Ganjifa The Indian Card Game

The word ‘Ganjifa' signifies traditional playing cards or card games in India, Nepal, Iran, some Arab countries and Turkey. In India, the game of Ganjifa is said to have existed as far back as the 7th century A.D. Ganjifa cards flourished wherever the Mughals ruled in India, and they were hand-painted ornately with figurative work or embellished with intricate miniatures for the courtiers. Generally the cards are circular and sometimes rectangular in shape with lacquered backs.

In the past, different material such as ivory, tortoise shell, mother of pearl, waste paper, textile fabric and palm leaf were used. They usually measured from two to twelve centimeters in diameter. Two sets of Ganjifa are popular in India – the Mughal Ganjifa and the Hinduised Dasavatara Ganjifa set.

The Mughal Ganjifa set has 96 cards in the standard 8 suits of 12 cards each (comprising the numerals one to ten and two "Court" or trump cards). Dancing, hunting, worshipping, playing chaupar (board game used for gambling) and processions are some of the subjects painted on the cards. In Dasavatara Ganjifa, there are ten suits of twelve cards with an upper court card, Raja, a lower court card, Pradhan or Mantri, and ten numerals in each suit. The specialty of these cards is the depiction of the ten incarnations of Vishnu. The incarnation suits are: Matsya (fish), Kurma (turtle), Varaha (boar), Narasimha (lion), Vamana (water pot), Parashurama (axe), Rama (bow & arrow, or monkey), Krishna (quoit or cow), Buddha (conch) and Kalkin (sword or horse).

Ganjifa cards are not merely playing cards, but a way of life for the artisan. Making the Ganjifa cards involves a tedious process, often involving all the members of the artists' family, with individual responsibility depending upon age and ability. Apart from being a part of traditional games, these cards are fascinating objects in themselves – they incorporate aspects of court art, courtly culture and art, and Hindu religious symbolism. The cards are packed in painted boxes with sliding lids that are as beautifully made as the cards inside. Ganjifa is an intrinsic part of an artistic tradition and the card games unravel myth, legend, lore and a cosmological picture of the world.

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