From Kridapatram to Ganjifa

Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art

From Kridapatram to Ganjifa: Indian Playing Cards

Gupta, Swati


Playing cards have become an inseparable part of the human society. Though it is presumed that playing cards have been around for couple of centuries but further investigation into its history places it as early as in 7th A.D century when they were known as Kridapatram. Under the Mughal rule, in 16th century the playing cards reached their golden period when they were called Ganjifa.
Playing cards are believed to have originated independently in India or in China or that one was influenced by the other. In India they were well known as Kridapatram which means “painted patras for playing” where, patras were made of cloth.
A typical playing card today is made out of specially prepared heavy paper, thin card or thin plastic, they are rectangular in shape and palm-sized for convenient handling.
A complete set of cards is called a pack or deck, and the set of cards held at one time by a player during a game is commonly called their hand. The front or face, of each card carries markings that distinguish it from the other cards in the deck and determine its use under the rules of the game being played. The back of each card is identical for all cards in any particular deck, and usually of a single color or formalized design. The cards are assembled into a deck, and their order is randomized by shuffling.

History of Indian playing cards
Earlier Indian cards or kridapatram were round in shape, were expertly hand painted with intricate designs, and comprised of more than four suits, and often as many as thirty two. Decks used for playing had suits starting from eight up to twenty.

According to Abul Fazal author of the Ain-e-Akbari, the game of cards was a very popular pastime in the Hindu courts when the Muslims came into India. According to his description of the game, the following cards were used. The first was Ashvapatiwhich means ‘lord of horses’. The Ashvapati which was the highest card in, the pack represented the picture of the king on horseback. The second highest card represented a General (Senapati) on horseback. After this card came ten other cards with pictures of horses from one to ten.

Another set of cards had the Gajapati (lord of elephants) which represented the king whose power lay in the number of elephants. The other eleven cards in this pack represented the Senapati and ten others with a soldier astride an elephant. Another set has the Narpati, a king whose power lies in his infantry. There were also other sets known as the Dhanpati, the lord of treasures, Dalpati the lord of the squadron, Navapati, the lord of the navy, Surapati, the lord of divinities, Asrapati, lord of genii, Vanapati, the king of the forest and Ahipati, lord of snakes, etc.
The composition of the deck was apparently based upon the number 12. This was the number of suits comprising a deck, each of which was made of the same number of subjects which used signs such as horses, elephants, men etc. Some of the decks were inspired by the epic Mahabharata, while others had fewer suits (8, or 10). Many details about the Kridapatram cards, though, remain a mystery, as they are not mentioned in any written source prior to the 16th century.
The earliest reference of Ganjifa was made in 16th century in the biography of Emperor Babur. It mentions how Babur enjoyed playing the game with his daughter, and even gave a set as a gift to a friend. It also contains a description of the suits that comprise the decks.
According to one interpretation the name of the cards originated from Farsi word ganjifeh, which means “playing card”. Whereas, the other interpretation suggest that the word ganjifa may have been created by blending the local ganj treasure” with the Chinese expression chi pai “paper cards”; hinting on an Oriental ancestry.
The development of the Ganjifa pattern resulted in remarkable changes. The number of suits was considerably increased, their signs were changed, but the shape remained round, making them the only circular cards known in the world. During the same time the native Hindu rulers felt the need of having cards that were closer to Hindu traditions. This need resulted in forming of Dasavatara decks, based on 10 incarnations of lord Vishnu. The intermingling of Muslim and Hindu cultures resulted in cards that had symbols from both the culture, resulting in Dasavatara Ganjifa’s. Later, with arrival of Europeans especially in the South rectangular Ganjifa packs also came into existence.

GANJIFA Structure
Despite many interpretations, the general structure of any Ganjifa deck is not really different. The suits are always made of twelve subjects, whose backgrounds are colored. Their values running from 1 to 10, and two courts: a minister and a king.

The geographic origin of a deck also affected its background colors. In the Ganjifadecks, different suits had different colors, and they were known according to how many different colored suits they have – Atharangi (eight colors), Navarangi (nine colors), Dasarangi (ten colors), Baraharangi (twelve colors), and so on.
In patterns with more than eight suits, some colors may appear similar; in that case the rim or the outer edges of the cards were made clearly different. The backs were either plain or had minor decorations at the rim.
Ganjifa packs that would come from the same area would 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 were once found in the variety of traditional Persian cards, the As-Nas, now extinct.

The names of the two court cards were either in Farsi, the official language of the Mughals, or either in Sankrit, or in Hindi (modern language).

The minor cards or the small suit signs were made more or less stylized, arranged in patterns in various fashion, which was a free choice of the artist who painted the deck. Though, the arrangement was often influenced by the regional trend. In the state of Orissa, from where the cards (below) are shown, the suit signs are more stylized than the ones found in the rest of the country, up to the point of being no longer recognizable and almost abstract. However, besides the background colors and the choice of the suits, some stylistic differences were found within the same state, from city to city.

The graphic features are probably the most interesting peculiarity of any Ganjifa deck. They were hand-made and hand-painted by skilled craftsmen, known as chitrakara, whose workshops were specialized in this form of art. Therefore, each deck was truly unique item.

Procedure of making the Ganjifa in Orissa

Ganjifa cards are made of layers of pressed paper, but in Orissa cloth is still used which is reminiscent of the Kridapatram times.
The sheets are soaked with starch made from tamarind seeds, and dried. A mold is used to cut the starched cloth/ paper into discs. The two of which are glued (made up of tamarind seeds) together to make individual card. A paste is made from chalkstone and is applied on the surface to make it even and to prevent moisture from penetrating below. The cards are then hand painted using natural colors. To house the deck a wooden box or case is made out of wood, often decorated with themes consistent with the pack’s pattern.
Under the Mughals, Ganjifa cards flourished, at first only in the court, where rich sets were made of ivory or tortoise shell inlaid with precious stones and were called Darbar kalam, but later on the game spread amongst the common people, who used cheaper sets made from wood, palm leaf and various other inexpensive materials called Bazaar kalam.

Although the card game played with Ganjifa cards flourished among the Mughals in its 8-suited version, the native Hindu players felt the need of retaining their ancient scheme of the Kridapatram, somewhat closer to their traditions. Therefore, seeking inspirations from the themes borrowed from the local religion to illustrate the court cards, and creating their own suit signs.
The main non-Mughal Ganjifa pattern was the Dasavatara. This word literally means “ten incarnations”, referring to god Vishnu. The court cards too are usually referred to with their Hindi names, mantra (minister) and raja (king). Obviously, the number of suits in the deck had to be increased, from eight to ten (five “strong” and five “weak”). Eight out of ten suits were standard, found in all decks, while two of them varied from region to region, according to local traditions.
Names of the Dasavatara suits were based on the incarnation of lord Vishnu, while some of the signs were symbols of their achievements; while at times, some alternative signs were also preferred.


Dasavatara Ganjifa, an overlapping of two different styles was seen. It often had more than ten suits, but larger sets may count up to 20 or 24 suits i.e., 240 to 288 cards.
Besides Dasavatara Ganjifa, several other less commonly known varieties also existed, featuring specific themes with a various number of suits. Among the large packs was the Ramayana Ganjifa, a 12-suited pattern inspired by the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, and Rashi Ganjifa, with the zodiac signs. With nine suits were the Navagraha Ganjifa, inspired by the nine planets; the 8-suited ones include the Ashtamala Ganjifa, inspired by episodes of Krishna’s life as a youth, the Ashtadikpala Ganjifa which refers to the eight cardinal directions, and decks that use eight different birds as suit signs.

Attempts were made in modern times to mass- reproduce Ganjifa decks by printing them but the appeal that original decks couldn’t be replicated in printing. Though, the art of painting cloth in various styles is still very popular and can be seen in the art of Pattacharitra, but the art of making Ganjifa’s has somehow lost its grounds. Regrettably, due to the lack of request during the past decades, which have led to the making of these decks, once a common activity has now considerably subsided. The knowledge of the game too is certainly endangered, but not extinct, and especially in the state of Orissa, where, the locals are still known to play with Ganjifa sets.

The making of Kridapatrams and Ganjifa’s decks reflects to an age old tradition of making patras and then skillfully painting them into cards. The cards of a suit would look similar yet have different meaning to them, simultaneously looking absolutely different from other suits in the deck.
A simple game of cards were made in such a manner that they would appeal to all. The themes were taken from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata; imitating the incarnations of lord Vishnu and lord Krishna, show how important were these cards in the lives of the people. The Mughals influence changed the way the cards looked, mirroring the changed socio-political scenario of the country. Over the centuries the playing cards have acted as the most visible indicators of the social, political and cultural changes in the society. In order to better understand the evolution of the Indian history the art of production and the knowledge of the game need to be well documented and preserved.








Your views


Access 70,000+ practitioners in 2100+ crafts across India.


10,000+ listings on arts, crafts, design, heritage, culture etc.


Rich and often unfamiliar vocabulary of crafts and textiles.

SHOP at India inCH

Needs to be written.