Ganjifa – The Indian Playing Cards

Dr.Choodamani Nandagopal
Published: November 2012

The Card Games originated long back before Europeans ever came to India

Have we ever seriously thought about the possible means of leisure time activities of our ancestors? When we reflect on these lines, it is only natural to try to look back into the socio-cultural life of our forefathers which convinces us that they had better understanding of life and engaged in activities that cultivated patience and a positive attitude towards life, thereby leading to contentment.

The human endeavour through the centuries has gathered vast treasures from one stage of creative expression to another. Apart from achievements such as scientific advancement, communication system, drainage and irrigation which made the life of humans more meaningful, the need for relaxation paved the way for the creation of innovative objects strikingly artistic and passionate at once.

Passion is an intense feeling, a positive urge to feel a pleasure in what ever little way it is possible. One may paint or dance or sing or write a poem or play a game and all these expressions are the ways to release one’s deep feelings. Since pre-historic times, man has enjoyed playing different types of games. In addition to seeking pleasure, games provide excitement, challenge and relaxation.

As a result one can see the Indian preoccupation with beautifying toys, and materials used for various games have a place in Indian artistic traditions. Virtually endless variety of objects such as terracotta toy animals, chess board, playing with dice, playing cards – Ganjifa etc. were designed for the popular use. These games trigger the passion of a person irrespective of age and sex. In the Indian society the objects meant for playing were created and guided by an aesthetic conscience.

The early legends, literature and painting illustrate several indoor games that were widely known to Indians. They believed that indoor games would sharpen their memory and help to acquire finer skills. Vatsayana’s Kamasutra portrays the refined taste of a middle class citizen. While giving an account of the bed room of such a citizen he mentions that it should contain books, musical instruments, requisites for painting and boards for different kinds of game including the game of dice and chess.

Origin of Playing Cards

Playing cards as a game and past time originated in India and China later entered other parts of the world. The probable dates could be during 8th century AD. Today the Chinese Feng-Sui Tarot cards game is well-known in America but how they came to Europe is still not known. They made their appearance in Italy in late 1200’s and soon spread to Germany, France and Spain. ‘Tarot’ is a card game having spiritual significance and is attributed to divine affiliation in European countries, particularly in Italy. Like most of the games played around the world, the exact origins of Tarot are still enshrouded in mystery. In December 1513, Machiavelli wrote to Francesco Vettori describing his, and the other players’ rage: ‘having dined I go back to the inn, where I find the innkeeper and usually a butcher, a miller and a pair of bricklayers. In that company I debase myself for the rest of the day, playing at cricks and backgammon(From Adrienne Gurr).

Ganjifa – The Playing Cards of Indian Origin

Playing cards is one of the most popular indoor games liked by the common people today in many countries all over the world. Like many things are practiced today as the British legacy, it is but natural to have a notion that card game is handed over to Indians by the Europeans. It is astonishing to know that in India card game was very popular even before the advent of the Europeans and adding to that the game originated in India itself and then reached European countries. The heritage of Indian playing cards is significant for the artistic merit. Unfortunately like Buddhism the game of playing cards, ganjifa is suffering the extinct from the country of its origin.

Ganjifa’ is associated with ‘ganj’ the Persian word, meaning treasure, treasury or hoard. Ganjifa is spelt in different ways in India which include ganjafa, ganjifo in Gujarat, ganchua in Delhi, ganjapa or ganjappa in Orissa. In Arabian literature such as ‘Thousand and One Nights’ the spelling mentioned as Kanjafah. From 1300 AD onwards the records have continuous reference of the card game that basically traversed to European and other Central Asian countries through Silk Route where the Cultural polarity and trans-migration took place. The first written document regarding the play dates back to Mamulk times 1399 – 1412, mentioning about the winning of a ransom by Mamulk’s army officer by playing Kanjafa. Istambul Museum has a collection of a set of Mamulk cards.

Many of the records support the information that money was involved in playing cards in ancient times also. K.Himly while writing in 1889 drew attention to the Portuguese words gango (won) and ganho (winnings), of course without suggesting a connection with Ganjifa. Tavernier is a celebrated European traveller visited Isfahan (Iran) in 1632 and observed the Persians playing gengefe of eight suits.

There is an evidence of Babur, the first Moghal Emperor mentioning in his diary during June 1527as Mir Ali, an armour was sent to Shah Hasan to handover a set of ganjifa which he liked the most. Humayun’s sister princess Gulbadan in a record on 12th Nov 1545 mentions about many amusing games were played. Amongst them was this, twelve players had each 20 cards and which would make five misqals (set). Each player gave the winner twenty sharukhis ( copper coin) to add to his own. Probably they were gambling which included 240 cards. (Ganjifa The playing cards of India by Rudolf Von Leyden P. 11) From the times of Emperor Akbar the information about this game seems brighter.

The Biographer of Akbar, Abul Fazal records the whole range of passionate interests of the Emperor in his Ain-i-Akbari. This is the first written reference on the game of ganjifa. Ain-i-Akbari gives the complete details of 12 suited Ganjifa and eight suited Ganjifa.

The Mughal ganglia owes to the personal interest of the emperor and for introducing as an important game and passionate pastime. The pack of royal cards was made in ivory with fine workmanship. Next in importance to Ain-i-Akbari is a poem in 94 verses describing the 8 suited ganglia written by Agha Muhammad Tahir Wasli, elder brother of the Wazir of the Emperor Jahangir. In this game the naqsh is used for the fist time as the winning combination and later it has been adopted and carried in the game even today.

Abul Fazal records the whole range of passionate interests of the Emperor in his Ain-i-Akbari. This is the first written reference on the game of ganjifa.

The game of ganjifa reached very soon Ahmadnagar, one of the Deccani courts, and a written reference of Ganjifa comes from this court. The physician Vireswara records some rules of 8-suited Ganjifa, which Srimat Jurnapurna turned into a Sanskrit poem as Ganjifa khelana karma.

The game of Mughal ganjifa was standardized as the rules of the game were recorded and the cards survived even after the fall of the Mughal court. The Deccani and other provincial courts like Murshidabad have well established court painting tradition and the artists were commissioned to prepare set of cards by royals and other courtiers.

Then the Maratha courts under Peshvas provide the written records of the game. The artisans were mainly concentrated in Savanthvadi which was under the stronghold of Marathas, produced many sets of Ganjifa to the household of Marathas. This resulted in the development of Savantavadi School in Ganjifa art. Savantvadi supplied ganjifa cards to Kanhoji Andre and Nana Phadnavis.

The Maratha ganjifas were based on Hindu themes such as Dasavatara (the ten incarnations of Mahavishnu) and Navagraha. The literary evidences of this region state that the Dasavatara ganjifa originated from the court of Peshvas. Another important region where Ganjifa is still played by the priestly community is Puri in the state of Orissa. The Dasavatara ganjifa owes its emergence to the Jagannath Temple Puri. The sets depicting the Nakshatra and the Ramayana are also attributed to Orissa. The Maharaja of Sonepur from Orissa himself wrote on ancient Ramayana containing 12 suits and 144 cards. During the Jagannatha Rathayatra, the chariot festival at Puri the ganjifa cards were sold by artisans who were making ganjifa in large numbers.

Similarly, Mysore has the heritage of playing Ganjifa. During the times of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III the fine arts and literature were given high preference. The king himself took personal interest in promoting the arts and crafts in this region. Sritatvanidhi is an encyclopaedia attributed to this king, has a chapter known as Kautukanidhi, meaning the treasure of wonders is dedicated to the procedure and types of indoor games of that time.

The historical game of Ganjifa was replaced with the cheaper version of cards coming from Britain and later printed in India. The game died out when the painters took to other professions. It is found in the collections of several British museums. In India too they have become collector’s items and there is a need to create awareness. In present times this art form remains isolated as an age-old practise in the homes of a few artists. Barring a small number of museums that display these cards and enterprising art collectors, we find, unfortunately, many people use Ganjifa cards as coasters to place coffee or tea cups.

 - Dr. Choodamani Nandagopal is a Historian and UNESCO Fellow and Dean, Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences, Jain University.