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Various Ganjifa cards from Dashavtara set
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,[1] 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.[2]


Ganjifa cards are circular or rectangular,[3] 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.

Early history of Ganjifa cards[edit]

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.[4] [5] The first known reference can be found in a 15th century Arabic text, written by the Egyptian historian Ibn Taghribirdi. In his history of Egypt he mentions how the Sultan Al-Malik Al-Mu'ayyad played kanjafah for money when he was an emir.[6] A key reference comes from an early-16th century biography of Bâbur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty.[7] 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. [8] When Edward Terry visited India in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, he saw ganjifa cards often.[9]


  • Moghul Ganjifa[10] is played in some parts of Orissa with 96 cards in 8 suits of 12 cards each; each suit is distinctively coloured and comprises ten pip cards from 1 to 10 and two court cards, a vizier and a king. This is the type of pack described by Ahli Shirazi. The suits featured are: slaves (ḡolām, غلام ); crowns (tāj, تاج ) swords (šamšīr, شمشير ); 'red' gold coins (zar-e sorḵ, زر سرخ ); harps (čang, چنگ ); bills of exchange (barāt, برات ); white gold coins (zar-e safīd, زر سفيد ); and cloth (qomāš قماش ). When referring to the king of a suit, he uses the term 'emir', shortened to 'mir' ( میر ) in the titles, but the term 'padishah' ( پادشاه ) in the text of the verses. The weakest card in each suit is the number 'one' - he does not the term 'ace'.[11]
  • Mamluk Ganjifa. Very few such cards are known or exist. The examples found by L.A. Mayer are understood to have four suits: cups, coins, swords, and polo sticks. Each suit has three court cards, the king (malik), the first vizir (na'ib malik), and the second vizir (na'ib thani). The court cards have no imagery, but they feature caligraphed inscriptions and richly decorated backgrounds.
  • Dashavatara Ganjifa[12] is played by three persons with 120 cards, mainly in Sawantwadi in Maharashta, India, although it is played by five persons in Bishnupur, West Bengal. There are 10 suits of 12 cards each; the suits correspond to the ten avatars of Vishnu. The order of the suits (from lowest to highest) is: fish, tortoise, boar, lion (or half-man, half-lion), dwarf, Rama with the axe, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Kalki.
  • Rashi Ganjifa is a 12 suited Indian deck, with suit symbols derived from the 12 signs of the zodiac.
  • Akbar's Ganjifa. The 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar played using a 12 suited deck, which is described in detail in the Ain-i-Akbari. The suits were horses, elephants, foot soldiers, forts, treasures, warriors in armour, boats, women, divinities, genii, wild beasts, and snakes.[13]
  • French suited Ganjifa. Hybrids exist that combine Indian or Persian imagery with the hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs symbols of the French suit system.[14][15]

Introduction of the game of As-Nas in Persia[edit]

Persian Ganjifa Cards

In Persia the 8 suited decks became less common, and simpler decks for the game of As-Nas became popular.[16] In 1895, General Albert Houtum-Schindler described Ganjifa with the following comments:[17]

"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.[18] At present a set consists of twenty cards[19] 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."

Rules of As-Nas[edit]

Houtum-Schindler described the rules as follows:[20]

"The word ganjifeh I have explained. Âs is no doubt our word "ace", probably introduced into India through the Portuguese. Neither of the words is found in Persian dictionaries. The game of As is exactly like Poker, but without any flushes or sequences. There are four players, and each player gets five cards, dealt to the right. The dealer puts down a stake. The first player then looks at his cards. If he "goes", he says dîdam (I have seen), and covers the stake or raises it. If he does not wish to play, he says nadîdam, (I have not seen) and throws his cards. He may also "go" without looking at his cards - that is, in poker parlance, "straddle" - and says nadîd dîdam (not seeing, I have seen). The second player, if he wishes to play, must cover the stakes, and can also raise. The third player and the dealer then act in the same way just as in poker, and when the stakes of all players are equal and no one raises any more the cards are turned up and the player holding the best hand wins the stakes.
The hands in the order of their value are as follows:
  • She va just, i.e., three and a pair; a "full".
  • Sehta, i.e. threes, aces, kings, etc.
  • Do just, i.e., two pairs; aces highest.
  • Just, i.e., one pair; aces highest.
When two players have the same pair or pairs, the other cards decide; for instance, a pair of kings, ace, soldier, and lakat.
"Bluffing" is a feature of the game and is called tûp zadan, literally "fire off a gun". A bluff is tûp."

Competition from Western style cards[edit]

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.

  • Improvements in printing techniques and machinery allowed manufacturers in Europe and elsewhere to improve their output and further expand their export of playing cards. Manufacturers introduced steam powered machines, lithography and later Offset printing during the 19th century. For example, the town of Turnhout in Belgium was a centre of playing cards manufacture. The Turnhout manufacturer Brepols installed steam powered equipment in 1852, lithographic printing of playing cards in 1862, and began offset printing in 1920.[21] In the period around 1900 the French manufacturer Camoin[22] exported cards to North Africa, and the Middle East as far as the Persian Gulf.[23] The Indian market was so significant for the Belgian manufacturer 'Biermans' that a factory was established in Calcutta in 1934.[24] In 1938 playing card exports from the US to India totalled some 888,603 packs, and 60,344 packs were exported to Iraq.[25] For the Ottoman Empire some European manufacturers produced cards with specific designs, known as 'cartes turques' and 'cartes orientales'. These were essentially 4-suited European style designs, but the aces featured scenic prints adapted to the target market.[26]
  • Ganjifa cards were less suited to Western card games. The invention of games such as Euchre, Bridge, Poker, and Rummy can be seen as significant events and Western style playing cards are best suited to these games. In Iran, the game of As-Nas largely fell out of fashion by around 1945.[27] In some countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, a version of the French game Belote became popular, under the name Baloot ( بلوت ). With regards to India, European style cards were introduced during the colonial period, with demand coming from the wealthier classes.[28] Some cards were imported, some were made by hand using traditional techniques, and others were made by Indian industrialists. The Cary playing cards collection (Yale University) has a deck of Indian-made bridge cards dated to around 1935, for example.[29]
  • Taxes on playing cards. States used taxes on playing cards to generate revenue, and required specific stamps or wrappers on packs of cards. Such arrangements can create barriers for smaller manufacturers producing cards by hand. The Ottoman Empire introduced taxes on playing cards in 1904.[30]
  • Playing cards monopolies. In many countries state monopolies were established to control imports and production. Such monopolies tend to standardise card designs, or create conditions that better suit larger manufacturers that can win government contracts or meet the necessary conditions. In Iran, the monopoly was set up following the Foreign Trade Monopoly Act of 1931. The British playing card manufacturer De La Rue was commissioned to provide cards during the 1930s. The cards featured indexing in Farsi and court card images that evoked Persian history. Nonetheless the cards used Western style suits, and so the commissioning of the cards reinforced the position of Western-style 4-suited printed cards.

See also[edit]


  • Deodhar, A. B.; Illustrated Marathi Games; Bombay 1905
  • Leyden, Rudolf von; The Playing Cards of South India; in: The Illustrated Weekly of India, 3. Okt. 1954
  • Leyden, Rudolf von; The Indian Playing Cards of Francis Douce and the Ganjifa Folios in the Richard Johnson Collection; in: Bodleian Library Record, Oxford 1981, 10,5, p. 297-304
  • Leyden, Rudolf von; Ganjifa - the playing cards of India … Victoria & Albert Museum collection; London 1982 (V&A Museum) [Exhibition catalogue]
  • Leyden, Rudolf von; A Note on Certain Suit Signs in Indian Playing Cards; in: JCPS, 1974, vol. III/3 p. 33-36.


  1. ^ Many different spellings and transliterations can be found, such as Ganjafa, Ghendgifeh, Kanjifa, Kanjifah and so on. In arabic, the spellings كنجفة or جنجفة or غنجفه can be found. The Persian word is ganjifeh (گنجفه).
  2. ^ At the start of the 21st Century production in India was still ongoing in the town of Sawantvadi in the west, and Odisha in the east for example. See Abram (2003: 53) and Crestin-Billet (2002: 189).
  3. ^ A rectangular example dated to around 1770 is held in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. See
  4. ^ An exhibition in the British museum in 2013 noted "Playing cards are known in Egypt from the twelfth century AD. Ganjafeh was a popular card game in Iran and the Arab world." For example, the word 'kanjifah' ( كنجفة ) is written in the top right corner of the king of swords, on the Mamluk Egyptian deck witnessed by L.A. Mayer in the Topkapı Palace museum. Mayer estimated these cards to be from the 15th century. The term Kanjifah can be found in the 1839 Calcutta edition of the One Thousand and One Nights, in Arabic, at the end of night 460. In Kuwait, the word 'Janjifah' has become a general term and so is applied to playing cards of the standard international pattern.
  5. ^ In Arabic and Persian, there exists also the more general word for playing cards, 'waraq' ( ورق ). This word can be found in texts that may refer to Ganjifa cards. For example in the 16th century work, the Humayun-namah, about the Mughal emperor Humayun, this term 'waraq' is used. The text describes a gambling game that was played during celebrations upon Humayun's return to Kabul in 1545. The game involved twelve players, each with twenty cards. Refer Beveridge (1902: 178, or 77 in the Persian section of the book).
  6. ^ The text is described in English by Richard Ettinghausen, in his article "Further Comments on Mamluk Playing Cards". The quote refers to the work of Ibn Taghribirdi, called "Nujum al-zahira fi muluk Misr wa'l-Qahira". Ettinghausen notes that the reference comes in the section describing events from the year 820H or 1417-1418 AD (1984: 1194). The original arabic text can be found online at (Google E-book) or . The relevant passage begins " ... وأخذ فى إصلاح أمر البلاد ".
  7. ^ In his work the Baburnama, Babur notes in the year 933H that he had a pack of Ganjifa cards sent to Shah Hassan. This took place in the month of Ramzan, on the night he left Agra to travel to nearby Fatehpur Sikri (Uttar Pradesh, India). See Beveridge (1922: 584)
  8. ^ See farsi wikipedia article fa:رباعیات گنجفه, or for the full text refer to Shirazi & Rabbani (1965:668-684). The poem is also mentioned in the bibliography of Katip Çelebi page 832.
  9. ^ See Terry (1777:190), or weblink
  10. ^ For more information and images refer to pattern sheet 67 of the International Playing Card Society (website: Link to pattern sheet viewed 16/11/2014:
  11. ^ Shirazi & Rabbani (1965:668-684)
  12. ^ Refer to IPCS pattern sheet 66 for examples from Sawantwadi: ; sheet 69 for examples from Nossam: ; or sheet 82 for examples from Kurnol: (links viewed 16/11/2014).
  13. ^ Abu'l-Fazl ibn Mubarak (1873: 306)
  14. ^ Refer to IPCS pattern sheet 68. Link viewed 16/11/2014:
  15. ^ Crestin Billet shows examples taken from the collection of the Musée Français de la Carte à Jouer, in the Paris region (2002: 185, 188-9).
  16. ^ The collection of the Fournier playing cards museum in Vittoria, Spain, contains As-Nas cards dated to the 18th and 19th centuries. The Cary playing card collection (Yale University) contains various Iranian cards, spanning a period from 1800 to 1905 (estimated dates). All the cards are of the As-Nas type, rather than the older 8-suited variety.
  17. ^ Quoted by Stewart Culin
  18. ^ See for example Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1676: 626), and Jean Chardin (1811: 451).
  19. ^ Other sources such as Verame (2007: 85) describe decks of 25 cards. In this case each figure is repeated 5 times.
  20. ^ Quoted by Stewart Culin.
  21. ^ Autenboer & Cremers, pages 23-25
  22. ^ See also French wikipedia article fr:Jean-Baptiste Camoin
  23. ^ p81-2, Cartes à jouer & tarots de Marseille: La donation Camoin
  24. ^ Autenboer & Cremers, page 27
  25. ^ Bureau of the Census pages 642-3
  26. ^ Autenboer & Cremers, page 18, and on p.22 an example is shown from the Turnhout manufacturer Glénisson, from the second half of the 19th Century. The ace has a double-headed design, with a scene of the modern city of Istanbul on one end, and a scene of the historic city on the other, when it was called Constantinople. The titles are written using the Arabic alphabet.
  27. ^ Article from the Brooklyn Museum website, consulted 15/11/2014 "As nas became popular under the Qajars and continued to be played until the end of World War II, when it lost favor to games such as poker, rummy, and bridge.". Link:
  28. ^ Crestin Billet (2002:188)
  29. ^ Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Cary Playing Cards Database. Record ID: 1064 Catalog Number: IND2. Maker: Ravi-Varma F.A.L. Works, Malavli-Lonavla; Karamchand Ambalal & Co., Bangri Bazar, Bombay 3. Date of Manufacture: 1935(circa). Title: ZENITH 515 BRIDGE PLAYING CARDS
  30. ^ Autenboer & Cremers, page 26


  • This article includes public domain text from Stewart Culin's work Chess and Playing Cards: Catalogue of games and implements for divination exhibited by the United States National Museum in connection with the department of archaeology and paleontology of the University of Pennsylvania at the Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia, 1895.
  • Abram, David (2003). Rough Guide to Goa. Rough Guides. 
  • Abu'l-Fazl ibn Mubarak (1873). Ain i Akbari 1. Translated by Henry Blochmann. Calcutta: G.H. Rouse. 
  • Autenboer, Eugeen van; Cremers, Filip (1990). Turnhout, of speelkaarten voor de wereld (in Dutch). Turnhout: National Museum van de Speelkaart. 
  • Beveridge, Annette Susannah; Gulbadan, Begam (1902). The History of Humayun (Humayun-namah). London: Royal Asiatic Society. 
  • Beveridge, Annette Susannah (1922). The Babur-nama in English (Memoirs of Babur) 2. London: Luzac. 
  • Cartes à jouer & tarots de Marseille: La donation Camoin (in French). Alors Hors Du Temps. 2004. 
  • Çelebi, Katip. Kashf al-ẓunūn ‘an asāmī al-kutub wa-al-funūn (in Arabic). Beirut. 
  • Chardin, John; Langlès, Louis; Pétis de La Croix, François (1811). Voyages du chevalier Chardin en Perse, et autres lieux de l'Orient... (in French) 3. Paris: Le Normant, Imprimeur-Libraire. 
  • Crestin-Billet, Frédérique (2002). Collectible Playing Cards. Translated by Roland Glasser. Paris: Flammarion. 
  • Ettinghausen, Richard (1984). Islamic art and archaeology: collected papers. Berlin: Gebrüder Mann Verlag. 
  • Foreign Commerce and Navigation of the United States (Google eBook). U.S. Government Printing Office. 1938. 
  • Shirazi, Ahli; Rabbani, Hamid (1965). Kullīyāt ashʻār-i Mawlānā Ahlī Shīrāzī (in Persian). Tehran: Sana'i. 
  • Taghri-Birdi ( ابن تغري بردي ). Nujum al-zahira fi muluk Misr wa'l-Qahira (النجوم الزاهرة في ملوك مصر و القاهرة) (in Arabic) 3. Cairo: (ebook). 
  • Tavernier, Jean-Baptiste (1676). Les six voyages de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier... (in French) 1. Paris: Clouzier and Barbin. 
  • Terry, Edward (1777). A voyage to East-India...Empire of the Great Mogul...(Google e-book). Salisbury: W. Cater; S. Hayes; J. Wilkie; and E. Easton. 
  • Verame, Jean (2007). Sublimes cartes à jouer... (in French). Paris: Editions du Félin. 

External links[edit]