'Ganjifa' are circular playing cards made from paper that is covered with a mixture of tamarind seed powder, painted and coated with lac. It used to be a popular pastime in the Indian courts. The most popular was the 'Dasavatar' with ten different circular pieces depicting the ten incarnations of Vishnu. These formed a set along with painted cards of Lord Vishnu's weapons. Ganjifa cards were introduced in 'Sawantwadi' after its ruler, 'Khem Sawant Bhonsle III', heard of it from scholars of the 'Telengana' region.
The 'Chitari' community in Sawantwadi, known for their skill in lac ware and wood craft, learnt to make these cards. The cards are no longer used to play games but used as gift items and educational aids.
Ganjifa was a popular source of entertainment in India with kings, courtiers and the common masses. Even today, old people in Sawantwadi in Maharasthra play this game since it is believed that by repeating the name of God, sins are forgiven. The standard playing cards of Ganjifa are usually a set each of ninety six cards in 'Mughal Ganjifa' and about 120 or 144 cards in 'Dashavatara Ganjifa'. The structure and the rules of both the games are the same except that in 'Dashavatara', the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu are depicted.
In order to revive an interest in Ganjifa, each evening a playing session is conducted in workshops. All the cards are placed on a white cloth and after shuffling the cards they are placed face down on the cloth. One of the players deals the cards among three or four players. The player with the highest denomination starts the game. The suits are divided into strong and weak suits.
The main purpose of the game was to teach, learn and tell stories from our ancient scriptures and holy books. The style was set to tell stories and 'Shlokas' from the Hindu 'Puranas', stories from the Ramayana, chapters from Mahabharata and many more scriptures. One of the great benefits of 'Ganjifa' is that besides being an excellent way to test memory, the game provides a good way to retain traditional knowledge.
The Hinduization of the ganjifa themes made it grow in popularity especially in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. The Brahmins of Maharashtra took a particular interest in the game and treated its rules in a philosophical manner. There are 8, 9, 10 and 12 suit ganjifas such as 'Dikapala', 'Nawagraha', 'Rashi' and 'Ramayana', out of which only the Ramayana survives in Orissa till date. The ruler 'Krishna Raja Wodeyar III' of Mysore dedicated his life to developing variations of the game called 'Chads' and he produced the 'Chada' games comprising up to 360 cards. All the cards were beautifully illustrated with gods, goddesses, deities etc.
Myths & Legends
The exact origins of the game and hence the cards is unknown. Evidences have been derived from texts and references to find the time from which it may have existed. The 'Ganjifa cards' held a significant place in card game history in countries such as India, Nepal, Iran, Turkey and certain other Arab nations.
Yusuf Ibn Taghri-bidris's chronicles of Egypt and Syria, talks of an incident that occurred between 1399-1412 AD when a 'Mamluk' officer played 'Kanjafah' or 'kanjifah' with his fellowmen and won a lot of money. This tale is indicative of the involvement of money in the card game. A speculation is that the cards may have migrated to the West from China during the 13th century when communication was strongly established between China, central Asia and the Mediterranean region.
In 1514-15 AD the Persian poet 'Ahli Shirazi' wrote the 'Raubaiyat-I-Ganjifa' a composition of ninety six stanzas which were probably the first documentation of the appearance of the eight suit Ganjifa which was in the following order -“ 'Ghulam', 'Taj', 'Shamsher', 'Ashrafi', 'Chang', 'Barat', 'Tanka' and 'Qimash'. He wrote the poem for his patron who was the first Shah of the 'Safvid' dynasty and very fond of the game.
Portuguese playing cards with the 'Italo-Spanish' suit signs of cups, swords, coins and staves with three court card, 'Recavalo' and 'Sota' must have been prevalent in certain parts of the coastal areas of India in the 16th century. The 8-suit ganjifa cards were still popular in Persia under the rule of 'Shah Abbas I' (1587-1628 AD) but it disappeared after the suppression by more orthodox successors of the Shah. The French travelers, Tavernier and Chardin, reported that the game was played only by the members of the lower class of society.
In 1527 AD, the Mughal emperor Babur recorded the following in his diary - '...the night we left Agra, Mir Ali, the armourer was sent to 'Shah Hasan' in 'Tatta' to give him the playing cards (ganjifa) which he liked and appreciated a lot'. Babur's daughter, 'Gul Badan', also mentions an incident in one of her journals where a game of ganjifa of 120 cards was being played. The fact that different types of Ganjifa had developed by the 16th century is understood by the mentions in the 'Ain-I-Akbari', a chronicle of the life and times of Mughal emperor 'Akbar' written by his biographer 'Abul Fazl'. It was evident that the 'ganjifa' acquired almost equal popularity as chess and 'chaupad' in the court circles in the second half of the 16th century. He goes on to describe the 12 and 8 suit cards with the details of the cards and suit signs which had also slowly been altered to invent new versions by the sultan. He mentioned that the game came from the ancient sages and there was a need for the game to be revived. Hence the alterations made for royalty would have been the royal sets painted on ivory or cloth which inspired the later painters.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, 'Ganjifa' was a popular card game at many Indian courts, durbars and houses. It was played at the residences of the 'Wazirs', 'Sultans', 'Nawabs', 'Subedars', 'Vassals' etc. Artists painted intricately on these cards with refined skill and expertise. The poets created music that complemented the craft. The standard 'Mughal ganjifa' with 96 cards spread all over India but never reached the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The card game and the craft associated with it spread along with the expansion of the the Mughal empire and made an impression in several strata of society. The Deccan, having a blend of Hindu and Muslim culture, became a fertile ground for the craft to flourish. The cards went through more alterations and modification as time went by with the intention of making it more complicated, thereby demanding more involvement of memory and intelligence in mastering the game.
A pack of ganjifa cards consists of 96 cards in 8 suits of 12 cards each. Of these 12 cards, 2 cards are figure cards and the other ten cards are numerical cards - known as 'Pip' cards. The Indian ganjifa cards have two main figure cards called the 'Wazir' (minister) and the 'Mir' (king). The pack is divided into 2 halves and the value of the numeral cards differ in both.
The 8 suits of the ganjifa are constant throughout India and Iran from the beginning of the 16th century. The suits are distinguished from each other by the pips or symbol marks. There are variations in the pips and backgrounds depending upon the region and context.
The highest card in every suit is the king, usually shown resting against a bolster or being attended to by a group of courtiers. The second highest is the minister who is usually mounted on a horse and sometimes followed by a troop of cavalry.
The numeral cards are indicated by a corresponding number of suit marks. The pips are sometimes arranged like fruits on a tree or in the periphery of the circle.
8 suits - Mughal Ganjifa
The 'Mughal' cards are elaborately decorated in the back and front of the cards with gold and other colors. The suit signs are incorporated in the foliage design like flowers or fruits. The Mughals were against the representation of god in physical forms and thus the cards of the Mughals often depicted the court or everyday lives of the people.
Taj - It means 'The crown' and represents the regalia of the mughal imperial court. The suit sign is in the form of a crown. In some Rajasthani cards, the crown is reduced to a brown or maroon blob with green and red dots to indicate jewels. In Madhya Pradesh and Kashmir, the 3 point crown becomes a three petaled lotus. In Orissa it is a flower called the 'Fula' or 'Fuli'.
Safed - It means white or silver disc/coin and the background colour of the suit is usually black. The suit is also named 'Tanka', 'Dirham', 'Sekke' etc according to the prevailing local currency. In the cards of 'Sawantwadi', the 'Mir'/ 'king' of the 'Safed' suit appears as the moon god or 'Chanda' as the suit was identified with the sign of the moon.
Shamsher - It is a long curved Persian sword or saber and signifies the palace guard of the court. The colour of the card is usually red, crimson, reddish brown or golden brown.
Ghulam - Means a slave, servant or a mercenary soldier. It represents the imperial household of courtiers, servants and entertainers. The colours used in this suit are gold, golden yellow or yellow (in Rajasthan), white (in Kashmir and Orissa) and red (in Maharashtra). This suit has maintained a full pictorial development and illustrates the court life in medieval India.
Chang - This is a string instrument resembling the Indian harp called 'Yazh'. It represents the king's musical entertainments. The 'Chang Mir' is usually a lady seated on a throne attended by maidens. The 'Chang Wazir' is depicted as a camel rider or a lady riding a camel and playing a harp. It is inspired by the paintings of Azadeh, the beloved of Begum Gur, who rides a camel playing the harp in search of her beloved. The colour of the suit is dark or olive green.
Surkh - It means red or gold and is depicted by a gold coin or the sun. It has various names such as the 'Ashrafi', 'Mohar' or 'Kanchan'. The holder of the 'Surkh Mir' opens the game if played between sunrise and sunset. The 'Surkh Wazir' is usually shown riding a lion or a tiger while in Kashmiri cards the rider is a winged angel. The suit colour is usually light green in Rajasthan and Maharashtra, black in Kashmir, orange, red or crimson in the Deccan.
Barat - Means a document and is also called a 'Firman' or 'Hundi' and represents the chancellery or the 'Daftar' of the imperial court. The suit sign is a rectangle or rhombus inscribed with the word 'Barat' in Persian letters or with scribbles to indicate writing. The colour varies from red to orange and in Maharashtra it is generally green.
Qimash - This is a Persian word with a wide range of meanings such as textile, objects, merchandise or household furniture. The suit represents the palace stores. They are seen to be the beasts of burden checking and storing goods according to the 'Ain-I-Akbari'. The suit sign is a large oval bolster or 'Takiah'. The suit colour is yellow in various shades.
9 suits - Navagraha Ganjifa
Navagraha means '9 planets'. In the Hindu culture, the planets are believed to have a strong effect upon man and can bestow the humans with special gifts. They are therefore worshiped like gods. In this design, each suit is depicted by a planet. Each planet is a deity itself, to which a month, a zodiac sign, color, gem and horse are matched.
10 suits - Dashavatara Ganjifa
This was an adaptation of the eight-suit 'Mughal ganjifa', and many cards from the Deccan show a similar iconography, with the avatar enthroned on the raja (king) and on horseback on the 'Pradhan' or 'Mantri' (minister). Krishna and Buddha are generally accepted as the eighth and ninth incarnations and they appear in the ganjifa of Sawantwadi in Maharashtra and parts of Rajasthan. In other parts of India 'Balaram' is depicted as the eighth incarnation. In Orissa the eighth incarnation is 'Balabhadra' and the ninth is 'Jagannath'. There is no variation in the tenth incarnation, which is always 'Kalkin', Vishnu's final appearance when he will come on his horse to end the evil of the modern age. The pack has 10 suits and each suit is an incarnation of the Lord Vishnu. The suit sign for each incarnation is an appropriate symbol for the avatar. The 'Raja' card of Lord Krishna or 'Balaram' suit is the lead card during the day and the 'Raja' card of Lord 'Ramachandra' suit is the lead card during the night.
Matsya - This is first incarnation of Vishnu and the 'King card' shows Lord Vishnu coming out of a fish. The 'Pradhan card' depicts a horse rider with the symbol of a fish on the right side. The numeral cards have a symbol of the fish as the suit sign. The suit colour is usually black or red.
Kurma - This depicts the second incarnation of Lord Vishnu as a tortoise. The suit sign is a tortoise known as 'Kurma' or 'Kuchha'. Lord Vishnu is depicted coming out of a tortoise in a suit colour of either red or yellow merging in to brown.
Varaha - This is the boar incarnation of Lord Vishnu and is depicted as a four-handed blue figure with the head of a wild boar. The suit sign is a wild boar or a conch. The suit colours are green, brown, yellow and in rare cases, gold.
Narasimha - This is Lord Vishnu's man-lion incarnation and the figure card depicts the man-lion incarnation slaying 'Hiranyakashyap' who was disrespectful to him. The suit sign is a lion and its colour is mostly green, crimson or white. In Orissa the colour is blue.
Vamana - This is the 'brahmin' incarnation who usurped the three worlds when king Mahabali granted him land. He is depicted as a brahmin carrying an umbrella or a vessel carrying holy water of Ganges called the' kamandala'. The suit colours are yellow, brown, red and green.
Parashurama - This is the incarnation as Lord Rama with an axe which is called the 'Parsu'. The suit sign is the axe and the suit colours are yellow, red, brown, green or white in Orissa.
Ramachandra - This is the heroic incarnation as Lord Rama who defeats Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. The suit signs are Rama's weapons - the bow, the arrow or the monkeys who were faithful allies of the lord. The suit colours are red, crimson, yellow or green.
Krishna - He is known as the supreme incarnation of Lord Vishnu. In certain parts of India he does not appear on cards at all as he is considered the universal leader of the Gods. In Orissa and in Bengal he is worshiped as a black figure called Lord 'Jagannatha'. The suit sign is a 'Chakra', a cow or a peacock feathered crown. The suit colours are reddish brown in the Deccan and green shading to greenish brown.
Buddha - He is considered to be the 8th incarnation of Lord Vishnu in some of the 'Puranas' (holy scriptures). The suit sign is a 'lotus' / 'Padma' or the 'Shanka' / 'Conch'.
Kalki - The final avatar of Lord Vishnu is impending. It is believed that an avenger will destroy the present sinful age called 'kalyug' and make room for a glorious period. He is depicted as a white horse or a sword in the suit sign. The suit colours are black or crimson.