Ganjifa—‘Ganj’ being Persian for treasurewas a well-known card game in Mughal times. Babur mentioned it in his memoirs and, according to Abul Fazl, Akbar simplified the game. Eventually two main styles emerged: a 96-card Mughal ganjifa and a ‘Hinduised’ 120-card Dashavatara (based on Vishnu’s 10 avatars), much played in Bengal, Odisha, MP, Rajasthan and Nepal. The elite used ornate sets made of ivory or tortoise shell inlaid with precious stones, while commoners used cheaper sets made from wood or palm leaf. Pieces of cloth were used tooglued, dried, primed with tamarind-seed extract, coated with lime, and burnished with stone before being painted.

Dashavatara cards from Bishnupur, West Bengal. You can see the Narasimha avatar holding Hiranyakshipu in his lap to kill him, and the Vamana avatar covering the cosmos in three steps.
Dashavatara cards from Bishnupur, West Bengal. You can see the Narasimha avatar holding Hiranyakshipu in his lap to kill him, and the Vamana avatar covering the cosmos in three steps.
‘Naqsh’ was a Bishnupur ganjifa variation played with 48 cards. The raja (king card) is recognised by being depicted on an elephant and the pradhan (minister card) on a horse. At the bottom, the card contains a girl or ‘pori’, who denotes the ‘one’.
‘Naqsh’ was a Bishnupur ganjifa variation played with 48 cards. The raja (king card) is recognised by being depicted on an elephant and the pradhan (minister card) on a horse. At the bottom, the card contains a girl or ‘pori’, who denotes the ‘one’.


In these cards from Sheopur, Madhya Pradesh, facsimiles of 1840 originals, you can see Krishna holding up the Govardhan mountain in the raja card. There’s also an interesting depiction of the yet-to-come Kalki avatar.
In these cards from Sheopur, Madhya Pradesh, facsimiles of 1840 originals, you can see Krishna holding up the Govardhan mountain in the raja card. There’s also an interesting depiction of the yet-to-come Kalki avatar.
This facsimile of a 140-year-old Ramayana ganjifa set from Parlakhemundi, Odisha, has the interesting ‘Kandarpa ratha’, in which 23 female figures make a formation for the raja card. The yellow card shows Ravana carrying Sita away.
This facsimile of a 140-year-old Ramayana ganjifa set from Parlakhemundi, Odisha, has the interesting ‘Kandarpa ratha’, in which 23 female figures make a formation for the raja card. The yellow card shows Ravana carrying Sita away.
The embellishment of boxes in which cards are kept is a long-standing tradition. This beautifully painted image of Krishna and Balaram is from the lid of a ganjifa box, painted by ganjifa cards artist Appana Mahapatro of Chikiti, Odisha. Odisha is the only state where the game is still played.
The embellishment of boxes in which cards are kept is a long-standing tradition. This beautifully painted image of Krishna and Balaram is from the lid of a ganjifa box, painted by ganjifa cards artist Appana Mahapatro of Chikiti, Odisha. Odisha is the only state where the game is still played.
In this set of Ramayana-based cards, the raja cards are recognised by the fact that they always depict Rama, Lakshman, Sita and Hanuman as well as an attendant. The next card is the ‘10’ of the arrow suit.
In this set of Ramayana-based cards, the raja cards are recognised by the fact that they always depict Rama, Lakshman, Sita and Hanuman as well as an attendant. The next card is the ‘10’ of the arrow suit.
Part of a 144-card version from Puri in Odisha, this is the raja card, showing Jagannatha in a palki. Raja cards are often depicted sitting in a palki.
Part of a 144-card version from Puri in Odisha, this is the raja card, showing Jagannatha in a palki. Raja cards are often depicted sitting in a palki.