Ganjifa: An Ancient Indian Card Game

Posted on March 1, 2012 in Culture-Vulture

By Nidhi Sharma:

Few days back I got a chance to visit an exhibition with my friends in the city. It was an all states art and craft mela. People from different states were exhibiting their art form. There in one corner where I saw a stall of with miniature types of paintings, I went towards that corner as I always wanted to buy one painting. When I asked the person who was manning that stall how much are the miniature paintings for, he told me, “Madamji, its Ganjifa paintings and we have Ganjifa playing cards also”. As I began to walk away thinking the guy was trying to fool me, he said, “It not your fault. It is actually a very old art form of paintings and playing cards”. He was from Odisha. He told me how some of the families are trying to revive this dying art form. I requested the owner of the stall to tell me more about these Ganjifa playing cards as he himself was a Ganjifa artist and a good player of Ganjifa cards.

Ganjifa Playing Cards:

‘Ganjifa’ is the name given to an ancient Indian card game.  Quite aptly the name Ganjifa comes from the Persian word Ganjifeh which means playing cards. The specialty of these cards is that they are traditionally hand-painted. The cards are typically circular although some rectangular decks have been produced.

Early History of the Game:

Historically this game is believed to have been brought to India and popularized during the Moghul period. The general assumption is Moghul Emperors brought the cards to India early in the sixteenth century. Once established, the cards spread to most regions of India either in the original form known as Moghul Ganjifa, or in their slightly later Hindu form; ten suits of twelve cards each, known as Dashavatara Ganjifa

Each region in the country had its own form of the game. There was the Sawantwadi Ganjifa from Maharashtra, Navadurga Ganjifa from Orrisa, Rajasthan and Gujrat Ganjifa, Kashmir Ganjifa, Nepal Ganjifa and the Mysooru Ganjifa which was greatly patronized by the Mysore Royal family during their reign

Colors and Brushes Used:

Ganjifa paintings were made from natural dyes and colors and squirrel hair brushes were used for their fineness. Colors are made by hand and they are rich in natural minerals and vegetable dyes. The artists grind and mix these natural colors by hand himself. He also uses his own fine brushes including the squirrel hair brushes suitable to the Ganjifa painting technique.

People Beliefs Behind the games:

The main aim of the game was to teach, learn and tell stories from our ancient scriptures and holy books. Style was set to stories and shlokas from the Hindu Puranas, stories from the Ramayana, the chapters from Mahabharata and many more scriptures.

In Maharashtra and Orissa, Ganjifa was a widespread Brahmin pastime. Old people are still seen playing Dashavatara Ganjifa near Puri Temples, mainly with 16-suited 192 card decks. A later Brahmin rationalization of this pursuit was notion that the performance of the game is pleasing to the God. Around 1885, Hari Krishna Venkataramana argued that by playing the Vishnu memorizing game, ones sins are washed away. It is said in Shri Bhagwata Purana, which invokes the name of Vaikunta through gestures, and even via joking and abuse, sins are made to wash away. If the name of the God is used during the game saying, “Your Rama did this” or “Your Matsya lost” and “My Narasimha won”, through the repetition of the God’s name sins are remitted.

How to Play with Ganjifa Cards:

The standard playing cards of India are usually a set each of 96 cards of Mughal Ganjifa and of 120 or 144 cards of Dashavatara Ganjifa.  The structure and the rules of both the games are the same except that in Dashavatara, the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu are depicted.

Cards are placed on a white cloth.  After shuffling the cards, face down on the cloth, the players cut a deal and the cards are divided equally amongst three or four players.  The player with the highest denomination starts the game.  The suits are divided into strong and weak suits.  For example in the Mughal Ganjifa set Taj, Safed, Samsher and Ghulam are strong suits while Chang, Surkh, Barat and Qimash are weak suits.  The sequence of each suit is arranged as Raja, Pradhan and serial number ace to ten for strong suits and ten to ace for weak suits.  Each time the trick is to win the round by placing the highest denomination.  Therefore it is beneficial for a player to remember all the symbols and cards played.  By the end of the game, which is played in anti-clock-wise direction, the player who amasses the maximum number of cards is the winner.  Similarly the game can be played with the Dashavatar set, Ashtadikpala, Ramayana and Navagraha.  One of the greatest benefits is that besides a memory test, the game provides a good retention of traditional knowledge.

Four traditional artisan families, all national awardees, play an important role in reviving this art form.  They were, Mohan Shamarao Kulkarni and Subhas Chitari from Sawantwadi (Maharasthra); Gurupad Bhat from Mysore (Karnataka), Banamali and Bijaya Kumar Mahopatra from Raghurajpur (Orissa); and Narasingam and Satyanarayan from Nirmal (Andhra Pradesh).