Ganjifa: The Colourful Ancient and Card Game

Written by Abha Vardhan

Playing cards is one of the most popular pastimes in India. You will often see people enjoying cards in cafes and on the streets. This passion can be traced back to ancient when Kings used to spend their evenings playing cards.

There are different theories as to the origin of the name ‘Ganjifa.’ Ganjifa is also known as ‘Gnjaph’ or ‘Ganjapa’. It is a game that has been linked with Persia and India. The word ‘Ganjifa’ is a Persian word, which means ‘playing card.’ The first half of the word, ‘Ganj’ means treasure. The complete word Ganjifa may have been created by integrating the local Persian ganj (‘treasure’) with the Chinese expression chi pai (known as paper cards).

The first indication of the Ganjifa card game dates back to the early sixteenth century during the reign of Babur, the founder of the Moghul dynasty. The card game quickly became well-known among at court where the cards were made from ivory or tortoise scales and decorated with precious gemstones. Gradually, the game spread and became popular among local people outside the court. Ganjifa can now be found in many countries throughout the world including the Middle East and Western Asia.

The History of Ganjifa

Evidence suggests that Ganjifa was introduced to India during the Moghul period. It is believed that Moghul Emperors brought the cards in the early 16th century. Slowly, the Ganjifa cards became prevalent in various parts of India.

Interesting to note is that this card game has acquired many different forms in accordance with the region in which it is played. The original version is known as Moghul Ganjifa, whilst other versions have been influenced by the art and traditions of the Hindu religion.

Traditionally the cards used in the game are hand-painted by skilled artists. You will find Dashavatara Ganjifa with ten suits of twelve cards each. There is also Sawantwadi Ganjifa from Maharashtra, Kashmir Ganjifa, Mysore Ganjifa, Navadurga Ganjifa from Orissa, Nepal Ganjifa and Gujarat Ganjifa.

How are the Ganjifa Cards made?

Originally, the cards used in Ganjifa are made of cloth with motifs that are represented by Mahabharata and Ramayana. There is a marked development of the Ganjifa cards as they became popular among the masses, in different parts of India as well as in the world.

The figurines, signs, and costumes have been dramatically changed. Moreover, the traditional rectangular shape of Ganjifa cards has been changed to a round shape. Even though the rectangular shape still exists, the round shape dominates in many regions where Ganjifa is played.

All of the cards are handmade and beautifully painted and decorated in the traditional style. Their manufacture is a meticulous and precise task that requires huge amounts of patience. Characteristically, Ganjifa cards have colorful backgrounds covered with majestic looking figures.

In earlier times, the Kings used to hire skilled artists to prepare the cards according to their traditional style. In order to attain the required thickness for the cards, they used to glue several thin pieces of fabric together. The edges of the cards were painted black to accentuate the colors and the figures are painted in striking colours.

The style, technique, and design of Ganjifa cards differ from artist to artist. The cards that were made for the rich and wealthy were made using expensive materials. They were made from tortoise shells, engraved brass discs, lac wafers, mother of pearl, ivory and decorated with metals and precious stones and gems.

The cards made available to the masses are made of stiff cloth, cardboard, paper machete, palm leaf, fish scales or wood.  Colours are made by hand with vegetable dyes and natural minerals. The artists prepare these colors by grinding and mixing the natural colours by themselves. They make use of fine brushes such as a squirrel hair brush for designing intricate Ganjifa paintings. 

Painters from Orissa represent Hindu epics on their Ganjifa cards with various beautiful illustrations including Dashavatata of Vishnu, and Navagunjara, the mythological bird-human animal. This mythological symbol is actually a form which was taken by Lord Krishna to test the devotion of Arjuna.

The figures drawn on the circular cards include twelve subjects on coloured backgrounds. It has low cards from one to ten, and two honors, a counsellor or minister (often termed as vizier), and a King (often termed as Rajah). The style and decorations of each game depend on the version of the card game.

The Cards in Ganjifa

The evidence collected from the seventeenth century indicates that a pack of Ganjifa contained ninety-six cards, divided into eight signs or colours. Nowadays a pack of Ganjifa cards contains twenty cards that are divided into five colours or values. These values are:

  • Lion and Sun, or As: ShīrvaKhurshíd or ās
  • King: Shh or Pish
  • Lady (or Queen): Bîbî
  • Soldier (or Valet): Sarbs
  • Dancer: Lakat (meaning something of little value)

The backs of the Ganjifa cards are always painted in dark colors such as black. The bottoms of the faces are a different color for each card. For instance, the card of a Lion and the Sun is black, the low cards are green, the Lady is red, the King is white, and the Soldier is gilded. 

The illustrations on the low cards are often diverse and usually obscene. The card of the King is depicted as the King sitting on the throne. The bass cards depict a Persian dancer. The Lion and the Sun are shown as in the Persian coat of arms. The Soldier is depicted with a rifle on his shoulder while the lady is depicted as European wearing a local costume.

Playing with Ganjifa Cards

Ganjifa is a trick-taking card game and is traditionally played individually rather than in teams. The main aim of the game is to win the maximum cards by playing tricks. The minimum number of players needed for this game is three; however, in some versions, four players can also play individually. In some versions, the game can also be played in two pairs of teams.

Moghul Ganjifa is usually played with a set of 96 cards as opposed to Dashavatara Ganjifa that requires 120 or 144 cards. The basic rules of both the versions are similar with the difference that in the Dashavatara version, the cards depict the ten different incarnations of Lord Vishnu.

The suits are separated into strong and weak suits. For instance, when playing Moghul Ganjifa, the strong suits are Ghulam, Taj, Samsher, and Safed. The weak suits are Quimash, Surkh, Chang, and Barat. Each suit is arranged in the following order, Raja, Pradhan, and Ace to Ten for strong suits and Ten to Ace for weak suits.

How are the Cards Dealt?

The game starts in an anti-clockwise direction. The cards are usually dealt in batches of four, rather than one card at a time. In some versions, the first and the last batch dealt to the players are dealt face up.

Before starting the game, the players must sort their cards into suits and arrange them in a sequence. Each player receives a high volume of cards; thus, in order to make it convenient and easy, the majority of players usually sort their low-value cards and place them on the side. They then arrange their high denomination cards in their hand.

How to Play Ganjifa?

A white cloth is spread on the floor and the cards are placed on it. The cards are shuffled and placed face down on the cloth. The player cuts a deal and distributes the cards equally amongst three or four players. The player who receives the cards with the highest denomination begins the game. Usually, the players having a King card in a certain suit leads the card game.

The trick of the game is to win the round by playing the card with the highest denomination. Thus, it is imperative for the players to memorize all the symbols and the cards played. After the end of the game, each player counts the number of cards collected, and the one with the maximum cards is announced the winner.

In a similar way, the game is played in other versions as well including the Navagraha, Dashavatar set, Ramayana, and Ashtadikpala. It is a fascinating game that not only works as a memory test for players but also makes them more knowledgeable in regards to the Hindu tradition.

Ganjifa: Revive the Forgotten Ancient Card Game

Ganjifa is a traditional card game. The primary objective of the game is to learn, narrate and teach mythological stories from holy books and ancient scriptures. The stories include the chapters from Mahabharata, Ramayana and many other scriptures, and shlokas from the Hindu Puranas.

The game is vanishing with time; however, there are four ancestral families that play a vital part in restoring this art form. These include Narasingam and Satyanarayan from Nirmal from Andhra Pradesh, Gurupad Bhat from Mysore, Bijaya Kumar Mahopatra from Raghurajpur from Orissa and Mohan Shamarao Kulkarni and Subhas Chitari from Sawantwadi, Maharashtra.

Today, the art of Ganjifa is not only found on round cards, but also on paintings, wall hangings and other commercial art forms that are mainly used for decorating homes. Apart from illustrating Hindu gods and goddesses, the painters now draw figures of flowers, cows, and other symbols of nature.

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