day is called the alfil, from the Persian and Arabic words for elephant. I didn't make the connection between bishops and elephants myself until I started teaching myself Catalan a few years back.

Yet in the era of the Mughal dynasty, the connection between chess and warfare was readily apparent. It wasn't a matter of obscure etymologies or arcane chess history. It was evident on the battlefield.

As evidence for this suggestion, I offer this account of a battle in the early days of the Mughal dynasty by the 13th century scholar and poet Amir Khusrow in his Táríkh-i 'Aláí:

The field of battle became like a chessboard, with the pieces manufactured from the bones of the elephant-bodied Mughals, and their faces were divided in two by the sword. The slaughtered hoggish Mughals were lying right and left, like so many captured pieces, and were then thrust into the bag which holds the chessmen. The horses which filled the squares were some of them wounded and some taken; those who, like the pawns, never retreated, dismounted, and, advancing on foot, made themselves generals (queens). 'Alī Beg and Turták, who were the two kings of the chessboard, were falling before the fierce opposition which was shown by the gaunt bones of Malik Akhir Beg, who checkmated them both, and determined to send them immediately to his majesty, that he might order either their lives to be spared, or that they should be pil-mated, or trodden to death by elephants.

So the next time you play a game of chess, when you move your rook, imagine your war chariot wreaking havoc and when you move your bishop, envision your war elephant trampling all in its path.

Good luck with today's puzzle. I'm looking forward to seeing your answers in the comments.



Update and spoiler alert

Watch out, there're spoilers in the comments.

Props to @GlasgowGrin13 for both the cool username and being the first to solve the word puzzle portion of this puzzle. 

Props to @MathMatthew for being the first to recognize the type of chess puzzle this is.

Props to @TDgeek for refining the nature of the puzzle and figuring out its history.