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Regional Cards

page 3
Dasâvatâra Ganjifa
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special thanks to Jeff Hopewell, whose knowledge of Ganjifa
has been a precious reference in the compilation of this gallery

Although the game played with Ganjifa cards flourished among the Mughals in its 8-suited version, the native (Hindu) players felt the need of retaining the early scheme, i.e. that of the alleged Kridapatram, 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 Dasâvatâra.
Dasâvatâra Ganjifa
1 and 9 of Rama (the sign is an arrow)
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)Parashurâma (Râma with an axe)
Khûrma (tortoise)Râma (hero of the Râmâyana)
Varâha (boar)Krishna (the holy cowherd)
Narasimha (half man, half lion) Buddha
Vâmana (dwarf) Kalkin (the incarnation yet to come)

Dasâvatâra Ganjifa
top: 1 and 8 of Parashurama (the sign is an axe)
bottom: 1 and 7 of Vamana (water-vases)
The number of suits in the Dasâvatâra Gajifa 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 Dasâvatâra 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 Dasâvatâra 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.

The court cards too are usually referred to with their Hindi names, mantrî ("minister") and râjâ ("king").


suit names (incarnations)

Bishbar suits
  • Parashurâma
  • Râma
  • Kalkin
  • Bâlarâma (optional)
  • Buddha (optional)
  • Jagannath (optional)
  • Krishna (optional)

    Kambar suits
  • Matsya
  • Kûrma
  • Varâha
  • Narasimha
  • Vâmana

    additional suits (if any)
  • Ganesh
  • Kartikkeya
  • Brahma
  • Shiva
  • Indra
  • Yama
  • Hanuman
  • Garuda
  • Krishna
  • Narada
  • suit signs [alternatives shown in square brackets]

  • axe
  • monkey  [ bow and arrow ] [ arrow ]
  • sword  [ horse ] [ parasol ]
  • plough  [ club ] [ cow ]
  • shell  [ lotus flower ]
  • lotus flower
  • cow [ crowned bust ] [ blue child ] [ chakra ]

  • fish
  • turtle
  • shell
  • chakra (decorated disc)
  • jug / vase

  • rat
  • peacock
  • vedas (scriptures)
  • drum
  • thunderbolt
  • snake noose
  • club
  • small Garuda
  • flute
  • vînâ (Indian lute)

  • 5, mantrî and râjâ of Kalkin,
    featuring Vishnu's white steed,
    and the sword (sabre) as a sign
    Dasâvatâra Ganjifa
    7, mantrî and râjâ of Ganesh, elephant-headed god (an additional Dasâvatâra suit)
    The court cards shown in this page, from Orissa, present the same personage in both the mantrî cards and the relevant râjâ cards; in the latter they are slightly shrinked in size, and shown on a ratha, or temple-wagon, by means of which sacred images are drawn in the streets on special occasions (note the wheel under the wagon).

    Dasâvatâra Ganjifa
    various mantrî and râjâ cards from the suits of
    (top) Matsya, fish sign; Bâlarama, club; (bottom) Varaha, shell; Jagannath, lotus flower


    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 Dasâvatâra samples have been made, such as the one shown in the following pictures, 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.
    Dasâvatâra Ganjifa, "birds" variety
    1 of Parashurâma (green) and 10 of Narasimha (blue),
    from a ten-suited "birds" Dasâvatâra pack

    Dasâvatâra Ganjifa, "birds" variety
    5 of Kûrma
    The choice of using birds as suit signs should not surprise, considering the many ones belonging to 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 (e.g. the typical mantrî card of the suit of Jagannath in the state of Orissa).

    In this edition, from Parlakhemundi (Orissa), the mantrî cards feature Vishnu's avatâra (incarnations), while the râjâ cards show Vishnu and his wife Lakshmi resting on the mythical snake Shesha, a traditional representation of this god.

    Dasâvatâra Ganjifa, "birds" variety
    mantrî and râjâ cards from the suits of Kalkin, Vâmana (top row), Jagannath and Bâlarama (bottom row)

    page 1
    historical and general notes
    page 2
    Mughal Ganjifa
    page 4
    other Ganjifa patterns


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