An Introduction to Ganjifa Cards

Playing cards are one of the most popular gaming objects all over the world, both because of the variety of designs they are available in and the variety of ways they can be played with. Hence, a lot of countries claim themselves to be the place of origin of the first cards. But it has been popularly accepted that they originated from Imperial China which has references of a leaf game (Zhou 1997) from as early as the 9th century (Wilkinson 1895). If the history of cards is traced, it can be observed how they have changed over the ages. From the leaf game of Imperial China to the modern European sets, they have gone through a lot of evolutionary stages. One such stage is found in the medieval times in some parts of Asia Minor and South East Asia. In various regions, it is called Ganjifā, Ganjapa, Ganjafeh, Ganjafāh, Kanjafeh, Kanjifāh, Kanjapā, or Kanjafāh. ‘Ganjifā’ is the most popularly used term (Gordhandas 2007).

The origin of the word Ganjifā is obscure. Some scholars believe “Ganj” is a Persian word, meaning treasure, treasury, or minted money (Gordhandas 2007), hoard or granary (Chopra 1999). Some others say that it is neither of Persian nor Turkish nor Arabic origin but is an adapted or a corrupt version of some other foreign word whose antecedents are unknown (Leyden 1982). According to Siddharth Y. Wakankar, it is derived from the Sanskrit verb ‘ganj’ which means making noise, loud sounds. His logic behind this is that while playing the game the winners always shout with the excitement of victory over the others (Wakankar 1980). When the history of cards in India is traced back, the earliest confirmed mention is found from Baburnama about the cards of Ganjifa (Beveridge 1969).

The most popular belief among the scholars is that the Mughals brought Ganjifa to India (Leyden 1982). This is not yet completely accepted but if there were similar games already present in this country, no solid evidence is found except for a local oral tradition of Kridapatram (Saletore 1982). But the Mughals certainly did play the most important role in highlighting and spreading the cards and the game throughout their empire and beyond. With the spread of the empire, the game and the cards got amalgamated with the local cultures through the local rulers under the Mughals in such a way that slowly every kingdom started having its own variety or varieties of Ganjifa. The Mughal version of the set that had arrived with them was based on the setup of the Mughal court. However, the acculturisation gave birth to innumerable varieties depicting the themes that are popular in the respective regions they were patronised and manufactured in.

Among the varieties of Ganjifa cards which became most popular throughout the country and also the world are from Odisha, Mysore in Karnataka, Nirmal in Telangana, Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Kashmir, Bishnupur in West Bengal and Sheopur in Madhya Pradesh. The range of themes painted in all these different packs and the different styles of traditional paintings used in them make every region, every pack a subject of study.

Structure of a Pack of Ganjifa

As the pack of Ganjifa played by the Mughals is the earliest version we find in India, it is taken as the standard set. It contains eight suits. A pack of Ganjifa cards which is made for playing purposes will always have an even number of suits. Some sets are made with an uneven number of suits but only for the sake of the art, they cannot be played with. They are divided into two groups with an equal number of suits. Every suit has a king (Badshah or Raja), a minister (Wazir or Pradhan), and ten numeral cards. In one group of suits, the numeral cards have an ascending order from one to ten and in the other, the order is descending from ten to one. The former group is called Bishbar (Strong) and the latter as Kambar (Weak). The list of strong and weak suits in a Mughal set is given below.



Safed (Silver Coins)

Surkh (Gold Coins)

Taj (Crown)

Chang (Musical instrument)

Samsheer (Sword)

Qimash (Furniture)

Ghulam (Servants)

Barat (Documents)

The relation between the Persian word Ganj and Ganjifā cannot be overlooked as the treasury is represented by two suits in the set i.e. Safed and Surkh.

The Ganjapa of Odisha

Ganjifa is called Ganjapa in Odisha due to the phonetic limitations of the Odia language. Odisha is one of the few states which still have the tradition of manufacturing and playing the cards active at multiple centres. From among all the centres a few have no traces of the cards left. Some are still more or less active while a few others have stopped producing or/and playing but their varieties of cards are found with collectors, old players or players from the nearby areas, etc.

As a predominantly Vaishnav state, most of the sets played in Odisha are based on different mythological stories associated with forms of Lord Vishnu. Below the sets have been enumerated theme-wise in the more or less surviving playing and production centres of Odisha.


As a dhaam of Vaishnavism, the Puri region is mainly famous for two of its sets, the Dashavatara Ganjapa and the Nabagunjara Ganjapa. The heritage village of Raghurajpur is mainly the production centre for the cards and the town of Puri is the playing centre. However, both places have traces of being active in both the activities of producing and playing till recent times.

a. Dashavatara: This is the most common and popular set not just in this state but throughout India. It is based upon the story of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. But gradually other deities have also made a place for themselves in the extended versions as the demand for larger sets increased for more intricate games (Pati 2014). Originally it is ten-suited but the number of suits might go up to twenty-four as per the demand of the patrons. Almost all the major deities like Brahma, Shiva, Ganesha, Kartikeya, Surya, Chandra, etc. are included in the extended sets. The present set played in Puri by the temple staff is sixteen-suited. Each suit is dedicated to one deity and the king and minister cards of different suits bear the picture of their deities. The numeral cards are painted with the symbol of the different deities. The symbols are repeated according to the numeral card.

Dashavatara Ganjapa of Raghurajpur and Puri

b. Nabagunjara: This set is typical to only the Puri region. It is based on the story of an episode from the Odia Mahabharata by Saraladas about Lord Krishna visiting Arjuna during his penance (Pati 2014). The poet describes that the Lord wanted to test his friend’s (Arjun’s) sincerity towards their friendship, so he appears in a strange form which is a combination of nine animals. This mythical composite animal is called Nabagunjara (literally meaning nine animals). In this set king cards of all the suits have Nabagunjara depicted on them and the minister cards have Arjun with folded hands. All the suits look the same except for their colour. This set has eight suits.


In the western part of Odisha, Ganjapa cards are as popular as in the eastern part. Among the playing centres like Bargarh, Sambalpur, Sonepur, Kalahandi, etc., Sonepur is the only place that has kept up both the painting and playing traditions alive. This place, however, produces and plays only one kind of set (Pati 2014).

  1. Ramayana: The local and political tradition of this place refers to the town as Ravana’s Lanka, the Golden City. That is why it is named as Subarnapur or Sonepur meaning ‘golden city’. Even the tutelary deity of the town is Lankeshvari and her temple is situated on an island. After this belief, the only Ganjapa set here is based on the final battle of Ramayana (Pati 2014). It has twelve suits and it is divided into two parts, six belong to the Ram team and six to the Ravana team.

Ramayana Ganjapa of Sonepur


Paralakhemundi in Gajapati district used to be a rich source of art because of the royal patronage of the Gajapati kings. The painting style is different again, it looks cruder than the Puri and Sonepur styles. The most popular packs here too are the Dashavatara and Ramayana (Pati 2014).

a. Dashavatara: It is a simple set with ten suits dedicated to ten incarnations of Vishnu. Extended sets are not commonly found (Pati 2014).

b. Ramayana: The Ramayana set of Paralakhemundi is different from that of Sonepur. It has eight or ten suits and each suit narrates an episode from the epic. Hence, the sizes of the cards are bigger. The King card shows King Ram and Queen Sita on a throne made of nine women and in the minister card either Rama or Sita is shown sitting in an elephant-shaped throne made up of nine women. This form is called Navanarikunjara, literally meaning an elephant made of nine ladies. The numeral cards depict episodes from the epic, each suit provides a different story (Pati 2014).

Vishwamitra teaching Lord Rama and his brothers

Sita urging Lord Rama to bring the Golden Deer for her


This little town in the Ganjam district used to be a kingdom, which has lost its supremacy and charm. The king was old and stayed in a humble, hut-like house when I had visited him in 2012-13. But he could still remember playing the game way back in his youth (Pati 2014).

  1. Dashavatara: The packs in Chikiti may have up to twenty suits. The specialty of the Ganjapa of Chikiti is the experiment done with either their king cards or the numeral cards. The king cards may have the image of Vishnu sitting under Shesha Naga in each suit or the images of the deities of different suits. The numeral cards may have different birds painted representing the number of the card or the symbols of different deities of different suits (Pati 2014).

Lord Vishnu under Sheshanaga on King card and birds in numeral cards

Deity on the King card and symbol of the deity on the numeral cards

b. Ramayana: This set is also story-based, like the Paralakhemundi one. It is eight-suited. The uniqueness of this set is especially the king's card. The king cards of all the suits bear the same picture, the painting of Lord Rama being enthroned and crowned as the king with his queen Sita beside him, brother Lakshmana behind him, and his prime devotee Hanuman kneeling in front of them. It is called the Shri Rama Pattabhisekha Ganjapa. Here the episodes from Lord Rama’s life are pictured in the minister cards (Pati 2014).

On the Minister cards of two suits
Above: the killing of Bali and Below: Sita and Lord Rama’s wedding where the lord breaks the Shiva dhanu (bow)

Besides these major packs, there are a few other Ganjifa packs found in Odisha like Krishnashtamalla (the eight feats of Lord Krishna), Ashtadikpala (eight cardinal deities) and Ratha-Hati/Ghoda (King cards with depicts chariots and minister cards depict elephant or horse).


Two suits from Krishashtamalla set showing two feats of Lord Krishna
Left: Killing of Crane monster and Right: Dominating the cobra, Kalia

Ratha-Hati (Chariot and Elephant) Set

The cards of Odisha are prepared by the traditional Pattachitra painters or Chitrakaras, as they are called. So the preparation of these cards is the same as the base for the patta paintings. Sheets of cloths are stuck together with a paste made out of powdered tamarind seeds. Then it is dried outside until it becomes a hard sheet. Both the surfaces of the sheet are polished with rough and polished stone one after the other. The colours are made from natural materials.

  1. White from conch shell (Śaṅkha)
  2. Red from Hiṅguḷa and Gairika or Geru stone
  3. Yellow from Haritāḷa stone
  4. Black from pure lamp-black or black produced by burning coconut shells
  5. Green from the juice of leaves or a mixture of yellow and blue
  6. Blue (relatively later addition) from the lapis-lazuli stone or from a type of indigo

These materials are powdered and mixed with the tamarind seed paste and are kept stored in halves of coconut shells. Coarse brushes are made from kia plant’s root, thick ones are from cattle hair and soft ones from rodent hair.

These cloth cards last for a long time and with time they become soft but do not tear easily.


The erstwhile capital of Sawantwadi kingdom and state, now a small town, Sawantwadi has still not lost its charm. It is situated in the Konkan region of Maharashtra, near Goa. Ruled by the Sawant Bhosale clan of Marathas, with the surname Khem-Sawant, this kingdom has earned a name for itself because of its benevolent rulers and important political connections. Sawantwadi in Sindhudurg District is one such place and the only place left in Maharashtra producing these cards even now. Among all, the Dashavatara set is the most popular (Pati 2014).

In Sawantwadi too, like Odisha, the Chitrakara or Chitari community are the original artists of these cards. They bear the surname of Chitari. They are wood and lacquer toy makers. As expensive materials like ivory and mother of pearl or tortoise shells are either illegal or difficult to acquire in large quantities, the cards for the common people were started to be made of common materials by the folk artists (Leyden 1982). In Sawantwadi layers of paper or cardboard were used by the wooden toymakers. The colours were made from mineral stones and brushes were made from the back of the neck of a goat. The signature of Sawantwadi art is it's lacquering. They used natural lacquer from trees in the earlier times. But nowadays all the materials come readymade. As the demand has decreased so has the hard work done after them. The base is still paper or cardboard but the colours and brushes used are the synthetic ones from the market. Synthetic colours do not stay for very long and start peeling off. On top of it, instead of natural lacquer, they use Touchwood, a brand of artificial lacquer. This causes the stacked cards to stick to each other and after a few years, it causes the layer of lacquer to come off pulling out along with it the layers of colour themselves. It also causes the paper to get bent (Pati 2014).


The most popular theme of Ganjifa in this place is the Dashavatara set. It has no additional deities to the 10-suited set or an extended Dashavatara set. No particular colour association is followed. The king and minister cards bear the images of the deities and the numeral cards either have the symbol associated with the deity or some birds to denote the number of the card.

Dashavatara set with symbols of the deity on numeral cards

Dashavatara set with birds on numeral cards

Sindhudurg district has remarkable Vaishnav associations. It is famous for the worship of Vetoba, a local and very popular form of Lord Vishnu in Maharashtra. There is also an age-old tradition of holding local Dashavatara Natak since the 11th century. The local influence can be seen very well on the cards.

Besides this set, there are also a few more themes that are more or less typical to this place viz. Navagraha Ganjifa (based on the planets according to the Hindu mythology), Rashi Ganjifa (based on the zodiac signs of a Hindu calendar), Chang-Kanchan (the Mughal style set), Santh Ganjifa (based on the famous Marathi saints). The modern 52-cards’ set is also produced but it hardly holds any value (Pati 2014).

Navagraha Ganjifa

Rashi Ganjifa

Chang-Kanchan (Based on Mughal Ganjifa set)

Sawantwadi is one of the very few places which have put efforts to revive this art under able patronage. The Citāris had almost forsaken this traditional vocation till recently when, in the early 20th century, some of the members of the royal family, the King, Late Lt. Col. Rajabahadur Shivaram Sawant Bhonsale and his wife, made efforts for the revival of this art. The Queen, Late Rani Satvashila Devi, arranged a painting workshop for the artists inside the palace itself. The art was not kept caste or gender-specific anymore and whoever was interested in painting and was able enough, was appointed to be a painter at the permanent Ganjifa workshop.


The new generation lives a highly fast and busy life. There is hardly any time for recreation. Leisure is used in modern luxuries and games which are mostly virtual and less time-consuming. The technological entertainments have stolen the popularity of the older pastimes. There is no interest in learning a tough and time-consuming traditional game. Even the children of the veteran players have not continued the culture. As a result, the surviving playing centres mostly have players who are in the twilight of their lives. Many of the regions have already lost the game and the cards as well.

This distressing condition of such a heritage game calls for some urgent measures. Whatever traces are found, they can still be strung together to preserve the history that is still surviving. Besides, the surviving sets can be preserved too for the posterity through digitisation and keeping the records online. Lately, workshops and seminars are being organised by institutes and organisations to create awareness and interest in the cards and games. Art connoisseurs and collectors have contributed greatly to this purpose. Recently, a few PhD scholars have done their theses on region-specific Ganjifas. All the efforts done till now are still not enough to restore the glory of the Ganjifa cards. Creating national and international demand for the cards is the key. This will encourage artists to prepare more and will create more jobs for their future generations who are unwilling to learn the art now. Moreover, the scope for research is vast in this field. With wider awareness, more academicians will take up the subject and it may be saved from absolute extinction.

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