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Browsing: Snakes and ladders (Circ. 324-1972)

Image: Snakes and ladders

Title: Snakes and ladders

Victoria and Albert Museum
Circ. 324-1972
Date of creation:
late 19th century
Folio number:
Total number of folios:
not applicable
Place of creation:
Prākrit, Sanskrit and Gujarati
opaque watercolour on cloth
58.4 x 52.4 cm
V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London
JAINpedia Copyright Information


The board of the game of snakes and ladders represents a person’s progress in life and is divided into 84 numbered squares. Each square contains writing about rules of conduct and the good and bad results. The ladders denote good behaviour and virtues that allow the player to move up to a higher level. The snakes, however, indicate a downfall, which means that the player descends to a lower level.

Popular in India, the game of snakes and ladders has long been played by Jains, especially during Paryuṣaṇ, the ten-day festival during the rainy season. The game was both an enjoyable pastime and a means by which players could learn about Jain ethics.

According to Jain cosmology, there are three worlds across which souls move throughout a long period of time. Souls go through one rebirth after another, moving upwards and downwards through the three worlds as a result of their actions – known as karma – until they finally reach the summit of perfection.

The largest, Lowest World is formed from a pyramid of seven hells. The five lowest levels – the hells of sand, mud, smoke, darkness and deepest darkness – are inhabited by infernal beings. Low-ranking and malign gods live on the highest hell levels of jewels and gravel.

In the Middle World is Jambū-dvīpa – 'Continent of the Rose-Apple Tree'. At its centre is Mount Meru, surrounded by mountain ranges shaped like elephant tusks. As the central mountain of the world, Mount Meru extends both upwards and downwards, and is surrounded by heavenly palaces and temples in each of the cardinal directions. The divine palace of the Jinas is at its top. Jambū-dvīpa is surrounded by rings of alternating oceans and continents. The Middle World is the home of five-sensed animals and humans and is where Jinas are born.

The Upper World comprises seven regions, each containing heavenly palaces and inhabited by gods of various ranks. The summit is the home of the perfect ones – siddhas – beneath which are the five Unsurpassable Gods.


Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
The innermost island-continent in the Middle World, in Jain cosmology. It is divided into seven continents separated by six mountain ranges. It takes its name - 'Rose-Apple Continent' - from a rock formation that resembles a rose-apple tree, which is found on Mount Meru in the centre of the island.
A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation . A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world , but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.
Sanskrit for 'self', 'soul' or 'that which is sentient'. It makes up the universe along with ajīva, or non-sentient material substance. It is a material substance that changes in size according to the body it inhabits in each life. It is born in different bodies in various places in the Jain universe based on karma from earlier lives. The soul is liberated from the cycle of birth when it has achieved spiritual purity and omniscience. Also called ātma or ātman.
Time. One of the five insentient non-material substances that make up the universe along with the sentient substance, called jīvastikaya.
There are three worlds in traditional Jain cosmology. The middle world is where human beings and animals live, and sits between the upper and the lower worlds.
Hell. There are seven levels of hells in the lower world of Jain cosmology .
An omniscient soul that has achieved mokṣa. All liberated souls live in the siddha-śilā, at the top of the universe, in perpetual bliss.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
Rainy season
The annual four-month rainy period in India, lasting roughly from June / July to October / November. Heavy rain, strong storms and gale-force winds are very common during this period. Mendicants cannot travel around and must stay in one place to avoid breaking their vow of non-violence and because the monsoon makes travelling on foot difficult and dangerous. It is known as cāturmāsa in Sanskrit, comāsa in Hindi and comāsu in Gujarati.
Mount Meru
The cosmic axis of the Jain universe. Located in the middle of Jambū-dvīpa, the innermost continent of Jain cosmology, Mount Meru consists of three forested terraces, each smaller than the one below. When a Jina is born, the gods visit the earth, take him away and wash him in the standard birth ritual on the mountain. Jain temples often have a tower symbolising Mount Meru. Mount Meru is also the centre of the universe in traditional Buddhist and Hindu belief.
Three worlds
In Jain cosmology three worlds make up world space, where life exists:
  • ūrdhva-loka – upper world
  • madhya-loka– middle world
  • adho-loka – lower world.
These are frequently represented in art as the Cosmic Man, a human figure whose legs stand for the lower world, whose waist symbolises the middle world and whose torso represents the upper world. - All text is © JAINpedia / Institute of Jainology 2021 under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 licence The Jain universe online at

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