Wednesday, April 06, 2011

King Ravana, Chess and Lanka

Every once in a while we here a nice story/theory about how advance the great king Ravana was in his day and a new addition or two to the list of high tech gadgets he allegedly possessed. Air crafts, space crafts, nuclear weapons etc were never in short supply for him. (Yet he somehow managed to loose the war to a army of apes, but that's a different discussion altogether). It doesn't end there either... theories/stories expand further into describe how Ravana had links with Aliens, and how the mythical lost civilization of Atlantis was a part of Lanka once etc...

Therefore, I really didn't take it seriously when I saw a piece of news on the net claiming King Ravana has invented Chess. "Ah.. one of those Ravana stories again... must be coming from either Dr Sooriya Gunaseka, Arisen Ahubudu or Jackson Anthony" I thought. A humble person like me would normally require little bit more hard evidence to believe in simple stories like nuclear wars in 3000 or so years ago etc. (With all the respect for above knowledgeable individuals and while admiring and appreciating their creativity and imagination).

Just as I was going to pass the news item... something else caught my eye. The author (or at least the person from whom the claim is coming from) was not one from Sri Lanka! In fact, it was non-other than the current world chess champion! yes, well loved and respected Viswanathan Anand himself!

I know you may be checking the date of publication of this article now and making sure it is not April first. Yes, it is not April 1st alright! Here are few links on the story.

ndtv, The Indian,, chessBase, Susan Polgar's Blog

All these sites confirm above mentioned essay of Anand's to Time Magazine (I couldn't find the original essay itself, if someone find the link, please submit in comments) and the excerpts they present are all alike. So I deduce that Anand has indeed made the comment. Here are few key comments :

"It would take me 17 years to find that route, and along the way I've had hundreds of conversations about the origins of chess - with players, fans, officials, taxi drivers, barbers and who knows how many people who sat next to me on a plane. I've heard the ownership of chess being claimed by Russians, Chinese, Ukrainians, Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Spaniards and Greeks. My own view is that the sport belongs to everybody who plays it, but the question of its origins is easy enough to answer: chess comes from India."

Anand goes on to supplement his argument by delving into history. He says: "Our claim is based not on dominance - although the Indian school is now producing lots of high-quality players, including (ahem) the world No. 1. Some of the oldest references to the sport are found in ancient Indian texts. In the great epic Ramayana (which, according to some sources, was orally transmitted sometime between 750 B.C. and 500 B.C.), the demon king Ravana invents chess to amuse his wife Mandodari. A brilliant mind, she promptly beats him at it. My grandmother told me that story when I first began to play the game at age 6. "

Wait! isn't there something very wrong here? "chess comes from India" since it was invented by Ravana ?

Unlike nuclear weapons and space crafts, chess is something we certainly know as something which was invented long ago and there is no particular reason why it shouldn't be in King Ravana's day... Problem is Ravana is made to look like an Indian King in those paragraphs !!

Indians are well known for their reverence for king Rama and Hanuman, for them, they are Gods while Ravana is a daemon king at best. A daemon king from Lanka whom King/God Rama justifiably and gloriously beat in the war. Normally, in Hindu mythology (some may say it is history, not mythology. I don't want to argue on that here, let it be history/mythology whatever!) very little (or none at all!) respect is given to king Ravana. After all, he is the villain in the story!

Here however, we see they give the credit to Ravana (his wife Mandodari or the sister Surphanaka to be precise) for inventing chess but in all those articles the origin of Ravana himself is portrayed as in India! In no where it is mentioned about where Ravana's kingdom was, even though all present Indians and mythologists firmly believe Ravana was in Lanka and Rama's army had to cross Falk Straight to get at Ravana etc. The fact that Ravana was a Lankan king was hidden in this case.

One can't help get the feeling that Ravana is a daemon king from Lanka in all other times but except in certain times where he can be useful, at those times he is silently and conveniently being passed as a Indian king so his inventions also belongs there!

Personally, I really don't care much whether the credit for origination of Chess goes to India or Lanka, to me what matter most is how do we fare in chess at present. We are doing very poorly in chess compared to India, in that light it may seem ludicrous if Lanka too stage a claim to the origin of chess. (or may be it won't if we back it up with more facts!) I would like to think about present and future rather than living in past glory, we as a nation has a weakness for living in the past bit too much. It is true some great past Kings have done us proud.. interesting question is, "are we doing enough at present to live up to it?" However, if there is a clear error/mistake happening in reporting, it is good if can correct it. Sooner the better!

We hear all fantastic hard to believe stories like nuclear weapons, Atlantis, space crafts and even about Ravana helping Egyptians building pyramids! yet, we are letting this great invention of Chess (which is much more easier to believe and on that even Ravana's most ardent enemies agree!) pass from us. I haven't red or hear from anywhere that any of our chess fans or historians or mythologists (mind you, even the theory Anand is putting forward is based on mythology and stories nothing else!) speaking up on this story. For western world, this may be the first time most of them have even hearing about a King Ravana and that they hear as if he was an Indian King! Now that would be little wrong wouldn't it?

When we publish an article in web, we try to give a link to the source site, if we have an image we try to give credit or link to the source. In that manner one would except at least a slight mentioning about Lanka when one is talking about Ravana and trying to claim something he has invented as theirs. One can't help thinking that above courtesy haven't been done in this case. May be this was something not intentionally done from Anand's part (for the gentleman he is), may be the press got that part missed.

Ideally, if Ravana indeed has invented chess, the credit should come few hundred kilometers southwards! Of course one can not except foreigners to talk on behalf of Lanka and carry Lanka's name forward, it should be up to Lankans. This is the biggest problem I see about Lankan historians and fans of Ravana, while they are busy trying to prove much fancier (and harder to prove) theories, they have let a real gem pass under them without even taking notice!

May be that is because Ravana fans and historians in Lanka were not that aware or interested in chess! Come to think of it, chess fans are rare in Lanka, Ravana admirers or historians are rarer still. Intersection of these two groups may be negligible! (The fact that there is a International chess tournament in Sri Lanka named after Ravana may mean it is not that negligible after all!) While in India chess is huge, and thanks to Ramayana and everyday worshiping of Hanuman and Rama as Gods, Ravana (even as a daemon!) too is a house hold name.

If there are any Lankan chess fans who are equally into history / mythology / and/or a admirers of Ravana, may be this is a topic they can and should take onwards and take into the world. That way, even if Lanaka to loose the battle on the origination of chess, at least Lanka will keep their Ravana!

Come to think of it... it would be a fun argument and a campaign to have, it will at least generate some attention to Lanka and Chess both, (not to mention Tourism) nothing much to loose anyway!

What do you think ?

PS : I found the original Times Article.