Ganjifa as a word signifies playing cards or card games in India, Nepal, Iran, some Arab countries and Turkey. The origin of the word Ganjifa is obscure. Gunj is a Persian word meaning treasure, treasury or minted money. Although the derivation of the word Ganjifa is not fully established, there is one factor in favour of it. There is always one money suit named after a coin of local currency.
It is difficult to tell when card games made their first appearance in India. But there is evidence to show that Ganjifa playing cards were in use in India as far back as the seventh century A.D. or earlier. Playing cards were apparently not known in India before the beginning of the sixteenth century. They were introduced under the first Moghul Rulers who brought them from their ancestral homes of Central Asia.
The Moghul Ganjifa having 96 cards in the standard eight suits of 12 cards each is variously known as CHANGA-KANCHAN in Sawantwadi and CHANGA-RANI in Andhra Pradesh. It is known as Navagunjara in parts of Orissa. The latter retains the suit names and signs of the Moghul Ganjifa but replaces figures on the court cards with those of Hindu divinities and heroes. In the Krishna-Balarama or Krishna-Radha Ashtamal Sara the eight heroic deeds of the young Krishna are depicted on the Vazir cards in a most animated fashion.
The Hinduization of Ganjifa themes must have contributed greatly to the spread and popularity of the game. Dashavatara Ganjifa with the avatars as incarnations of Vishnu presiding over the ten suits was the most popular card game in Rajasthan, Bengal, Nepal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra.
The structure and rules of both the games, Moghul and Dashavatara Ganjifa are essentially the same. The only difference is that the number of suits of cards have been increased in the Dashavatara Ganjifa to make the game more complex and difficult.
In Maharashtra and Orissa, it was a widespread Brahmin pastime. A later Brahmin rationalization of this pursuit was the notion that the performance of the game is pleasing to God. Around 1885 Hari Krishna Venkataramana argued that by playing the Vishnu memoriser game, sins are washed away. It is said in the Bhapwatam that by invoking the name of Vaikuntha by gestures and even by way of joking or abuse, sins are made to wash away. If the name of God is used during the game saying "your Rama did this" or your Brahma did that" or "your Narasimha lost and my Matsya won" then, by this repetion of God's name sins are remitted.
Not in the category of the Moghul and Dashavatara Ganjifa are the 48 card Naqsh set from Bishnupur which are gambling cards and are still in use in some parts of the country. Naqsh is a very popular and prominent gambling game played in North, Central and East India. It is played during the festival season between Dassera and Diwali in October and November under the auspices of Lakshmi, Goddess of good fortune. Naqsh means design of any kind, shape or pattern and designates any winning combination.
The traditional Ganjifa cards were and are handmade and hand painted, each single card being a work of art. Groups of Chitrakars, painters and craftsmen in numerous centers took up the challenge and produced cards in diverse styles. Two styles of cards generally prevailed. The Darbar Kalam and the Bazar. The former made by the artists for the rulers and nobility and the latter for a less affluent clientele by craftsmen in many regional centers.
The process of making Ganjifa cards was laborious and it involved all members of a family. Generally pieces of cloth or rags were glued, layered, stretched, dried and primed with an extract of tamarind seeds and coated with lime, burnished with stone several times till a smooth surface was obtained and the pata ready. Roundels were cut from the sheets with the help of templates and scissors and then the colours were laid on in several stages. Finally the senior most artist would draw with a fine brush the black outlines and details of the figure cards etc. Junior artists would draw the numeral cards.
The Indian cards are usually circular in shape and their backs painted in plain colours. The Darbar Kalam cards were made of ivory, tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, and precious metals. The bazar cards were made of paper, fabric, paper-mache, leather, palm leaves etc.
Ganjifa is a trick making game without trumps in which the number of cards won and not their values count towards victory. The site where it is wished to play should always be covered with a pure white and clean cloth and the game should be played with a used set only. The number of players is normally three but for multi-suited games, four and five players are admitted. The deal rotates in anti-clockwise direction. No card games with similar rules are to be found in Europe.
In the nineteenth century, the Europeans introduced printed cards featuring stylized figures of French Kings, Queens and Knights which became very popular. Hand painted cards like Ganjifa were too expensive for players of average means. As a result, Ganjifa Chitrakars have passed into oblivion. Older generation Chitrakars have died or become invalid with age. Their children and grand children although adept at making Ganjifa cards are no more interested in painting them. Ganjifa is on its way to becoming an antique or collectors item.
In spite of this, several traditional themes and facsimiles of earlier Ganjifa sets have been painted during the last few years. It is important to give a boost to the artists of younger generations, including monetary help from the government and moneyed patrons of arts so that the art of making Ganjifa cards can be kept alive. Awareness among the public is necessary so the knowledge of the Indian Ganjifa cards and the games that are played with them will not be lost.