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.