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Bhavnagar Cards, Playing Through History.

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The former kingdom of Bhavnagar on the east coast of the Saurashtra Peninsula in Northwest India was small, but it was one of the most advanced princely states at the end of the 19th century. It is the only Indian state to have its own playing cards printed, the Bhavnagar State Historical Picture Series. However, the cards were never sold or distributed openly on the market.

The cards were produced on the occasion of the wedding of Princess Manhar Kunaurba with the Maharaja of Panna State, Yadaventrasinh Bahadur on the 2nd of December, 1912. Printed in Britain in 1911, the set of cards reproduces in colour, the wall paintings of the Darbargadh (Palace) of Sihore. The paintings illustrate King Wakhat Sinhji's (1772 - 1818) victories in the battles of Chital in 1793, Tana in 1794 and Patna in 1796. These paintings were commissioned soon after the events. It is said that a traditional kamangar painter from Kutch was taken to the battlefield alongside the fighting forces, in order to personally witness the fights and reproduce them in paintings. The illustrations therefore bear the mark of true authenticity.

The cards were distributed to the relatives and wedding guests. As marriage ceremonies were long, sometimes lasting for a week to 10 days, these special card games kept the guests amused and occupied during that period. Simultaneously, they could learn about the history of Saurashtra from the reproduced paintings. Enclosed was a bluish leaflet in which were the rules for four games, a description of the three important battles and a coloured map of the Bhavnagar State. Since photography was technically less advanced in those days, it was not possible to document the wall paintings directly. The help of a traditional kamangar painter was sought to reproduce them on paper using watercolour as a medium. This was done in a style faithful to the originals, each rectangular frame being finished with a red border at the top and bottom and with floral patterns like in the originals.


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The land of Saurashtra was originally inhabited by Kolis and Kathis, a strong militant race from whom the name of the region of Kathiawar (later Saurashtra) was derived. A power struggle between the Kathis and the Rajput chiefs resulted in the battle of Chital. The battle was decisive at the level of regional history, as it reduced the territory governed by the Kathi race in Saurashtra and established the supremacy of the Rajputs. It is said that Wakhat Sinhji, nicknamed Athabhai, who triumphed in this battle, was a devotee of the local deity, the mother Goddess Khodiyar. Folklore has it that Khodiyar always appeared as a black sparrow (Kali Dev), perched on his spear, and blessed him whenever he proceeded to the battlefield. The first figure in the wall paintings shows Wakhat Sinhji with a long moustache and impressive red headgear, decorated with gold brocade. He is seated on a white mare, Sihun, with a lance in his right hand and the legendary sparrow. The paintings are in long horizontal panels on the wall presenting Wakhat Sinhji, Bha Devani, commander-in-chief of the Rajput Army, Rupji Desai, also commander-in-chief and other important characters.

The Bhavnagar historical playing cards are a rich source for ethnologists, providing information on the clans and tribes of Saurashtra, as well as on the armoury of the Rajput army. Men of all classes and from different professions joined the battle along with their leaders and heroes. For instance, an Arab infantry soldier is shown with a muzzle loading rifle, which he was known to use. The paintings and their reproductions on the cards also give us an idea as to how cannons were pulled and carried to the battlefield. Since the cannon was not a native weapon, the presence of a Western expert was required. A pair of European officers have been depicted in the original friezes which subsequently appeared on the cards. These officers are most probably Portuguese, as the local literature referred to them as phirangi, a synonym for Portuguese in the regional dialect of Saurashtra. Wakhat Sinhji's army consisted of men from different races, ethnic groups and religions, including Portuguese and French. One particular card represented the variety of races and arms used by the army.


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The pack consists of 38 numbered cards, two without numbers and one with the view of the old Darbar Gadh of Killeh Sihore, the set totaling 41 cards. The cards are glazed, with rounded corners, gilt edges and printed in four colour letter press. There are seven different designs on the backs of the cards, a white back with a golden monogram and the initials "RBT" in the four corners and various floral designs with a large monogram in the centre. The pack also contains a colour map of the Bhavnagar State.

The deck consists of three suits, L, M, and N. The L suit is mainly connected with the battle of Chital in 1793. It is the largest suit with 19 numbered cards and one unnumbered card. The M suit has 14 numbered cards and seems to be connected with the battle of Tana in 1794. It is the most important for Wakhat Sinhji. He is depicted on his favorite mare Sihun on M-1, the card of the highest value. There is no unnumbered M card, but it is possible that the card with the view of Sihore town and fort takes this position. The unnumbered L and N cards are identical in design to M-1 and show the hero Raja Wakhat Sinhji on horseback with standard bearer and musicians. The N suit is the smallest with only 5 numbered cards. It can only be connected with the battle of Patna, 1796 which was the shortest.


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The games to be played with the pack are collecting and gambling games such as poker and rummy, probably compiled by someone in England. The four games provided in the leaflet were Not At Home, Brag, Army Spoof and Donkey. For the wedding, some cards were printed in a large size and were used as menu cards. Unfortunately, not a single one of them seems to have survived. However, the old servants who are still in the service of the royal family remember them.

These sets of cards are not easily available. The author has four of them. One set of 39 cards now belongs to a collector of Oriental playing cards in the Netherlands. Another set of 41 cards was gifted to the card room of Otter's Club at Bandra. The author was presented a 41 card set with gilt edges by the late Dr. Sivapriyananda of Mysore, who belonged to the royal family of Wadhwan, Saurashtra. He himself got the pack from his close friend, the late H. H. Maharaja Virbhadra Sinhji of Bhavnagar, a few months before the latter passed away suddenly on the 26th of July, 1994, at an early age of 62 years.

The following pages display selected cards from this unusual deck. Please note that these are high resolution images and will take time to load.


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Card L, His Highness Wakhatsinhji, alias Atabhai, on his favourite
mare "Sihun," carrying his famous lance.


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Card L-4, Hazuri Mitho with water guards.


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Card L-12, Sowars Reconnoitering Chital.


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Card L-13, Incidents whilst bombarding Chital


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Card L-14, A Combat before Chital


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Card L-18, Younger Prince Bapjiraj (on Elephantess Koka), welcoming
Thakore Ataji to his Capital after the Chital Campaign.


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Sihore Town and Fort


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Card M-1, His Highness Wakhatsinhji, alias Atabhai, on his favourite
mare "Sihun," carrying his famous lance.


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Card M-8, Raol Motibhai followed by Negro Zaver with water bottle.


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Card M-11, State Standard Bearer with Lungho Sumar, and Mace Bearer Fatu.


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Card M-13, Jemo, the Water Bearer in Chief, on Bullock Back and a Torch Bearer.


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Card M-14, The Bed Bearer Rabari Hajo on Camel Back, with the Guards.


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Card N, His Highness Wakhatsinhji, alias Atabhai, on his favourite
mare "Sihun," carrying his famous lance.


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Card N-1, Devani Raimal and Raol Jethibhai's pursuit of the Kathis.


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Card N-4, Repulse of Kathi Cavalry by Dhandhukia Sepoys.


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Kathi Cavalry in full retreat.


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Back patterns.


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Map of Bhavnagar State