Playing games is an important part of many world cultures including India. Children play naturally and devise games of their own. Adult games have been devised using creative skills and artistic expression. The word ”ganj” means treasure or treasury which went on to refer to granary in Persian. The term represents playing cards and card games in India, Nepal, Iran, Turkey and few Arabian countries. Card playing was and still is popular in India and many other countries. Ganjifa cards were circular or rectangular, and traditionally hand-painted by artisans. The earliest references are to the Mamluk cards from Egypt, first mentioned in Annals of Egypt and Syria by Yousuf ibn-Taghribirdi, an Egyptian historian born into the Turkish Mamluk elite of Cairo in the 15th century. The Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey has a set of Mamluk playing cards datable to 1500s. The set consists of four suits of 13 cards each; cups,swords, coins and polo sticks including one Malik or king, a Naib and Thani Naib – Governor and Vice- Governor. These actually depict the officers at the court of a Mamluk Sultan or Amir; the cup-bearer, the commander of the palace guard, the exchequer and the polo-master or jukandar. Mamluk, Italian, Persian and Indian cards might have a common origin; the exact source is not clear. it might have originated in the West or the East. The pack of cards is sometimes believed to have its origins in the four sided chaturanga, a dice game and a precursor of chess. King Shah Abbas II of Persia had banned the game (1642-67).
Mamluk playing cards or kanjifah, from left to right: 6 of coins, 10 of polo sticks, 3 of cups and 7 of swords, 16th century.
The earliest playing cards known in India were most probably introduced by early Muslim rulers. The game became popular at the Mughal court during the 16th and 17th century, and lavish sets were made, from materials such as precious stone-inlaid ivory or tortoise shell ; darbar-kalam, by court artists. The game later spread to the general public, and less expensive sets; bazaar-kalam by other artists would be made from materials such as wood, palm leaf, stiffened cloth or pasteboard.
In the royal palace of Sawantwadi, skilled craftsmen hand painting Ganjifa cards, Maharashtra, maybe early 20th century.
Mughal Ganjifa was similar to the Safavid game in terms of suits and ranks. In the 17th century ”Dashavatara” ganjifa was created to appeal to the Hindu populace. The main development of the game of Ganjjfa happened in India. The Indian cards depict variety and the number of suits can vary from 8 to 10, 12 or 20. Ganjifa cards have coloured backgrounds, with each suit having a different colour. The compositions on many Ganjifa cards resemble small miniature paintings. Different types are found, the designs, number of suits, and physical size of the cards can vary considerably. With the exception of Mamluk kanjifah and the Chads of Mysore, each suit contains ten pip cards and two court cards, the king and the vizier or minister. The backs of the cards are typically a uniform colour, without patterning. Card players expect a constancy in design in packs. The Rajasthani cards show a Mughal influence, Mysore and Cuddapah depict Nayak styles and the cards from Odisha have folk patterns. It is called dashabatar taas in Bishnupur, West Bengal. The painters of the cards are called chitrakars.
A king handing a ”Royal Document” to his minister, King of the Barat or Document suit, playing card from a Mughal Ganjifa set, Rajasthan, India, LACMA, U S A,19th century.
Playing cards are put in painted boxes which are made of light wood and have different subjects painted on them ranging from flowers, women, mythological themes and animal figures. However, slowly by the end of the 20th century printed cards became popular. The modern printed packs made the older hand painted cards obsolete and so also the games associated with them.
Ganjifa box with ornate designs, 19th century. Image source : Michael BackmanLtd, U.K.
Five galloping elephants, Number six of the Gajpati or Lord of Elephants suit, playing card from a Mughal Ganjifa Set, Rajasthan, India, 19th century, LACMA, U S A.
Lord Krishna preparing to decapitate King Kamsa, King of the Krishna suit, playing card from a Dashavatara ganjifa set, Sawantwadi, Maharashtra, mid-18th century, LACMA, U S A.
Enthroned and crowned Buddha holding Lotuses, King of the Buddha suit, playing card from a Dashavatara ganjifa set, Rajasthan, India, 19th century, LACMA, U S A.
There are many variants of Ganjifa. The Mughal Ganjifa, the Dashavatara Ganjifa, the Ramayan Ganjifa, the Rashi Ganjifa, The ashtamalla Ganjifa, the Naqsh Ganjifa, the Mysore Chad Ganjifa. Ahli Shirazi wrote Rubaiyat-e-ganjifa’ for each of the 96 cards in a eight suit pack. The game is mentioned in Ain-i- Akbari, the record of Emperor Akbar’s reign. In fact there was a variety of Ganjifa called Akbar’s Ganjifa.
Mughal ganjifa playing cards, early 19th century, Wovensouls Textiles and Arts Gallery.
Playing cards made with the traditional pattachitra technique from Puri, Odisha, India.
A king in an elephant-drawn carriage, King of the Ghulam or Slave or Servant suit, playing card from a Mughal ganjifa set, 19th century, LACMA, U S A.
A woman with Seven Documents, number seven of the Barat or Document suit, playing card from a Mughal ganjifa set, Rajasthan, 19th century, LACMA, U S A.
- Ganjifa: the playing cards of India/Leyden, Rudolf Von, London : Victoria and Albert Museum, 1980
- Images are from Wikimedia Commons