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~~ Gallery 18 ~~
Regional Cards

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special thanks to Jeff Hopewell, whose knowledge of Ganjifa
has been a precious reference in the compilation of this gallery

(skip the historical notes)

Despite the origin of Indian pastimes, such as Ashtapada (renamed Chaturanga, "the four sides", in the 5th century AD), is lost in the mists of time, in this land the golden age of playing cards was to come much later, during the 16th century, by the time of the Mughals (or Moguls), a Muslim dynasty from central Asia, great fanciers of Ganjifa.

The leading theory about Ganjifa is that the pattern was created in Persia, likely under the influence of playing cards from the East (money-suited decks?), and that they were taken to India by the time of the Mughal emperors.
Ganjifa cards
However, traces of similar and much earlier (pre-Mughal) cards may be found in the local oral tradition. They were called Kridapatram, whose meaning is more or less "painted rags for playing", and the composition of the deck was apparently based upon 12: this was the number of suits, each of which was made of this same number of subjects, and had signs such as horses, elephants, men, and the like. Basically, they were an early version of the pattern described in page 2, but some decks were inspired by the Mahâbhârata, and some others had fewer suits (8, or 10). It is locally said that by the time of the Mughals these cards had already been in use for several centuries. Many details about the Kridapatram cards, though, remain uncertain, as well as their same existence, not being mentioned by any written source prior to the 16th century.

The Islâm had already established contacts with the Hindu world some 300 years earlier, when Muslim people coming from an area corresponding to modern Afghanistan had expanded their dominions towards Punjab, and other north-western parts of India. They were descendants of the Turks who had invaded Persia in the 11th century, and some 200 years later had been chased out of the same land by the Mongols. These people maintained elements of their Turkish heritage, yet they spoke Farsi (Persian), and also borrowed several cultural aspects from the Mongols. The same name of the Mughal dynasty, in fact, in their own language meant "Mongol".

geographic origin of the Mughal dynasty

In 1398 the conqueror Timur Lenk (Tamerlane), had succeeded in subduing many northern parts of the Indian subcontinent, though not establishing a real dominion. This only happened in the early 1500s, when Bâbur (one of Timur's descendants, but whose family tree also included the famous Mongol leader Genghis Khan) repeated his ancestor's feats, conquering a large part of north-western India, thus founding the Mughal empire.
From 1556 to 1605 one of his successors, Akbar, completed this campaign, expanding the empire's boundary eastwards, as far as the Gulf of Bengal.
Bâbur, the first Mughal emperor
The Mughals were Muslims, but they never enforced the observation of the Islâmic codes, as other conquerors had in the past; under their reign, the Hindus were left free to use their language, maintain their customs and follow their lifestyle.
It is during this period that Ganjifa cards flourished, at first only at court, where rich sets made of ivory or tortoise shell inlaid with precious stones were used (called darbar kalam), but later on the game also spread among the common people, who used cheaper sets made from wood, palm leaf, pasteboard, and various other unexpensive materials (the so-called bazâr kalam).
In 1648, under the reign of Aurangzeb, strict Islamic laws were introduced again, causing revolts in several parts of the empire; this caused the loss of some of the territories by the hand of the rebels.
The following rulers were not strong enough to bring back the Mughal empire to the original splendour. During the first half of the 18th century it began to break up, and only 50 years later the few remaining parts still under Mughal control were taken by Marâthâ (an independent Hindu state, that had grown stronger and had become an empire itself), and then in 1803 by the British.

The earliest reference about the cards known as Ganjifa is an Indian chronicle dating back to the early 16th century; the text, a biography of Bâbur, contains a description of the deck's suits, mentioning how the same monarch enjoyed playing the game with his daughter, and even gave a set to a friend as a gift.

The name of these cards comes from the Farsi word  ganjifeh, whose meaning is "playing card". Such foreign name is due to the Persian origins of this pastime, much earlier than the 1500s, as previously said, born as a development of cards imported from other lands, likely Central Asia or Asia Minor (this topic is discussed more in depth at the bottom of page 2).
According to Culin, the word ganjifa may have been created by blending the local  ganj ("treasure") with the Chinese expression  chi pai ("paper cards"); in fact, these cards almost certainly have an Oriental ancestor. But the development into the newborn Ganjifa pattern brought more remarkable changes than any other type of cards ever did: the number of suits was considerably increased, their signs were changed, and even the traditional rectangular shape was rounded off, making these the only circular cards known in the world among regional patterns. Actually, also rectangular Ganjifa packs are known to exist, dating back to the 19th century or earlier, especially in parts of the country where a Western cultural contamination (Portuguese, Dutch) was likely, as in the south; but between the two shapes, by tradition, the round one is more consolidated.

6 of Kurma (the suit sign is a turtle) and 10 of Narasimha
(the suit sign is a chakra or decorated disc),
from a Dasavatara Ganjifa deck
Despite the many changes, the general structure of any Ganjifa deck is not really different from other kinds of pattern. The suits are always made of twelve subjects, whose backgrounds are coloured. Their values include pip cards running from 1 (or ace) to 10, and two courts: a minister (or counsellor) and a king.
The pips are small suit signs, more or less stylized, arranged in patterns of various fashion, a free choice of the artist who painted the deck, though often influenced by the regional trend.

The geographic origin of a deck also affects its background colours, one different for each suit (a few may appear similar); sets that come from the same area not only have similar illustrations but matching backgrounds too, differing from those of decks made elsewhere.
The names of the two court cards are either in Farsi, the official language of the Mughals, or in Sankrit, anciently spoken by the Hindus, or in Hindi (modern language), as shown in the table on the right.
Their illustrations depict figures, either of humans or incarnations of many Indian divinities, posing in different attitudes, that change in accordance with the pattern of the deck and with the regional custom.
Farsi:    vazîr / wazîr    shâh
Sanskrit:    pradhân    nrpah
Hindi:    mantrî    râjâ

the court cards shown above are from the suit of Kartikkeya (god of war)
whose sign is a peacock; they come from a Dasavatara Ganjifa deck
In the state of Orissa (eastern India), where the sample cards shown in this page come from, the suit signs are more stylized than the ones found in the rest of the country, up to the point of being no longer recognizable, almost abstract.

1 and 10 of Changa ("harp") from a Mughal Ganjifa deck:
what the sign represents is no longer recognizable
In play, the natural ordering of the pip card values (1 the lowest, 10 the highest) is followed by only half of the suits, while the cards of the other suits are given an opposite ranking (1 is the highest, 10 is the lowest). The suits in the first group are said to be bishbar ("strong"), while the ones with reversed ranks are called kambar ("weak"); alternative names used in some central parts of the country are dahele-bandibaji ("10-high suits") and ekka-bandibaji ("1-high suits").

Besides their graphic features, what is probably the most interesting peculiarity of any Ganjifa deck is that these cards are still hand-made and painted by skilled craftsmen, known as chitrakara, whose workshops are sometimes specialized in this form of art. Therefore, each deck is a truly unique item.

Today ganjifa cards are made of layers of paper, but in Orissa cloth is still used, starched and laquered so to make the discs sufficiently stiff for being handled and painted.

chitrakara Jayadev Moharana, author of
the Dasavatara cards shown in this gallery

(by courtesy of Jeff Hopewell)
Attempts to print Ganjifa decks have been made during the 20th century, without proving very successful, and therefore never replacing the traditional craft.
Regrettably, due to the lack of request, during the past decades the making of these decks, once a common activity throughout India, has considerably subsided, and is now no longer very common. The game too is certainly endangered, but not extinct, and especially in the state of Orissa the locals are still known to play with Ganjifa sets.

chitrakara Kalu Charan Bariki, author
of the Mughal cards shown in this gallery

(by courtesy of Jeff Hopewell)


Mughal Ganjifa is, among the known patterns, the one likely closer to the original variety once used in Persia.

It has 96 cards divided into eight suits, whose original names, in Farsi, underwent slight changes, according to the different languages spoken in India. A comparison between the original names and those used in the west of India (Gujarat), in the east (Orissa), in the center (Maharashtra) and in the south (Deccan) is shown in the following table, adapted from Rudolph von Leyden's Ganjifa · the playing cards of India. But they are only a few examples: many more exist in the complicated mosaic of languages of this country.

1 and 9 of Barata ("bill of exchange", very stylized)
The court cards are usually referred to with their old names: vazîr (or wazîr) the minister, and shah (also padishah, or mîr, probably short for amîr, i.e. "emir") the king.


Persian names

Bishbar suits
  • Zar is-SafÎd
  • Taj
  • Shamshîr
  • Ghulâm

    Kambar suits
  • Zar is-Surkh
  • Chang
  • Qimâsh
  • Barât
  • English

    Bishbar suits
  • White (silver) coin
  • Crown
  • Sword
  • Slave

    Kambar suits
  • Red (gold) coin
  • Harp
  • Merchandise
  • Bill of exchange
  • Gujarat

    Bishbar suits
  • Sapheda
  • Taj
  • Samashera
  • Gulama

    Kambar suits
  • Sukhama
  • Changu
  • Kumade
  • Barata
  • Orissa

    Bishbar suits
  • Chandra
  • Fula
  • Someswara
  • Gulam

    Kambar suits
  • Surya
  • Changa
  • Kumancha
  • Barata
  • Maharashtra

    Bishbar suits
  • Ruper
  • Taj
  • Samsher
  • Gulam

    Kambar suits
  • Kanchan
  • Chang
  • Khumash
  • Barat
  • Deccan

    Bishbar suits
  • Suped
  • Taj
  • Shamsher
  • Gulam

    Kambar suits
  • Surak
  • Changa
  • Kumaj
  • Varat

  • 1 and 8 of Fula

    1 and 5 of Surya
    The table shows how both the names and the meanings are somewhat similar throughout India, with a few exceptions, such as the suit of Taj ("crown"), which in Orissa was renamed Fula (featuring flower-looking shapes), and the Zar is-Surkh ("gold / gold coins"), known in the same area as Surya ("sun", represented by the usual yellow discs).
    In most parts of India, the wazîr and shâh subjects feature human figures (the king either seated on a throne or under a canopy, the minister often mounted, with or without his retinue). But in decks made in Orissa they are replaced by characters of the local mythology and religion: the ones presented in this page show Arjuna (a hero from the epic Mahâbhârata) as a minister in Moghul-fashioned clothes, while the king is a Navagunjara, an incarnation of Krishna from nine different creatures (the body of a bull, the head of a peacock, a human right arm and an elephant's left frontleg, etc.).

    wazîr and shâh of Kumancha ("merchandise", red oval with white stripes),
    Chandra (white disc as a silver coin) and Gulam ("slave", red flower)

    go to page 2


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