Ganjifa/Playing Cards of Karnataka

Endangered/ Red List, Games, Toys, Dolls, Kites, Sports

Ganjifa/Playing Cards of Karnataka

Games are a common passion, a common pastime which cross all sections of the community. Playing or watching games form a highly significant aspect of culture, both because of their importance in peoples lives and their capacity to bring families and communities together and because of the degree of creativity and skill that go into devising them.

No indoor games match the passion with which cards are played in India. One such card game, now facing extinction is Ganjifa.


The leading theory is that the Ganjifa pattern was created in Persia, most likely under the influence of playing cards from the East (probably money-suited decks), and introduced in India by the Mughals. The origin of the term Ganjifa is obscure. Ganj is a Persian term meaning ‘treasure, treasury or hoard’.

The first mention of the game is made in the Babarnama, the memoir of Babar. The founder of the Mughal dynasty, Emperor Babur, who ruled from 1526 to 1530, reports in his annals, “This evening… Mir Ali Korchi was dispatched to Tatta [in Sindh] to Shah Hussain. He is fond of the game with cards and had requested some which I have duly sent him.” The word used for cards in this text is Ganjifa or the Persian Ganjafeh.

The next, more detailed, reference is found in the Ain-I-Akbari, a book written by Abul Fazl Allami towards the end of the 16th century during the reign of the great Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605). Abul Fazl devotes a short chapter to the games – chess and ganjifa – played by Akbar.

Card playing became very popular and widespread in the 17th and 18th century at the innumerable Indian courts, especially within the zenanas (women’s quarters) where Ganjifa was the recourse from institutional boredom. With rising popularity it became the subject of much writing and beautiful decks were created for the nobility made of ivory or tortoise shell inlaid with precious stones (called darbar kalam). But the game was so popular it spread among the common people, who used cheaper sets made from wood, palm leaf, pasteboard, and various other inexpensive materials (called bazaar kalam).

The game spread with the expansion of the Mughal Empire. The Deccan belt, with its intermingling of North and South, Hindu and Muslim cultures became fertile ground for the development of a variety of games and cards. The hinduization of Ganjifa cards contributed to their spread and popularity and was played in Rajasthan, Bengal, Nepal, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

The practice and the rules of the game, played for centuries in India – across palaces and hovels – is now almost wiped out replaced, we hope not irrevocably, by the western import of the 52 set game. These cards, now curiosity items for tourist, are still hand-made and hand-painted by skilled craftsmen (chitrakara). Therefore, each deck is a truly unique item.


Despite the many changes, the general structure of any Ganjifa deck is not really different from other kinds of pattern. The suits are always made of twelve subjects, whose backgrounds are colored. Their values include pip cards running from 1 (or ace) to 10, and two courts: a minister (or counsellor) and a king.

The pips are small suit signs, more or less stylized, arranged in patterns of various fashion, a free choice of the artist who painted the deck, though often influenced by the regional trend.

The illustrations depict human figures and incarnations of many Indian divinities, posing in different attitudes, that change in accordance with the pattern of the deck and with the regional custom.

Ganjifa packs that come from the same area not only have similar illustrations but matching backgrounds too, differing from those of decks made elsewhere.
The use of different background colors for identifying the suits of the deck was once found also in the other variety of traditional Persian cards, the As-Nas, now extinct.

The geographic origin of a deck affects its background colors, one different for each suit, thus alternative names for Ganjifa decks, according to how many suits they have, are atharangi (“eight colours”), navarangi (“nine colours”), dasarangi (“ten colours”), baraharangi (“twelve colours”), and so on. In patterns with more than eight suits, some colors may appear similar, but in this case the rim, clearly different, provides an easy reference.

●   Mughal Ganjifa

This style of Ganjifa was created and used by the Mughal courts and among the known patterns is probably the variety closest to the original pattern once used in Persia.

It has 96 cards divided into eight suits. The court cards are usually referred to with their old names: wazir (the minister), while the king is called shah (also padishah, or mir, probably short for amir).

In most parts of India, the wazir and shah subjects feature human figures (the king either seated on a throne or under a canopy, the minister often mounted, with or without his retinue). But in decks made in Odisha they are replaced by characters of the local mythology and religion.

●   Dasavatar Ganjifa

Although the game played with Ganjifa cards flourished among the Mughals in its 8-suited version, the Hindu players felt the need of a scheme somewhat closer to their homeland traditions. Therefore, they sought inspiration in themes borrowed from the local religion for illustrating the court cards, and creating their own suit signs.

The main non-Mughal Ganjifa pattern is the Dasavatara. This word literally means “ten incarnations”, referring to the human and animal appearances traditionally chosen by god Vishnu for revealing himself, in opposition to evil.

Such incarnations, usually ten but sometimes more, according to the local beliefs, are as follows: Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise) Varaha (boar), Narasimha (half man, half lion), Vamana (dwarf), Parashurama (Rama with an axe), Rama (hero of the Ramayana), Krishna, Buddha and Kalkin (the incarnation yet to come)

The number of suits in the Dasavatara Ganjifa are ten (five “strong” and five “weak”), and their signs reflect the features of the religious theme. Eight out of ten suits are standard, found in all decks, while two of them may vary from region to region, chosen among a number of optional ones (see the following table).

However, often Dasavatara Ganjifa decks have more than ten suits: two additional ones are common, but larger sets may count up to 20 or 24 suits (i.e. 240 to 288 cards, a rather unusual composition).

Some names of the Dasavatara suits are those of the incarnations to whom they refer, while all the signs are symbols of their feats; besides the customary ones, some alternative signs are sometimes preferred.

Suit Names
Suit Signs
(alternatives shown in square brackets)
  Bishbar suits
Balarama (optional)
Buddha (optional)
Jagannath (optional)
Krishna (optional)
monkey [ bow and arrow ] [ arrow ]
sword [ horse ] [ parasol ]
plough [ club ] [ cow ]
shell [ lotus flower ]
lotus flower
cow [ crowned bust ] [ blue child ] [ chakra ]
  Kambar suits
chakra (decorated disc)
jug / vase
  additional suits (if any)
vedas (scriptures)
snake noose
small Garuda
vina (Indian lute)

●   Bird Motif Ganjifa

A particular variety of Ganjifa cards is the one in which the ordinary suit signs are replaced by birds (or, more seldom, by other animals too). It is found especially with a Mughal composition, i.e. eight suits. More recently, also a few Dasavatara samples have been made with ten suits, each of which is represented by a different bird; the small flower vase at the base of each pip card is merely decorative.

The choice of using birds as suit signs is not terribly surprising, considering the many included in Hindu mythology, among which are the crow (vehicle of Shani), the peacock (vehicle of Kartikkeya), the parrot (vehicle of Kamadeva), the swan (vehicle of Saraswati and Brahma), plus a few mythical creatures such as Garuda (half man and half eagle, vehicle of Vishnu) and Arva (half horse and half bird).

The birds featured in Ganjifa cards (i.e. the pips) are small and rather stylized, but the suits can be told also by the colour of the background, and by the personages of the court cards, who sometimes hold the traditional sign (sword, shell, jug, etc.), or are recognizable by their particular shape.

●   Other Ganjifas

Besides the Dasavatara and the Mughal Ganjifa (including the “birds” variety), several other patterns exist, yet less common than the two aforesaid ones. They feature specific themes with a various number of suits.

  • Rashi Ganjifa: Rashi (zodiac) Ganjifa is a twelve-suited pattern that features zodiac symbols as suit signs. The Indian or Vedic zodiac is similar to the Western one: it divides the year into twelve periods or “houses”, each of which is identified by a symbol.

  • Navagraha Ganjifa: Navagraha means “nine planets”. In Hindu culture, these planets are believed to bestow humans with special gifts, and are worshipped as gods (specific prayers are recited to each of them). In India this is an important cult; in fact, the Navagraha Ganjifa pattern was created at the beginning of the 20th century by Shankar Sakharama Hendre, whose project was to sell cards to raise enough money for building a temple dedicated to the Nine Planets, in Bombay. Although his goal was not achieved, the Navagraha Ganjifa survived. In this pattern each suit represents a planet; but the last two, Rahu and Ketu, are actually lunar nodes, namely the ascending node and descending node, respectively referred to as “dragon’s head” and “dragon’s tail”, and often pictured as a bodyless head and a headless body. Each planet is a deity itself, to which a month, a zodiac sign, a color, a gem and a steed are matched.

The full series of planets (some have alternative names, according to the different parts of the country) are: Surya/ Ravi (Sun) on a 7 horse-drawn chariot, Chandra (Moon) on an antelope-drawn chariot, Mangala/ Kuja (Mars) on a buffalo or goat, Budhan/ Buddha (Mercury) on a lion with elephant’s trunk, Guru/ Brihaspati (Jupiter) on an elephant or goose, Sukrana/ Sukra (Venus) on a horse, Sani/ Shani (Saturn) on an eagle or crow and Rahu (Dragon’s head) and Ketu (Dragon’s tail) who have no vehicles.

Besides the Ganjifa varities mentioned so far, some others exist: the Ramayana Ganjifa, a twelve-suited pattern inspired by the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, the Ashtamala Ganjifa, inspired by eight episodes of Krishna’s life as a youth, and the Ashtadikpala Ganjifa which refers to the eight cardinal directions.


Besides their graphic features, what is probably the most interesting peculiarity of any Ganjifa deck is that these cards are still hand-made and hand-painted by skilled craftsmen, known as chitrakara. Therefore, each deck is a truly unique item.

Ganjifa are traditionally round, measuring approximately from 20 mm to 34 mm to 120 mm in diameter.

Today Ganjifa cards are made of layers of pressed paper, but in Odisha cloth is still used. At first, paper layers (normally six) are layered and glued together, primed with lime, dried, burnished, cut, painted and lacquered. The lacquer is made from Indian shellac (chapra) or other natural resins which give the cards the required stiffness, protection and smoothness in handling.

Cloth cards are made from cotton waste rags, soaked and starched with glue made from tamarind seeds; when dry, by using a mold the starched cloth is cut into discs, two of which are glued together to make individual cards; a paste made from chalk is then applied to make the surface even, and the deck is finally painted. Paints were traditionally made from mineral or vegetable substances are today increasingly replaced by readily available synthetic colors.

The process of making cards is shared by the entire family of chitrakars. Much of the preparatory work is done by women. Pip cards are painted by junior artists, figure cards by senior ones. They begin on previously prepared colored backgrounds by first outlining the figure in white or lighter colors and then they successively paint the details in different colors finishing the figure with a thin outline in black. Each artist evolves a personal style in spite of his fidelity to traditional conventions.

The cards are painted plain red or orange on the back. Cards from Odisha have yellow, green, blue and black backs and increasingly in recent years, brown backs rendered in cheap paint made from lal mati (red mud). Occasionally one finds the backs decorated with a rim line or small central flower. Fully ornamented backs are rare as the artist has to take special care to make the backs identical so as not to create any tell-tale irregularities.

Some decks are housed in a wooden box or case, often decorated with themes consistent with the pack’s pattern. Each region has evolved its own distinctive type for instance, in Rajasthan boxes are short and oblong painted predominantly in green or crimson, in Sawantwadi they are cubic are commonly in red, in Andhra Pradesh/Telangana they are long with bulging sides painted in green, in Mysore they are oblong or cubic, in Odisha cubic in black, brown and yellow and in Kashmir long boxes with floral patterns. The paintings vary from region to region, from floral motifs to elaborate processions. All boxes have a sliding lid.

Attempts to print Ganjifa decks have been made during the 20th century, without proving very successful, and therefore never replacing the traditional craft.

Regrettably, due to the lack of request, during the past decades the making of these decks, once a common activity throughout India, has considerably subsided, and is now no longer very common. The game too is certainly endangered, but not extinct, and especially in the state of Odisha the locals are still known to play with Ganjifa sets.

The main centres of Ganjifa manufacture are Sawai Madhopur and Karauli in Rajasthan, Sheopur in Madhya Pradesh, Fatehpur District in Uttar Pradesh, Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, Balkonda, Nirmal, Bimgal, Kurnol, Nossam, Cuddapah and Kondapalle in Andhra Pradesh, Mysore in Karnataka, Puri, Sonepur, Parlakhemundi, Barapalli, Chikiti and Jayapur in Odisha, Bishnupur in Bengal and Bhaktapur, Bhadbaon and Patan in Nepal.


The detailed rules of ganjifa games vary from region to region but they belong to the vast category of trick-taking games. In all such games, each player starts with an equal number of cards in hand. The hands are played out in tricks, each trick consisting of one card furnished by each player. In Ganjifa, the hand moves counter clockwise. A trick can only be won by a card of the same suit. If a card of the same suit is not with a player he may play with a low card of another suit. Since in ganjifa, players have so many cards in hand, this is common practice. Before the game begins, the player separates the winning and non-winning cards and uses the latter indifferently.

From this basic play, variations are derived. A univeral characteristic of Ganjifa games, whether played with eight, ten or twelve suits: the two court cards always rank highest in each suit, but in half the suits the numerical cards then rank in one order and the other half in the opposite order. The objective of the game is to win as many tricks as possible.

To a game in which the evocation of “your Rama did this” or “your Matsya lost and my Narasimhan won” was said to remit sins, Ganjifa today is a craft in crisis. In the coming years, unless the cards can make a transition from museum collections to the drawing rooms and card tables, it is an art which will become extinct.



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