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    Naqsh Ganjifa

    Map Academy

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    A gambling game played with cards, Naqsh Ganjifa is notable for its unique blend of influences drawn from Ganjifa and Western playing cards. Its hybrid nature has led scholars to speculate that the original game may have been introduced by Portuguese sailors travelling around Southeast Asia in the sixteenth century and then adapted to Ganjifa decks.

    Naqsh Ganjifa, named after the Urdu word for map or design, is considered a variant of Ganjifa due to significant similarities with the latter: like Ganjifa, each Naqsh suit has twelve cards comprising two court cards and ten numerical cards. Further, its cards are also circular in shape and their visual design borrows heavily from the Mughal and Dashavatara Ganjifa games. As with other Ganjifa games, the strongest court card in Naqsh Ganjifa is the king (here known as saheb). He is depicted as an enthroned monarch, while the second court card, which features a woman on horseback, is variously known as ghodi (mare) in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and bibi (queen) in Odisha and West Bengal. This further suggests the influence of Western playing cards, in which the king and queen are typically the most powerful cards.

    The main differences between Ganjifa and Naqsh Ganjifa lie in the suit structure and the gameplay. Naqsh Ganjifa does not have separate categories of strong or weak suits, as each card holds a fixed value, with the king equating to twelve points and the pori (ace) to one. Furthermore, instead of high and low cards, the gameplay is focussed on luck, wherein a hand whose value adds up to twenty one or seventeen wins the pool or, failing that, triples or pairs of the same number or suit win varying portions of the pool.

    While Naqsh Ganjifa was once played in several parts of India, its popularity has waned considerably today. Uptil the 1980s, an active centre of production was Bishnupur in West Bengal, where the cards were made by the Sutradhar community of artisans, locally known as the chhutor. The cards were created by layering and glueing together sheets of cotton rags, which were then covered with a paste of white clay and tamarind. These were dried, burnished, cut into circles and, finally, painted. The painted cards were then hardened using a millet gruel and preserved with lacquer. Though some Naqsh Ganjifa decks may have up to eight suits, most decks feature four sets of twelve cards belonging to the same suit, visually similar to the ashrafi or surkh suit in Mughal Ganjifa. This variation is known as ekrang, or “one colour,” in the Ganjam district of Odisha, where it is still played today.

    Naqsh Ganjifa cards can be found in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK – which received its Ganjifa collection from Rudolf von Leyden – and the Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna, Austria.


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