A Royal Game of Cards in Sawantwadi

Tracing the ancient card game of ganjifa, now painstakingly preserved in Maharashtra.  
A Royal Game of Cards in Sawantwadi 1
It can take an artist up to a month to create a set of cards. Photo by: Hoshner Reporter

Is it like rummy?” I ask, trying to make sense of the beautiful cards spread out before me—mythological figures painted in vivid colours with floral and geometric motifs. “Ganjifa is never played with money,” Rajmata rebukes, “the cards have the face of god, and you never gamble with god.”

It’s a balmy February morning and I am with Satwashila Devi Bhonsle, erstwhile queen of Maharashtra’s princely state of Sawantwadi, a two-hour drive from Dabolim. We sit in the courtyard of her impressive, 18th-century red brick palace. A stately octogenarian, Rajmata, as everyone calls her, is inducting me into an ancient card game. Ganjifa arrived in India over 500 years ago and was popular amongst the rajas before cheaper playing cards from Europe arrived towards the end of the British Raj.

Despite having all but disappeared from the public imagination, traces of Ganjifa still survive in small pockets in Odisha, West Bengal, Andhra, and Mysore, where dedicated communities of artisans strive to keep the card-making craft alive. Here in Sawantwadi, a small town set around a man-made lake in the foothills of the Sindhudurg range, under the patient and determined patronage of Rajmata Bhosle, Ganjifa is slowly emerging from obscurity.

“By the 1970s there was just one Ganjifa artist left in Sawantwadi who made one set a year which he sold for 30 rupees,” she tells me. “At the time no one was interested in learning how to make the cards; it is a long and painstaking process with no demand. Most of the traditional artisans had either moved to cities like Bombay or abandoned card-making for more lucrative options.”

A Royal Game of Cards in Sawantwadi 2

Rajmata’s collection of vintage Ganjifa cards, packed in beautifully painted wooden boxes. Photo by: Hoshner Reporter

The royal family decided to employ and train traditional artists to give Ganjifa a new lease of life. “It took a while to convince them, to understand and introduce the traditional painting styles, but we now have five artists who produce Sawantwadi Ganjifa cards for us, and get orders from all around the world,” Rajmata says proudly.

The exact origins of Ganjifa are hazy, but the earliest versions of the game can be traced back to the late 14th century around modern-day Syria and Egypt. Travellers’ accounts speak of Ganjifa’s popularity in Persia, not only among aristocratic classes, but also players in street cafés.

Ganjifa travelled to the subcontinent with the Mughals, the first detailed account of it showing up in the
16th-century Ain-i-Akbari, where it is referred to as a popular pastime alongside polo, pigeon-flying and dice. The Mughal version of Ganjifa was a 96-card game with eight suits, each depicting a function of the royal court, such as the crown, the treasury, the armoury, the mint and so on.

While Ganjifa was suppressed in Persia by the orthodox Shah Abbas II, its popularity in India spread with the influence of the Mughals. Hindu rulers made the game their own, introducing variations that eventually led to the development of the Dashavatara form. Played with 120 circular cards, this became the standard format in the subcontinent and remains the only version of Ganjifa still surviving.

“The Dashavatara Ganjifa is based on the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu,” Rajmata offers. “It was popular across most of the princely states, including Sawantwadi.” The Bhosale king Khem Sawant III was primarily responsible for patronising Ganjifa here, inviting traditional artisans from the Chittari community of Goa to produce the cards. Descendants of the original Chittari migrants live in Sawantwadi, a stone’s throw from the palace. Most now paint wooden fruit and lacquer toys that find their way to tourist homes.

“Besides being a game and an art form, Dashavatara was also used to teach people about our culture and stories from the scriptures, which is why we never gamble with Ganjifa,” adds Rajmata. “It was simply played to pass time and build a sense of community.” She remembers a time when ladies from aristocratic families would gather for afternoons of cards and conversation.

A Royal Game of Cards in Sawantwadi

The Indian Ganjifa set contains 120 cards based on the Dashavatara, the ten avatars of Vishnu. Photo by: Hoshner Reporter

Sawantwadi’s artisans sit in the palace’s regal durbar hall. The work of creating intricate images of nature and avatars of Vishnu in bright colours is slow. Depending on the complexity and richness of the design, a hand-painted deck of 120 takes anywhere from 15 days to a month to create.

Traditionally made of leather, pine leaves and papier mâché, the cards are red, green, brown, yellow and black. The colours—now synthetic—used to be extracted from minerals and plants. Rama is usually represented in yellow, Narasimha in green, and Kalki in black to signify the end of the world.

Having seen the new sets, I am curious to see older renditions and ask Rajmata where we can find antique cards. Rajmata smiles conspiratorially: “For the most beautiful ones you will have to visit the Victoria and Albert museum in London. But don’t worry, I also have a few sets.”

Rajmata’s collection arrives with Kulkarni, an artist who has been with her since 1976. The cards are packed in bright red and green wooden boxes, adorned with images of Ganesha and scenes from the Indian epics. I pick up the tiny works of art to study the finer details. They are gorgeous, reminiscent of miniature paintings, the colours muted over time but still rich. The face cards are particularly fascinating, with different sets reflecting individual themes, from portrayals of Vishnu, to images from court life, as well as battle scenes.

I ask if people in Sawantwadi still play Ganjifa. “All the old people who would play are gone,” Rajmata sighs, “and the games can get so complex that besides the simple trick-taking games, nobody really knows how to play. We are collecting bits and pieces of information from here and there, but there is still so much we need to rediscover,” she says. (A set of handpainted cards, made to order at Sawantwadi Palace, costs Rs8,000.)

  • Hoshner Reporter is a travel and documentary photographer and co-founder of The reDiscovery Project. He is currently working on a long-term project focused on capturing the history and culture of India through its people, festivals and monuments.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?