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Playing cards from Puri, Odisha, India, made with the traditional pattachitra technique.

Images of ivory playing cards bought in a Cairo bazar by French traveller Mr. Émile Prisse d'Avennes (1807-1879), during his visit to Egypt in the period 1827-1844. He identified them as Persian by the style and quality.

Images of cards from the collection of Francis Douce, shown by Samuel Weller Singer. The figure on horseback on the card in the top right corner appears to be holding an object marked " برات ", meaning 'bill' or 'cheque' in Persian.

Ganjifa, Ganjapa or Gânjaphâ, is a card game or type of playing cards that are most associated with Persia and India. After Ganjifa cards fell out of use in Iran during the twentieth century, India became the last country to produce them.


Ganjifa cards are circular or rectangular, and traditionally hand-painted by artisans. The game became popular at the Mughal court, and lavish sets were made, from materials such as precious stone-inlaid ivory or tortoise shell (darbar kalam). The game later spread to the general public, whereupon cheaper sets (bazâr kalam) would be made from materials such as wood, palm leaf, stiffened cloth or pasteboard. Typically Ganjifa cards have coloured backgrounds, with each suit having a different colour. Different types exist, and the designs, number of suits, and physical size of the cards can vary considerably. With the exception of the Chads of Mysore, each suit contains ten pip cards and two court cards, the king and the vizier or minister. The backs of the cards are typically a uniform colour, without patterning.

Early history of Ganjifa cards

The earliest origins of the cards remain uncertain, but Ganjifa cards as they are known today are believed to have originated in Persia and became popular in India under the Mughal emperors in the 16th century. The term has been used at times in many countries throughout the Middle East and western Asia. The first known reference can be found in a 15th-century Arabic text, written by the Egyptian historian Ibn Taghribirdi (died 1470). In his history of Egypt he mentions how the Sultan Al-Malik Al-Mu'ayyad played kanjafah for money when he was an emir. A key reference comes from an early-16th century biography of Bâbur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty. Another reference from much the same period comes from a work by the Persian poet Ahli Shirazi (died 1535). In his poem 'Rubaiyat-e-Ganjifa' there is a short verse for each of the 96 cards in the 8-suited pack, showing that the Persians had the same suits and ranks as the Mughals. When Edward Terry visited India in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, he saw ganjifa cards often.


Games Played


This game can be played with any pack of cards, including the Mughal types, and the shorter 48 card decks. European style packs can be used by removing the jacks. Each suit therefore has two court cards, and ten numeral cards. The game has some similarities with Blackjack. In Naqsh the 'Mir' (or King) is given a value of 12 points, and the second court card, the 'Ghodi' (or Vizir, Cavalier or Queen) is worth 11. The other cards are worth their pip values, including the ace which has a value of 1. Several players can play the game. Mr. Gordhandas suggests 5-7 players, with 6 being the ideal number. The aim is to achieve a total value of 17 with the first two cards dealt, or the nearest number below this total. Players with low value cards can continue to draw further cards to try to improve their total. Variations can be played where 21 is a target total (but only if made with a King and a 9, or a Vizier and a ten), or where different winning combinations are accepted such as pairs, triples and so on. The game is suited to gambling.


This is a trick-taking game, played individually. This is the game most commonly associated with ganjifa cards, each player playing for him or herself. The objective is to win the most cards by taking tricks. At least three players are required. In some games 4 players play individually, and it is also possible to play in pairs. The rules vary, but generally the following apply:

In the simplest form of the game there is no concept of a 'trump suit' that beats cards in other suits. A trick can only be won by a card of the same suit. When a player is not in position to win a trick there is no obligation to follow the suit led.
In all cases the King ('mir' or 'shah') is always the strongest card in each suit, followed by the Vizier. However, in half the suits the numerical cards rank in logical order from 10 strongest (just below the Vizier), down to 1 (weakest), and the other suits the order of the numerical cards is reversed, with the ace strongest (just below the Vizier), and the 10 weakest, thus giving the order K,V,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. If playing with a Moghul type pack, the suits with the 'reverse order' numerical cards are barat, zar-e zorkh, qomash, and chang (bills, red gold coins, cloth, and harps) in India; in Iran, zar-e safīd (white coins) were inverted instead of the red coins. In Dashavtar packs the suits with reversed cards are the first avatars, Matsya, Kutchha, Varaha, Nrusinha and Waman (fish, turtle, boar, lion and round vessel symbols).
Before the start of play stakes are agreed if the game is being played for money. At the end of the round the losing player pays this stake value, multiplied by the difference in number of tricks taken between the winner and the loser.
Players draw cards at the beginning to determine who will deal. Traditionally players would sit on a sheet or large cloth on the floor, and the cards are mixed face down in the middle of the cloth, rather than shuffled in the manner of Western cards.
The deal and the order of the play follows an anti-clockwise direction. The dealer deals out all the cards. According to custom cards may be dealt in batches of four, rather than individually. Some accounts stipulate that the first batch and last batch dealt to each player are dealt face up.
Players should sort their cards into suits and put them in order. For convenience, due to the large number of cards, players often separate any low value pip cards and keep them to the side, keeping only the more valuable cards in hand. When discarding during play these low value cards are used indifferently.
During the game players must try to keep track of the cards that have been played. The highest outstanding cards left in play in each suit are called 'hukm', corresponding to the Persian word " حکم ".
The player to lead is the one holding the King in a certain suit. This 'lead suit' varies according to the type of pack, and also according to whether the game is played during the day (between sunrise and sunset) or during the night. With a Moghul pack the lead suits are zar-e zorkh (red gold coins, or figuratively 'suns') by day, and zar-e safid (white gold coins or figuratively 'moons') by night. If playing with Dashavtar cards the lead suits are Rama by day, and Krishna by night. The player holding the King in this lead suit begins by playing two cards at once - the King and another low card. The other players cannot win, and so they each discard two low cards which are won by the player who led the game. This player then leads again. At this point accounts of the game rules differ. The rules below on gameplay are based on the description by John McLeod.
Rules govern which leads are possible. Players must lead as follows, in order of priority: 1) If the lead player has a continuous series of winning cards in a suit, then this sequence must be led, with the exception of the last card in the sequence which is kept for later. 2) The next possibility is a move called 'deni'. This is possible when a player lacks the hukm in a given suit, but has the second highest outstanding card. In this case the player may lead a low card in that suit, and call for the hukm. The opponent with the hukm then wins the trick but the player that made the 'deni' move retains the lead, which is the advantage of making this move. If the player with the hukm also holds the third highest card in the suit, he may play this card as well, and it is said that the deni is doubled. In this case everyone plays a second card and the player with the hukm wins two tricks. However the lead still returns to the player who made the deni move. 3) When a leader cannot make either of the two leads described above, he then leads out any remaining hukm cards, all at once, a move called 'utari'. In McLeod's account this is the only option available to a player at this stage, so a player would need to lead any hukms they might have, and then pass the lead as described next in step 4. However in the rules given by Wilkins there is a second option, whereby the player can instead simply lead a low card or non-winning card of his choosing to pass the lead. 4) If a player has no further valid options for leading cards, he gives up the lead by shuffling his hand, and placing the cards face down. The player to his right then selects the card that he must lead, for example by saying 'fourth from the top' or pointing to a card if they are spread out. The lead then passes to the player who wins the trick, who then follows the same sequence of possible leads as described above.
In some accounts there is an end phase or secondary phase to the game, in which the leading rules are simplified or changed. According to McLeod, when the players get down to the last 12 cards, steps 1 and 2 described above are skipped, and a player starts by leading out all his hukms directly. After doing so, the player must try to lead a card from a suit named by his right-hand neighbour. If he cannot lead this suit the lead is passed as described in step 4 above, with the player's cards shuffled and placed face down. In Wilkins' account, there is also a second phase to the game, which applies when all the players have held and lost the lead once. From this point onwards hukm cards are played individually instead of in batches. Furthermore, in this second phase, if a player leads a low card, it is played face down and the player can freely choose the suit which must be followed.
The round continues until all the cards have been played. At this point the players can count their tricks and decide any payments or forfeits that must be paid. However in the rules described by Chatto there a final round played using the cards won in tricks. This is a challenging game called 'Ser-k'hel'. Players shuffle their tricks, and the winner of the last trick plays one trick blind against a player of his choice. The winner of this trick then challenges the player to his right in the same way.
In some accounts losing players are disadvantaged when starting the next round. One possibility is that players are required to use the cards won in tricks for playing with in the following round. Players who are short on cards have to buy cards from other players to make up the difference. Alternatively, cards can be shuffled and distributed equally, but losing players are required to exchange cards with winning players. The losing player must give cards at random, without looking at them, and the winning player is allowed to return low value cards, sorted from his hand. The number of cards exchanged is the difference in the number of tricks won in the last round.
The total number of rounds played may vary. In Chatto's account a full game is made up of four rounds. In the version described by Maudranalay, there is no fixed number of rounds, rather the game must continue round after round until a losing player (presumably meaning a player who lost the previous round of gameplay) beats the card led by another player on the last trick of the round. This last lead card is called the 'akheri', from a word for 'last' (which exists in persian and arabic ( آخر ). In Wilkin's account, this event has a different significance. Wilkins writes that if a player beats the akheri card, he is exempted from paying any forfeit money going into the next round.
An adaptation is possible if players use the international 52 card pack. In this case the game is for three players only, and the 2 of diamonds is removed so that players each receive 17 cards each. The lead suit is always spades. In an account about gameplay in northern India (before the creation of Pakistan), Shurreef writes that the King is referred to as 'Badshah' (corresponding to the Persian term 'Padishah'), the queen as 'Bibia' (Persian term 'Bibi'), and the Jack as the 'Ghulam', meaning 'slave'.

Partnership Ganjifa

Played in partnerships (two against two). Some call this game 'Dugi'. In this game the order of the suits and the cards is the same as for the individual ganjifa trick taking game described above, however the aim of the game is for one partnership to win all the tricks. The partnership dealt the King in the lead suit has to take on this challenge. It is possible to determine the lead suit by the day or night rule as above, or by cutting cards. The following game rules are taken from an account by John McLeod

The partners taking on the challenge to win all the tricks can decide between themselves who will take on the lead. Before starting, the lead king can be passed from one partner to another in exchange for another card of the same suit.
When leading, a player must lead all the 'hukms' that they have in hand (these are the highest cards remaining in a given suit, that are sure to win). Players must follow suit if they are able to do so. If this is not possible, the leading player names another suit, and they must discard their highest card in that suit. If they do not have any cards in the suit named, then they may discard any other card.
When a player who has the lead has no hukms, he may ask his partner which suit he should lead. Thus the partner can indicate a suit in which he has a hukm, so that the partnership can keep the lead. If the partner names a suit that the leader does not have in hand, the leader must decide himself which card to lead, without asking for more guidance.
If the opponents succeed in winning a single trick then they win the game.

Introduction of the game of As-Nas in Persia

As-Nas cards

In Persia the 8 suited decks became less common, and simpler decks for the game of As-Nas became popular. In 1895, General Albert Houtum-Schindler described Ganjifa with the following comments:

"The word ganjifeh is in Persian now only employed for European playing-cards (four suits, ace to ten; three picture cards each suit), which, however, are also called rarak i âs - rarak i âsanâs - or simply âs, from the game âs or âsanâs. From travellers to Persia in the seventeenth century we know that a set of ganjifeh consisted of ninety or ninety-six cards in eight suits or colors. At present a set consists of twenty cards in five colors or values. These values are:
  1. Shîr va Khurshíd or âs: Lion and Sun, or Ace.
  2. Shâh or Pishâ: King.
  3. Bîbî: Lady (or Queen).
  4. Sarbâs: Soldier (or Knave).
  5. Lakat (meaning something of little value): generally a dancing-girl.
The backs of the cards are always black or of a dark color, but their faces have grounds of different colors, viz: The Lion and Sun, a black ground; the King, a white ground; the Lady, red; the soldier, gold; the Lakat, green. The pictures on the cards show much variety and are often obscene, particularly those on the card of the lowest value. The ordinary types as now made are: Ace, a Lion and Sun, as in the Persian arms; a King sitting on a throne; a European lady in a quaint costume; a Persian soldier shouldering his rifle; a Persian dancing-girl."

Competition from Western style cards

In countries such as India and Persia, the traditional hand-made Ganjifa cards lost market share to Western-style printed cards, which came to dominate in the 20th century. This decline has several aspects.

Notable Ganjifa card collections and collectors

Tabletop games: Rules and Strategy