The invention of chess in legend
"Gav and Talhand in Battle",from Firdausi's Shahnama in

The invention of chess in legend


No one can tell of course who invented chess... and generally such a task must be really difficult concerning old games or creations of folk tradition. Starting, as it would be expected, with Murray's History, I've just tried to find some clues in legends, and continued with the mentioned [and not] sources, bumping into a beautiful story...

It was commonly accepted and, surely after 8th century CE, established in Muslim people that shatranj [chess' ancestor] was introduced in Arabic territories from Persia [probably after the conquest of Persia by Umar in 651 CE]. While Persia borrowed Chatrang from India, something that is mentioned as a legend [Nushirwan] in the middle Persian Chatrang-namak and in Shahnama [probably in the end of the Sassanian rule, ca 600 CE].


"Buzurjmihr Masters the Game of Chess", Folio from a Firdausi's Shahnama [ca. 1330–40 CE] in

The earliest reference of chaturanga in India is found in Subandhu's Vasavadatta, a Sanskrit romance, where yellow and green frogs are resembled with chessmen [common colors for the pieces in India ~ in], dated between 400-650 CE [Murray, p. 51].

... But the invention of chess [shatranj or chaturanga], as a game of strategy without dice, appears as a story for first time [as far as we know] in Muslim legends.


The oldest legend

Murray mentions some stories, where names are repeated, and are sometimes influenced by current rulers, but here is presented the oldest one according to Murray's sayings "dating back to pre-Muhammadan days" [Murray's History, p. 212]. This legend is told by Ya'qubi [9th century CE] in his History. Here is a more recent translation found in The Works of Ibn Wāḍiḥ al-Yaʿqūbī, 2018, pp. 355-357...

Some Indian scholars have alleged that when Jūshīr daughter of Balhīt became queen, a rebel rebelled against her. Being an intelligent young woman, she sent one of her sons -she had four children- but the rebel killed her son.

This distressed the people of her kingdom. Fearing to tell her the news, they gathered before one of their wise men -he was named Qaflān- a man of wisdom, cleverness, and good judgment—and they told him what had happened. He said, “Give me three days.” They did so, and he went apart to think. Then he said to one of his pupils, “Bring me a carpenter and wood of two different colors, white and black.” They brought a skilled carpenter and wood of two different colors, white and black. The wise man drew the figure of a chess board and commanded the carpenter, and he made it. Then he said to him, “Bring me a tanned hide.” He commanded him to draw sixty-four squares on it; he did so, and it was set aside. Then (the wise man and his pupil) played against each other until they understood the game and became proficient in it. Then he said to his pupil, “This is a war without loss of lives.” Then the people of the kingdom came to him, and he brought it out to them. When they saw it, they knew that it was a bit of wisdom that no one could arrive at. He began to play against his pupil, and the latter would suffer checkmate or defeat of his king.

The queen was given a report about Qaflān, and she summoned him and commanded him to show her his wisdom. He produced his pupil with the chessboard and set it up between the pupil and himself. The two played, and one defeated the other [and said,] “Checkmate!” Taking notice and realizing what he meant, she said to Qaflān, “Has my son been killed?” “You have said it,” he said. She said to her chamberlain, “Let the people in, that they may offer me condolence.”...

After this Jushir asked Qaflan about his payment, where is told the known pattern of the wheat grains on the chessboard that are doubled on every square [for the record the total sum is 2^64-1].


fil [7th century] & rook [7th century]


Some history and thoughts on this legend

I don't know but I kinda liked this story! In other words chess was invented to troll somehow Jushir's mind...

One thing that immediately attracted my attention on this legend is that Jushir was a queen, not a princess. If she was a queen, Balhit's daughter, where is the king? A kingless Queen is not such a common pattern in myths and always there's a reason for it. Here is like a fact. And in reality, in patriarchal societies, this was really difficult! It has occurred sometimes as a regent queen.

There's no other reference of Jushir elsewhere. Her father, Balhit, a contrario is mentioned many times. It is a main repeated figure involved with the invention of chess in Muslim legend in many different stories. He was a mythical King of India, that at his time, chess was invented [... Qafran is also mentioned as the wise man in some].

[for mythical Balhit you can check Yaqudi's History, p. 354 & a passage in an al-Masudi's little later work of Meadows of gold and mines of gems, ed. 1841, p. 170].

About the historicity of Balhit Murray informs us [p. 216]:

"Balhait, Balhit or Balhith is the other Indian king who is frequently mentioned in the stories. Hyde (ii. 62) says that the form Balhib also occurs. He suggested that these forms, which in the Arabic only differ in the diacritical dots to the last consonant, are intended to represent the Indian dynasty of the Balabhi or Balhara, who ruled in Guzerat from a.d. 319 to 613. This would make the name a title and not a personal name, and in this way he explains the apparent contradiction in the legend as given by b. Khallikan. This is ingenious, but not convincing, since other Arabic writers frequently use the correct form Balhara. It is, however, the only close resemblance that I can discover."

And we bumped into a clue I think...


This mentioned connection with Balabhi or Balhara forced me to check these sources a little. Firstly must be said that Balabhi or Valabhi is a city in North-West India, while Balhara must not be directly connected with the kingdom of Balhara, as we are gonna see in a while [check further these on Vallabhipur and Balhara].

Murray mentions Thomas Hyde. I couldn't use this "ii.62" reference [maybe other edition?] but I've found the relative excerpts in Mandragorias, vol. I, 1694, pp. 38-48. The text is in Latin = problem. But I've managed to track some names and use some school Latin I remembered along with google translator.

There Balhit is written with e, Belhit. Balabhi isn't mentioned at all, only Belhera. While it seems that Hyde is mainly reproducing and analyzing what he had already read from earlier Arabic and Persian sources, noting that Arabs used to change [corrupt] the names...


"...cujus Titulus seu Cognomentum fuit Belhith", Hyde, Mand. vol I, p. 39


"Cum autem Arabibus pronum sit etiam in Nominum exoticorum Literis errare, & talia Nomina corrumpere & aliquantulum immutare, quaerendum est annon factum fuerit ex Bélhera, quod per aliquod centenos annos fuit generale Nomen seu Titulus Regum Indiae." in Hyde, p. 43

But did Murray arbitrarily use the term Balabhi? Mandragorias was published in 1694 while Murray is writing 200 years after.

On the other hand, Murray's questioning about this ingenious Hyde's connection between a name and a title, can be seen in other cases too. Porus, the Indian King that Alexander the great defeated in 326 BCE [in greek Πώρος, Masoudi and Yaqubi mention him as the mythical Indian King Fur] probably wasn't a true name: "Not known in Indian sources, the name Porus has been conjecturally interpreted as standing for Paurava; i.e., the ruler of the Purus, a tribe known in that region from ancient Hindu Vedic times." [in Britannica].

Hyde's Belhera seems to be connected to Balabhi of 4th century CE and thereafter. Here's Henry Elliot's History of India, 1867, p. 354-5, that Murray probably knew:

"Taking the accounts of the Arab writers, and comparing them with the Indian annals, there can be no great hesitation in identifying the "Balhara" with the dynasty settled at Ballabhi-pura, the princes of which were the founders of the Balabhi era, and were probably known as the Ballabbi or Ballabh Rai's. This identification, originally proposed by Colonel Tod..." [for Col James Tod reference check his Travels in Western India, 1839, especially p. 213].

This approach has been criticized by some from early years [eg. check History of the Konkan by Alexander Kyd Nairne, p. 23 (1894)], while it seems that more modern historians don't use these terms anymore, but without replacing them. Just silence. And so there's no established opinion. [I couldn't find anything neither in A Critical Commentary on Elliot and Dowson’s History of India as Told by Its Own Historians, 2018]

It seems to be the weakest part of this chain! But it's probably what Murray had in mind. And in any case our name of interest is Balhait. Hyde [in vol. I, p. 43], noting that the name Belhith has also been answered as Belhib, is wondering if it should be connected with the name Belhera!? cause of an Arabic name corruption! [... quaerendum est annon factum fuerit ex Bélhera...].

So I'm going to continue as if it was an entirely correct approach. In any case my interest was the legend not history exclusively.

This Balabhi dynasty and era is probably identical with the Gupta Era [starting in 319 CE].

This identification between the two names started with Al-Biruni, an Iranian scholar at 1000 CE ca, and now is established. He stated that Valabhi and Gupta era are identified on the same timeline, while he probably was mistaken on the Gupta emperors' chronology timeline.

[in al-Beruni's India, vol II, 1914, p. 7, transl. by Sachau // From more modern studies check among others Ashvini Agrawal, 1989, pp. 98-100 & Upinder Singh, 2008, p. 34].

Something that can be used in the following paragraphs is whatnull is written by Tej Ram Sharma: "Chandragupta II is the founder of the Gupta Era", explaining in the following text that the King Chandragupta II established this chronology timeline mode at around 400 CE, starting counting from 319 CE

[in A Political History of the Imperial Guptas, 1989, p. 48].

Right: Chandragupta II from wikicommons // check this too

Gupta Empire took control on this Valabhi area [Gujarat] at around 400 CE when Chandragupta II invaded in the Western Satraps of North-western India. This Gupta expansion is certified by the extinction of the Saka rule on the area.

On these you can check many, such as: Upinder Singh, p. 480 // Ashvini Agrawal, p. 138 // Tej Ram Sharma, p. 49 // Hermann Kulke & Dietmar Rothermund, p. 91 ~on p. 90 of the last there's a nice map.

This Chandragupta II seems to be a King of a really big empire, controlling the biggest part of India, west, north and east as Gupta, and the central India, through his allies Vakatakas [their queen was his daughter]. While, as a ruler, he is considered an art and science lover and protector.

[here's a map taken from here]

There're some nice relative stories on this Indian King, and generally these times of the empire, but after the second legend...



The Final Battle of Gaw and Talhand, 1341, in

maybe the most beautiful image from Shahnamas... but I've found it 1 day after the first postsad.png

The legend of Gav and Talhand in Shahnama

The pattern of the story of Jushir, Balhit's daughter, about the invention of chess, is repeated at least once more in the Persian book of Kings, the Shahnama.

Firdawsi, a Persian poet of 10th century CE, wrote a large epic poem the Shahnama, at around 1000 CE. There is told The Story of Gav and Talhand, and the Invention of Chess. [in].

Firdawsi informs us that he listened of this story by some Shahwi [that Murray, p. 213, says it must be "a misreading of the name Mahui, Mahui Chorsedh, the son of Bahram of Shapur, being one of the four Zoroastrian priests to whom Abu Mansur al Ma'mari entrusted the work of arranging the national annals of Persia in A. D. 957-8"].

I won't reproduce the whole story, as it is long in the poem, but here is a summary of it, given by Murray [p. 213-214].

"The story treats of some incidents in the history of a kingdom in North West India, which comprised Kashmir and all the land to the confines of China, with Sandali for capital. A king of this realm, Jamhur, who excelled Fur (Pauras) in fame, had died, leaving a widow and an infant son, Gau. He was succeeded by his brother, Mai, who married the widow and, after a short reign, died, leaving an infant son, Talkhand, who was five years younger than his half-brother. During the minority the widow held the regency, the question of the ultimate succession being left in abeyance. Each of the princes considered that his claim was the stronger, and their mother foolishly encouraged each in turn. As the boys grew up, the disputes became more bitter, and Talkhand adopted a most aggressive attitude. Gau, on the other hand, was as conciliatory as possible. Finally, however, Talkhand forced an appeal to the arbitrament of war.


"The First Combat of Gav and Talhand", Folio from a Firdausi's Shahnama ca. 1330–40 in

Gau gave the strictest instructions to his supporters that Talkhand's life was to be spared. In the first battle Gau was successful, but Talkhand managed to collect his scattered forces, and a second battle took place close to the sea-shore. At the close of the battle, Talkhand was separated from his army and surrounded by the forces of his opponent, but when these came up to him, he was found to be already dead.

The tidings plunged his mother into the deepest sorrow, and in her grief she accused Gau of slaying his brother. Gau defended himself, but to no purpose, and finally he offered to destroy himself if he could not demonstrate clearly to her how Talkhand's death really happened. In order to compass this, Gau took counsel with his tutor, and by his advice convened all the wise men of the kingdom and laid the case before them. After a whole night's consideration,...."

... here an invention of a 10 x 10 chess is narrated...

"Gau took this game of chess which thus explained the death of Talkhand to his mother. She continued to study it day and night without desiring food, until death released her from her sorrow. And from that time the chessboard has remained in the knowledge of mankind."


"Gav and Talhand in Battle", Folio from a Firdaus's Shahnama ca. 1430–40 in


Some first thoughts on this 2nd legend

Chess was invented again so to inform a Queen mother of the death of her prince son.

This Queen [without name this time] is kingless again, but now is justified as her king-husband is dead, and she's acting for some time as a regent Queen.

The rebellion has been substituted by a war of two brothers - princes ~ maybe a usual pattern in myths while here is emphasized by the King's absence.

An other new thing is that this Queen, was married with two brothers successively.

The kingdom was really big and the first king great and famous.

And in the end, if Balhit of the previous legend is connected with Valabhi, like Porus as we've seen, couldn't this Gav, the winner prince, be connected with Guptas?!?


Some more history and other stories...

As we've seen some paragraphs above, the greatest king of these Guptas, related with Valabhi [in more than one ways] was Chandragupta II.

As I was searching about him in web, I've bumped into an interesting legend-story around him and the conquest of the area of Valabhi, and some other history facts.

1. Ramagupta

Devichandraguptam, a Indian Sanskrit-language political drama by Vishakhadatta, is telling an interesting story, surely with historical fragments. [written after 4th century CE, lost now but with fragments in other works, especially in Natya Darpana Of Ramachandra And Gunachandra,]

D. C. Sircar in his Ancient Malwa And The Vikramaditya Tradition, p. 138, writes [taking in account drama's fragments in many other works]:

"The fragments help us in reconstructing the story of the drama as follows.

There was a king named Ramagupta whose queen was Dhruvadevi. In course of a war with the king of the Sakas, king Ramagupta was closely besieged and was so hopelessly cornered that, in order to save his people or satisfy his councillors, he accepted the Saka king's demand to surrender his queen Dhruvadevi to the latter. The king's pet, Kumara Candragupta (the younger brother of Ramagupta according to other references to the same subject) who was used to Vetala-sadhana, protested against such a dishonourable act and offered to go to the enemy’s camp in the disguise of the queen with the purpose of killing the Saka king. The stratagem succeeded admirably and Candragupta saved the honour of his family. The adventure apparently raised him in the estimation not only of the people but also of queen Dhruvadevi, while Ramagupta’ s prestige suffered considerably. There was soon an estrangement between Ramagupta and Candragupta and the latter, probably fearing the king’s design on his life, feigned madness. The drama possibly consisting of nine Acts apparently also contained the following facts. Candragupta ultimately succeeded in killing Ramagupta. He then became king and married the widowed queen Dhruvadevi."

A wife-queen succession between two brothers in legend!

Must be noted that Ramagupta' s death by his brother was probably a later addition, while one of the earliest references of this story in historiography is one in Harshacharita of Bana [7th century], where he writes: "In his enemy's city the king of the Sakas, while courting another's wife, was butchered by Candragupta concealed in his mistress' dress."

Ramagupta was thought to be a fictional person for decades until some later archaeological discoveries certified his existence. Now we know that he was the previous Gupta King before Chandragupta II and that probably were brothers and shared the same wife successively!!!

[among others check Catalogue Of The Gupta Gold Coins by Dr. A. S. Altekar, 1954, p. 22 // Upinder Singh, p. 479 // Ashvini Agrawal, p 153 and after // Tej Ram Sharma, p.105 and after // however check Siscar's objections, p. 138 and after]

2. Prabhavatigupta

Prabhavatigupta was the daughter of Chandragupta II, but from another earlier wife.

We know that Chandragupta II arranged to marry his daughter with Rudrasena II, king of the Vakataka dynasty of central India [alliance wedding]. Rudrasena II died around 385 CE leaving Prabhavatigupta with 2 sons, Divakarasena and Damodarasena, alias Pravarasena II [aged 5 and 2 ? ~ there's an opinion that these three names are three different sons].

She acted as a regent Queen of her older son for at least 13 years [with her father's support]! While Divakarasena seems that he didn't live long, having a short reign, and was succeeded by his younger brother Pravarasena II, who ruled in the area for over 30 years.

A regent Queen has appeared and other times in India history but not close to these years [as far as we know].

On these detailed reference in Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum Vol.5 by V. V. Mirashi, 1963. Check also Upinder Singh, p. 482-84 // Tej Ram Sharma, pp. 51-61 // Hermann Kulke & Dietmar Rothermund, p. 91-92. Additionally The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization by Anant Sadashiv Altekar, 1956.


In the end

This is not a history of chess invention. This is just an examination of the facts that might give birth to a legend.

I'm not suggesting anything [not capable for it]. Just showing some facts and legends that might indicate an area and a period.

If the name Balhit, the mythical Indian king - chess creator, is probably connected with the Vallabhi dynasty and era, then Chandragupta II is really close.

Every main theme of these chess invention legends has occurred in a 2 generation period of his family, mainly in history but in other legends too.

Isn't it a strong coincidence?!



Talhand dies during the battle against his brother, Gav, 1440s for the prince Muhammad Juki in  ~ added 1 day after first post. Check this too

Some bibliography [ be found accumulated]


As appendix

In Firdausi' s Shahnama [2nd legend] the chess that is invented is decimal.

Everything was like Shatranj, except that next to the King and Firzan are placed the camels, shutur [2,0 - 0,2 leapers].

Firdausi's decimal shatranj's origin cannot be traced [I don't know if it is a contradiction but in the Gav-Thalhand battles and illustrations from the Shahnama, Firdausi doesn't mention camels, although elephants and horses are mentioned]. While at this time in Muslim world there was an other variant of decimal chess, the at-tamma (the complete) [Murray, p. 341]. Pawns were placed on the 3rd rank and next to the King and Firzan were placed the Dabbabas, moving like  the King.


the at-tamma from Murray's H MS


Maybe some additions will follow, I hope not many....