Playing with Ganjifa (Part I)

One of the souvineers I acquired in Germany was a pack of Ganjifa cards: circular playing cards traditionally used in India. In this post, I’d like to talk some more about the cards in general. In a sequel, I’d like to write about my attempt to invent an original game that uses them.

There are eight suits, each of which contains numbered cards from one to ten plus two court cards, those being a Minister (think of it as a Jack) and a King. Suit symbols vary from one deck to another, and some decks have more than eight suits. Here are some sample cards from the deck I bought.

An important question if we’re going to play with these cards is what to call the suits in English. If I were writing about the history of playing cards, I would of course stick closely to the traditional interpretations. But in the context of playing games with other English speakers, I think it’s more important to use names that everyone can easily associate with the pictures, though all the better if they can resemble the traditional interpretations as well. Let’s go through all the cards in the image above, and propose suit names one at a time.

Update 2015: I’ve finally had an opportunity to use the cards in play with a small group of people, and have updated this post to show the suit names we arrived at by consensus. These updates appear in red text.

Bottom row, left to right:

I propose referring to these suits as Slaves, Swords, Chests and Lilies. These cards would then be the Three of Slaves, Five of Swords, Six of Chests and Seven of Lilies. Rationales follow:

UPDATE 2015: The consensus that emerged amongst a group of players was to call these suits Slaves, Swords, Chests and Tall Flowers.

  • Slaves: The Indian name for this suit is Gulam, which means slave, and the suit is represented by small human figures. (I rely on Google for translations.)
  • Swords: This is surely the easiest suit to name — what else could it be?
  • Chests: The suit symbol is apparently meant to represent a stylised document, but to me it looks more like a treasure chest, complete with lid and curly handle.
  • Lilies: [Consensus: Tall Flowers] There are two flower suits, which is odd because according to the information that came with the deck, neither are flower suits originally. It’s as though the German manufacturers decided to replace two suits with flowers for no apparent reason. I searched online for flower species that somewhat resemble this symbol, and decided it could be a stylised Tiger Claw Lily if you use some imagination and ignore the leaves below it. This is a very tentative suggestion and better proposals are welcome.

Top row, left to right:

I propose calling these suits Coins, Toys, Reels and Hibiscus, which would make these cards the Eight of Coins, Nine of Toys, Ten of Reels and King of Hibiscus. Rationales:

UPDATE 2015: The consensus that emerged amongst a group of four players was to call these suits Coins, Whales, Reels and Fat Flowers.

  • Coins: The description in German translates as “gold disc with red border“, and that they are coins is confirmed here (though the Indian name, Surkh, literally means red).
  • Toys: [Consensus: Whales] This might be the trickiest suit to name. According to the German instructions, it is meant to be a stylised harp or lyre, but to me it looks more like a quarter chicken from your local chicken-and-chips shop, or perhaps a weird wooden duck with lots of very small legs. So we could refer to this suit as Ducks, Instruments or Toys, and I think Ducks is too undignified and Instruments is too long. But I’m open to persuasion.
  • Reels: The Indian name for this circular symbol is Qimash, which means cloth in Arabic and seems to be the same word. I think it’s meant to represent a cloth rolled up into a cylinder. The proposed name Reels (as in cotton reels, etc) is concise, contains a nod to the textile industry, and unlike “cloth” is easy to associate with the symbol.
  • Hibiscus: [Consensus: Fat Flowers] This is the second of the two flower suits. Whereas the symbol we discussed earlier has tall, parallel petals, this one has wide petals that meet in the middle. Species such as the Yellow Hibiscus are a pretty good match. (Note that for the numbered cards, the flowers are black in the centres instead of red, somewhat like this.)

If you have any opinions about suitable names for the suits (particularly the ambiguous ones), then please leave a comment. Many of my suggestions are tentative — especially Lilies and Toys — and I’d appreciate hearing other people’s thoughts.

From the moment I opened the box, I started experimenting with ways to shuffle the cards. This is not trivial, because there are almost twice as many cards as in a traditional European deck. Here’s a video showing the technique I came up with.

[Update 2017: Video deleted. I have learned so much about Ganjifa since I wrote this that it was no longer worth keeping. If you want to see me shuffle Ganjifa, watch this instead.]

That’s all for now. As I mentioned before, I’ve invented my own game using the cards, which I’ll write about some other time. Stay tuned.

Posted in Games. 1 Comment »

One Response to “Playing with Ganjifa (Part I)”

  1. André Akinaga Benites Says:

    Hey, I’m researching about the origin of playing cards. Your website was of great help.

    One thing I noticed. The suit that you called gulam (slaves), it probably had some misstranslation.

    At least, I looked up on this different site and it tells that gulaam is the name of the Jack (which makes sense, it is the least noble of the face-figures).

    Although the correspondence with the suits are not completely direct in this one. They even say that the suits might have different names depending on the place. And if we make a direct correlation from your website, we can see:

    Swords = Spades
    Chests = Diamonds (in portuguese, we call “ouro” which means gold, in many places they are coins
    Lilies = Cubs (In Portuguese is “paus” which is a slang for wood)
    People = Hearts (In portuguese can also be translated as “Copas” that means Cups, depending on the ancient deck you would have a fancy cup on the card)

    Really cool. Thank you for posting this!

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