Playing Cards from Medieval Times, Ganjifa!

Ganjifa Cards

Ever wonder, what led us to the present day card games? Ever found, missing links to Indian history through playing cards?

The link is Ganjifa, and it has many faces.

Know Your Ganjifa!

These cards depict the sentiments, beliefs, and hierarchy in the society. Different communities crafting different variants of them, just affirms the point. Indian epic Ramayana inspired Ramayan Ganjifa. Mamluk Ganjifa depicts hierarchy in Egyptian and later Persian society. It comprises of 4 suits, whereas Mysore Chad variant comprises of 18 suits.

Babur mentions in Babur-nama that in 1527 he sent a deck of Ganjifa to Shah Hassan. Furthermore, he is not the only emperor or a king with accounts related to these glorious playing cards. Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, has also described it in his personal accounts, Ain-i-Akbari.

Ramayana Ganjifa

Ramayan Ganjifa Image from the Vaults of IGNCA’ Digital Library. Credits: IGNCA Digital Gallery

Origins to Bazar Kalam – Artistic Persian Playing Cards

Ganjifa/Ganjafa/Kangifa/Ganjeefah/Kanjifa and so on, are playing cards. 15th Century historical accounts of Egyptian Ibn Taghribirdi have their oldest known mention. According to some historians, these are derived from Chinese money suited cards. Pip cards were copied from Chinese banknotes. The first syllable in Ganjifa is from Persian ‘ganj’ meaning treasure. The last two syllables are from the Chinese word ‘yah-pae’. See the Chinese link?

Ganjifa are rectangular or circular playing cards, hand-painted and crafted by artisans from precious stones, like ivory. These later upon their spread among subjects of the kingdom and in trading merchant’ hands , started being made from cheaper materials, like wood or palm leaves. These cheaper sets were called bazar kalam. From the accounts of many kings and emperors, it can be concurred that it was one of their favorite pastime. Background of ganjifa distinguished one suit from another. The art form on such small pieces was a meticulous task and a pretty daunting one for even the adept, to recreate and maintain homogeneity.

moghul Ganjifa

This rendition of Mughal Ganjifa is from Puri, Odisha, 1988. Credits: IGNCA Digital Gallery

Each suit in the deck had a King (Shah), Vizier, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 cards. Depending on the type of suit, the strength of cards differs. The court cards, i.e. King and Vizier are the strongest irrespective of the suit, King being the strongest of all. Though among the pip cards, the order of strength is reversed in weak suits, meaning 1 being the strongest and 10 the weakest.

Other Popular Variants

  • Ramayana Ganjifa – Inspired from the Indian epic, Ramayana, this deck beautifully captures the plot and defining moments of Ramayana. It is available in decks of 8, 10 or 12 cards.
  • Moghul Ganjifa – Showcasing the court hierarchy of the medieval empires in India, this variant is prevalent Odisha. Also found in Nirmal, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. This 96-card deck comes with 8 suits, namely, the slaves, the swords, the crowns, the harps, the red gold coins, the white gold coins, the bills of exchange and the cloth.
  • Dashavatara Ganjifa – It is comprises of 10 suit deck with 120 cards, and is based on the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu. Each reincarnation is signified by triumph over the main antagonists in each era of Hinduism. Two renowned artisans of this variant in the last 50 years are, Banamali Mahapatra, from Rajhurajpur, Odisha and Sital Fouzdar, from Bishupur, West Bengal. It is also found in Sawantwadi, Sheopur and Pune in Maharashtra. 
    Rashi Ganjifa

    A digital image of King from Tula suit of Rashi Ganjifa. Credits: IGNCA Digital Gallery

  • Rashi Ganjifa – It is a 12 suited deck with suits named after Indian Zodiac signs. These twelve signs are Meen, Mithun, Kark,Singh, Kanya, Vrish, Mesh, Tulha, Vrishik, Dhanu, Makar and Kumbh
  • Ashta Malla Ganjifa – Has 8 suits inspired by Lord Krishna wrestling 8 demons. Krishna’ uncle, Kansa, sent many demons to kill his nephew.
  • Mysore Chad Ganjifa – Inspired by the city of Mysore, and conceptualized by Krishnaraja Wadiyar III, is a deck with suits containing 12 pip and 6 court cards.
  • Akbar’ Ganjifa – Emperor Akbar also loved these card games, well so much that accounts of the game are found in Ain-i-Akbari and has a variant named after him. Unfortunately no specimen of the variant has been discovered yet.
  • Mamluk Kanjifa – The four suits of this Kanjifa are, cups, coins, swords and polo-sticks. It had 3 court cards, King, first vizier and second vizier. Inscriptions rather than special pictorial depictions distinguished court cards from pip cards and each other. These suits depicted different social classes of the medieval ages.
  • French suited Ganjifa – This is like the Prius of the playing cards world back in the back! A hybrid between European cards and Ganjifa.

Downfall of Ganjifa

  1. Improvements in printing paved way for all to have access to cards which were much cheaper. Hence, artisans and small local businesses lost their market slowly and gradually.
  2. Emergence of western style playing cards; Ganjifa were less suited western card games.
  3. Monopolization of governments, leading to control over imports and production.
  4. Increased taxes over goods which made it harder for smaller businesses by artisans and let them take a hit.

The End of an Era or Not?

From around the 16th century, Persian lands, and India (since the advent of Mughals) have had Ganjifa as an indigenous art form. India was the last known country to produce them, but some Indian artisans are trying to do the bidding of ‘cronos’. It is to help revive these playing cards, but this time as an art form. Shri Raghupathi Bhatta or now popularly known as Ganjifa Raghupathi Bhatta  is one of notable artists, linked to its revival.

It has seen the courts of kings and emperors, traveled the Bay of Bengal to reach Mumbai from Arab merchants, the streets of Delhi, Persia, Mysuru and Odisha alike, cafe houses, and met the pharaohs of Egypt. It has a great history which spanned more than 600 years. The artistry in these decks was simply amazing, like each deck had its own history and its own unique significance.

The next time you find yourself in a game and feel the lifeless cards dealt to your hand, remember it’s not Ganjifa. Because Ganjifa has life to it and it speaks of the world around you, if you let it speak.

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