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Ganjifa - Playing Cards from India

Published July 05, 2024 Updated July 05, 2024

Indian playing cards, known as Ganjifa, feature intricate designs with twelve suits and are traditionally hand-painted.

India History Ganjifa Add to Collection

Above: Ten of Ghulam suit, showing ten court assistants.

Playing cards were made in India at least as long ago as around 1500. It is not certain whether they pre-date European and Middle-Eastern cards, but there is enough similarity to say that they are related. ‘Ganjifa’ is the name of a game commonly played with the cards, as well as the cards themselves.

Above: The 8 of Surkh (gold coins).

Indian cards are arranged in suits of twelve. They have two court figures – a Shah or Mir (King) and a Wazir (Minister) and ten numerals. The most common arrangement has eight suits, so 96 cards in all, probably coming from combining two sets of 48.

The suits relate to the Court of a wealthy ruler:

  • Taj – a crown representing the court and its regalia
  • Safed – white or silver, and meaning a coin, also associated with the moon
  • Shamsher – a curved sword and sometimes shown with military figures
  • Ghulam – an assistant with many possible roles
  • Chang – a small harp, relating to entertainment
  • Surkh – meaning red or gold and also associated with the sun
  • Barat – a document, related to the chancellery of the court
  • Qimash – household items, often shown as a cushion.

In the Ghulam suit, number cards show groups of people and are often interesting designs. Many of the other numerals have people or animals added. The Chang suit often depicts the harem, where music was played, so the cards often have female characters.

Ganjifa are traditionally circular and made by hand painting onto thick card and then lacquering. Some are more lavishly produced on materials like ivory and brass. As these cards are so beautifully painted, it is a little sad that the makers are not identified.

Left: Single Mughal Ganjifa court card. Mir of Surkh (King of gold coins) 1850-1875.


References

  1. von Leinden, Rudolph: Ganjifa — The Playing Cards of India — A general survey, with a catalogue of the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection; 1982.
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By Paul Bostock

Member since May 07, 2024

Paul has been a collector of playing cards since his early teenage years, the mid 1970s. In the last 20 years or so he has specialised in standard English cards and their story. His collection, including many other English Standards, are featured on his website plainbacks.com. Paul is currently editor of Clear the Decks, the Journal of 52 Plus Joker, the American club for playing card collectors, and is a member of the IPCS Council, an EPCS member and a Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing cards, a City of London livery company.


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