SSS 19. King Khushru / Cosroe I, Nosherwan Ādel (531-579) (Part 5)

The game of Chess

Once when Nosherwan was in his court, he was told that an ambassador from king Rai of Kanouj in India had come with a thousand camel loads of gifts, and was waiting to see him. The envoy was immediately ushered in. He offered salutations to the king and showed him the gifts, which included gold, silver, jewels, musk, amber and swords.

Among the gifts was a chess board with a message from king Rai asking the Iranian king to unravel the game, the purpose of each piece – pawns, knights, bishops, rooks, queen and king, their places and their movements.

If he was able to unravel the game, then he would have to play it with the Indian emissary. If the Iranians won, they would be considered cleverer than the Indians and he would continue paying the taxes. But if the Iranians were not able to understand the game, then not only would he stop paying the taxes, but the Iranians would have to pay them taxes as they would have proved superior in intelligence.

Then the emissary set up the chess board and kept the pieces on it. On one side were white pieces made of ivory and on the other side were brown pieces made of wood.  He further said that this board resembled a battlefield and the pieces signify different types of soldiers in the battle. The king told the emissary that he needed a week’s time and on the eighth day they would meet to play the game. The king then called all his ministers and courtiers, and kept the chess board and pieces before them. They tried several methods but were unable to unravel the game, which greatly disappointed the king. Then Buzorg-meher went to the king and asked him not to worry. He took the responsibility to unravel the game. He spent a day and night with the game, succeeded in unraveling its mystery, and then went to the king with the good news.

Buzorg-meher playing chess with the Indian ambassador. Illustration by Mrs. Katie Bagli

Buzorg-meher set up the chess board with the pieces and then summoned the Indian emissary. They started playing the game by moving the pieces. The emissary was amazed at the skills of Buzorg-meher, which almost seemed magical. He accepted the greatness of the Iranian king. Nosherwan was immensely happy and he handsomely rewarded Buzorg-meher.

The game of Backgammon

Buzorg-meher then asked for some time and created another board game called Nard (backgammon). He made a board resembling battle-field with mountains and plains, and created unique pieces for the game, which had to be played with two dices. He then explained the game to his king who was immensely happy.

The Iranian king asked Buzorg-meher to go to the king of Kanouj with the game of Nard and ask him to find a learned Brahman (Hindu priest) to unravel the game, just as he had unraveled this game through a wise Mobed (Zoroastrian priest). He further sent two thousand camel loads of gifts to the Indian king under the condition that if somebody from his kingdom was able to unravel the game, he could keep the gifts. But if nobody was able to solve it, then it had to be returned with equal gifts from India.

Buzorg-meher reached India, and explained to the Indian king the events that had transpired. The king became anxious. After entertaining the Iranian envoys, he sent the game to the wise people asking them to unravel it. For eight days they tried without success. On the ninth day Buzorg-meher approached the Indian king who admitted his inability to have the game solved. Buzorg-meher showed them the way to play the game. The king and his courtiers were very impressed. Buzorg-meher returned with 2000 camel loads of gifts and advance taxes.

The origin of the game of Chess

The Shahnameh now goes on to explain how the game of chess came into being. It states that once there was a successful and much loved Indian king named Jamahur, whose capital was at Sandal city. Jamahur passed away when his son Gav was still very young. Jamahur had an idol worshipping brother named Māy in Dambar.

The seniors of the court went to Dambar requesting Māy to come to Sandal and be the king, to which he relented. He married the queen who was the mother of Gav. When Gav was five years old, his mother gave birth to a second son who was named Talhand. However, after some time Māy too passed away.

The wise men of the kingdom made the queen the interim ruler till her sons grew up. When the sons grew up, they fought with each other to become the king. Their mother and wise men of the court counseled them to amicably settle the issue, but the brothers, especially Talhand, was bent on a war. Gradually Gav saw the futility of war and tried to explain to Talhand that they could equally divide the kingdom and both could rule over their respective parts peacefully. However, Talhand did not agree and declared a war. Even after the declaration of the war, Gav sent a messenger to Talhand requesting him to see reason and not seek a war. However Talhand declined, which greatly disappointed Gav.

Both the brothers came into the battlefield and instructed their soldiers not to harm their brother if he was captured.  In the battle that ensued, Talhand’s army was decimated, but Gav, instead of capturing his brother asked him to flee. Talhand fled to safety but even then, instead of thanking his brother, told him that he waited for an opportunity to destroy him. Hearing this, Gav lost sympathy for Talhand. His advisors too told him to finish him off once and for all.  Gav once again challenged Talhand to a war, this time near a sea, barricaded by a gorge towards the land side. It would be a fight till finish. Both the armies met near the sea. Both the brothers were on elephants.

Two brothers on elephants with armies behind, the sea on one side and gorge on the other. Illustration by Mrs. Katie Baglis

The war was fought with heavy casualties on both the sides. Talhand was killed on his elephant. Gav was heart-broken at his brother’s death and grieved a lot. When the news reached their mother she too was steeped in grief. She wanted to immolate herself, but Gav stopped her from doing that. She was very angry at Gav for killing his brother, but Gav explained and assured her that neither he nor any of his soldiers were responsible for his death, as he had died on his elephant without a wound on his body.

Gav asked his advisors to think about the best way to convince his mother. The advisors hit upon the idea of creating a board with one hundred checks on which was depicted the sea, the water, the gorge and the two armies. Pieces were made, half from ivory and the other half from wood to depict soldiers, the king, his minister, horses, camels and elephants. Their various moves were also fixed.

Through this game, it was demonstrated to the mother that Talhand had died not because anybody attacked him, but because he was surrounded on all sides and had nowhere to go. She was much relieved and her grief was quite subdued. She kept on looking at the game of chess as a means of consolation till her death. Thus the game of chess was created by a son to convince his grieving mother that he was not at fault in killing her other son.

(To be continued …… Part 6)