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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


Although the game played with Ganjifa cards flourished among the Mughals in its 8-suited version, the native Hindu players felt the need of retaining the ancient scheme of the Kridapatram, somewhat closer to their homeland traditions, seeking inspiration in themes borrowed from the local religion to illustrate the court cards, and creating their own suit signs.
The main non-Mughal Ganjifa pattern is the Dasavatara. This word literally means "ten incarnations", referring to the ones of god Vishnu.
Dasavatara Ganjifa
1 and 9 of Rama (the sign is an arrow)
The court cards too are usually referred to with their Hindi names, mantrî ("minister") and râjâ ("king").
Dasavatara Ganjifa
top: 1 and 8 of Parashurama (the sign is an axe)
bottom: 1 and 7 of Vamana (water-vases)
Obviously, the number of suits in the deck had to be increased, from eight to ten (five "strong" and five "weak"), and their signs changed in accordance with the features of the new religious theme. Eight out of ten suits are standard, found in all decks, while two of them may vary from region to region, being chosen among a number of optional ones (see the following table).
However, Dasavatara Ganjifa often have more than ten suits: two additional ones are common, but larger sets may count up to 20 or 24 suits (i.e. 240 to 288 cards, a rather unusual composition).
Some names of the Dasavatara suits are those of the personages to whom they refer, while all the signs are symbols of their feats; besides the customary ones, some alternative signs are sometimes preferred.


suit names (incarnations)

Bishbar suits
  • Parashurama
  • Rama
  • Kalkin
  • Bâlarama (optional)
  • Buddha (optional)
  • Jagannath (optional)
  • Krishna (optional)

    Kambar suits
  • Matsya
  • Kurma
  • Varaha
  • Narasimha
  • Vamana

    additional suits (if any)
  • Ganesh
  • Kartikkeya
  • Brahma
  • Shiva
  • Indra
  • Yama
  • Hanuman
  • Garuda
  • Krishna
  • Narada
  • suit signs [alternatives shown in square brackets]

  • axe
  • monkey  [ bow and arrow ] [ arrow ]
  • sword  [ horse ] [ parasol ]
  • plough  [ club ] [ cow ]
  • shell  [ lotus flower ]
  • lotus flower
  • cow [ crowned bust ] [ blue child ] [ chakra ]

  • fish
  • turtle
  • shell
  • chakra (decorated disc)
  • jug / vase

  • rat
  • peacock
  • vedas (scriptures)
  • drum
  • thunderbolt
  • snake noose
  • club
  • small Garuda
  • flute
  • vînâ (Indian lute)

  • 5, mantrî and râjâ of Kalkin,
    featuring Vishnu's white steed,
    and the sword (sabre) as a sign
    Dasavatara Ganjifa
    7, mantrî and râjâ of Ganesh, elephant-headed god (an additional Dasavatara suit)
    The court cards shown in this page, from Orissa, present the same personage in both the mantrî cards and the relevant râjâ cards; in the latter they are slightly shrinked in size, and shown on a temple-wagon, by means of which sacred images are drawn in the streets on special occasions (note the wheel under the wagon).
    Besides the Dasavatara and the Mughal Ganjifa, several other varieties exist, yet less common than the two aforesaid ones, featuring specific themes with a various number of suits. Among the large packs is the Ramayana Ganjifa, a 12-suited pattern inspired by the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, and Rashi Ganjifa, with the zodiac signs; fewer suits has the Navagraha Ganjifa, inspired by the nine planets; the 8-suited ones include the Ashtamala Ganjifa, inspired by episodes of Krishna's life as a youth, the Ashtadikpala Ganjifa which refers to the eight cardinal directions, and decks that use eight different birds as suit signs (and, seldom, other animals too).

    Dasavatara Ganjifa
    1 of Kartikkeya
    (additional Dasavatara suit)

    Dasavatara Ganjifa
    various mantrî and râjâ cards from the suits of
    (top) Matsya, fish sign; Bâlarama, club; (bottom) Varaha, shell; Jagannath, lotus flower


    To trace the net of connections between Ganjifa (or Kridapatram) and other forms of pastime which Indian cards may have sprung from and, maybe, given origin to, is a complicated task, due to the many uncertain and missing pieces of information, and to the different cultural relations this land was subject to in time.

    Among the latter, one of the earliest ones is Buddhism, that spread from Northern India towards many different parts of China; this may have established a relationship through which playing cards could have been introduced in India, provided that they already existed in Chinese lands at such an early stage: this is suspected by some scholars, but no evidence has ever been found.
    Culin's interpretation of the word ganjifa as "treasure paper cards", if correct, would provide two more elements in favour of an origin from Chinese money-suited decks, since the suit signs of the latter system are quite evidently symbols of money, or the "treasure" - some scholars even maintain that these cards once represented an actual form of tender - and because they are the only type of deck which, in the homeland's own language, is referred to as "paper cards", to distinguish them from playing tiles (see the historical notes in the Chinese gallery for further details).

    Also the ancient native board game Chaturanga, which later developed into its Persian form Shatranj (still in use), has been claimed as a possible source of inspiration for the Indian round cards. This was a sort of race game, in which pieces could also fight each other. It required counters of different rank - the highest was the râjâ - and a long die with four sides.
    Its name is Sanskrit, catur ("four") and anga ("part, side"), referring to the four corps of the Indian army: elephant-riders, cavalry, foot-soldiers and charioteers (later on turned into "ships"); with the exception of the latter, the remaining three were also among the suits of the Kridapatram cards.
    opening arrangement of pieces in Chaturanga

    (adapted, from R.C.Bell)

    However, the concept of Chaturanga, whose aim is to mimic a war, is much similar to modern chess variants (Western chess, Chinese chess, etc.) than to Ganjifa games, closest reference to Kridapatram, since rules of the latter were not recorded by any written source.
    chronology of the evolution of early cards
    Indian cards were used for trick games, two of which are known as Ekrang and Hamrang (see John McLeod's Games played with Ganjifa), the same type of pastime which the early European tarots were used for, now replaced by the regional patterns that sprung from them.
    Also the Mamlûk decks were likely used for similar games: the quality of the surviving cards suggests that they were made for players of high social rank, who very unlikely gambled for money; on top of this, gambling is a practice frowned upon by the Islâm.
    The use of inverted ranks for different suits appears to be another common feature. It is found in some Chinese games, as well as in some European ones of ancient origin; we cannot tell wether this also occurred in games played by the Mamlűks, but since it is commonly accepted that these decks were the base upon which European patterns were created, we may reasonably believe that the dual ranking criterium was adopted everywhere.

    Similarities may also be sought between the Indian suit signs (particularly the ones found in Dasavatara sets) and those of Mamlûk decks; despite the quantitative difference on the two sides - twelve suits versus the "usual" four, respectively - the presence among the Ganjifa signs of Coins (two different), Water-jugs, Swords and Clubs almost matches the Coins, Cups, Swords and Polo-sticks which form the other system.

    The structure of the Indian sets includes court cards, a further element in common with Mamlûk decks, but the latter had three in each suit while Ganjifa has only two; furthermore, due to the Islamic codes, the Arabic subjects were only featured as the written names of their rank and suit, while the Indian personages are fully portrayed.
    Chinese money-suited patterns, instead, have no such ranks, although in some games their honour cards may be added to the highest or to the lowest pip cards of given suits, in order to form a longer sequence, thus acting de facto as courts.
    Therefore, the Arabic cards and the Indian ones appear indeed related, yet not too closely. A reason for this may be that such connection was filtered through Persia, both a geographic and cultural pivot wedged among the Arabic, Central Asian and Indian worlds.

    More Ganjifa patterns may be seen in the following pages of the I.P.C.S.'s website:
  • Sawantwadi Dasavatara
  • Sawantwadi Moghul
  • Nossam Dasavatara.

    Another page from the same website, Sawantwadi French Suited Pattern, shows interesting samples of "hybrids" that blend Ganjifa with European decks. The cards are round, the graphic style is Indian, but the suits are French. Such decks came into use in limited areas on the country's western coast, following the trading routes that came particularly from Portugal and from the Netherlands.
    Also "hybrid" patterns with Spanish (Portuguese) suits were produced, though much scarcer than the ones with French suits.

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