Ganjifa: 16th Century Traditional Playing Cards of India

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potli 1The Story of Ganjifa

In June 1527 Babar, founder of the Mughal dynasty, sent a unique gift to Shah Hasan, a close friend from Sindh. It was an exquisite set of Mughal Ganjifa round playing cards, each hand-painted on ivory and inlaid with precious stones. Little did he know that he was going to spark off an entire continent’s passion for playing cards! By the sixteenth century, Ganjifa cards became one of the most popular forms of entertainment for royals and commoners alike. As Ganjifa Cards gained popularity in the 16th century, the inevitable occurred. They somehow developed a distinctly Hindu flavour.

Dashavatar Ganjifa cards with each suit depicting each of the ten incarnations of Vishnu, became the rage. Brahmins began to believe that playing with these cards washed away one’s sins. If nothing else, it was a great way of reciting the names of Gods! So, it came to pass that Ganjifa Cards imparted sacred hues to a profane activity like card playing.
They came to be played in temple courtyards and it was not uncommon to hear players say, “My Rama beats your Varaha!” or “There is no card higher than the Narsimha at dusk!”

Today, these echoes are but a fading memory. Painted in the homes of a handful of artists and played by a dying breed of aficionados, Ganjifa Cards are in grave danger of being lost in oblivion. The only hope of survival for this amazing game is for people to start playing it again, and let history and mythology come to life once more.

potli 2Dashavtara Ganjifa

One of the earliest sacred myths that Ganjifa embraced was of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. It is believed that in the history of human civilization, Lord Vishnu has incarnated nine times on earth so far to eradicate evil, restore Dharma (the force of good) and liberate the worthy from the eternal cycle of birth and death. Called the Dashavtara Ganjifa (in Sanskrit ,daśa means ‘ten’ and avtāra means ‘descent’) the game comprises ten suits of twelve cards, each of which represent one animal or human incarnation of Vishnu. Every suit has a Raja (King), Mantri (minister) and 10 numeral cards.

Interestingly, the Dashavtara story echoes the great unfolding of evolution of life on earth. Vishnu’s first incarnation is Matsya or fish. According to science, life originated in water. From water, life eventually moved partly to land. The
second avatar of Vishnu is Kurma, the amphibian tortoise. Purely terrestrial species followed. Vishnu’s third incarnation is Varaha or the boar. Life evolved from four-legged to two-legged creatures, and correspondingly, Vishnu’s fourth incarnation is of Narsimha or the man-lion. Soon, but only in evolutionary terms, the first humanoid species walked the earth. Vishnu’s first human incarnation is Vamana or dwarf. As the humanoid species began standing erect, Vishnu’s sixth incarnation is Parshurama, a physically well-developed and ferocious warrior. Eventually, humans evolved into societies and the first religions came into being. Vishnu’s seventh incarnation was Rama, the MaryadaPurushottam, embodiment of morality and righteousness. The eighth avatar of Vishnu is Krishna, the ideal yogi who is well versed in
statecraft. He represents the time in human evolution when countries were being formed and wars fought. The ninth incarnation of Vishnu is Buddha, representing the stage in evolution when man is capable of spiritual thinking and enlightenment. The last incarnation of Vishnu, Kalki, is yet to manifest itself. When it does, it will portend the end of mankind.

potli 3The Making of Ganjifa

Ganjifa Cards are a labour of love. They are painstakingly crafted upon a canvas that is made from old saris, painted using colours pounded out of stones and leaves and then finished with layers of natural gum. It is no wonder then, that each set of cards takes as many as 30 days to make.

Preparing the canvas
For Ganjifa artists, preparing a perfect canvas is as important as the painting. Canvases are prepared from old cotton saris
that are soft and starch-free. These are soaked in a solution of crushed tamarind seeds and water for four to five days, which is then sun-dried . A layer of similarly processed cloth is placed on top. After the layered cloth is dry, a paste of chalk powder, tamarind and gum is applied on both sides. This dries into a tough, hard base. Artisans buff this into a smooth canvas using locally available stones. Now, one week into its production, the canvas becomes ready for painting.

potli 4Painting
Traditionally, Ganjifa Cards were painted with mouse-hair brushes and natural colours like White (from powdered conch shells); Green (from various leaves); Black (from lamp soot); Red (from a stone called Hingulal); Blue (from a stone called Khandneela) and Yellow (from a stone called Hartal).

potli 5First, the canvas is hand-cut into a perfect circle. An intricate border is painted around its edge. The artist then says a prayer to Vishnu and outlines his figure first with pencil and then with thin white brushstrokes. Then he paints on the clothes and ornaments.

Secondary motifs are then outlined in black. Last, the whites of the eyes are highlighted. Interestingly, Ganjifa artists always paint freehand, beginning and ending with the colour white.

Ganjifa painting is a craft struggling on the brink of survival. A revival of interest in these exquisite cards could bring about a change in their fortunes, while a further drop in interest could cause them to be lost in the foggy annals of history. Although Ganjifa Cards grace London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Germany’s Deutsches Spielkarten Museum in Leinfelden and Austria’s Museum for Volkerkunde in Vienna, in order to bring alive the age-old magic of the game, people have to start playing with them once more.

– Text & Images by Potli

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