Indian Playing Cards in history & popular culture

For over a thousand years, humans have been playing cards. Over time, playing cards have served a variety of purposes – from being a favourite royal pastime and a key game during festivities to being used as a political statement, as an educational, & even advertising tool. However, depending on the geographic region and time period they were produced in, card decks have differed greatly. So, in many ways playing cards are a window into the world’s history and cultures.

20th century India saw a variety of playing card designs. From Ravi Varma’s prints and alphabet cards by the Chitrakala Press of Pune to the branded Dilkush Playing Cards by Kamala Soap Factory and the iconic Air India collectible cards – there’s a lot to unpack. We start at the very beginning to trace how playing card designs came to be standardised, the cultural influences and history.

Historians believe that the earliest playing cards originated in China – where they are said to have featured popular characters from folklore and stories.

india vintage playing cards - Ganjifa history culture
A Woman with Seven Documents, Number Seven of the Barat (Document) Suit, Playing Card from a Mughal Ganjifa Set | LACMA CC0

The history of Indian playing cards begins with the circular shaped Ganjifa / Ganjappa cards.

The earliest mention of these come to us from the Mughal Emperor Babur’s memoirs. In his memoir (dated June 1527), the founder of the Empire mentions having sent a set of ganjafeh to his friend Shah Hussain in Sindh. Some historians are of the view that the Mughal Ganjifa was inspired by its Persian counterpart; the Mughal Ganjifa further inspired the Dasavatara Ganjifa featuring avatars / incarnations of the Hindu deity, Vishnu. However, Rudolf von Leyden, a German born cartoonist who lived in India and was an avid card-collector, believed that the Chinese cards were in India before 1300; he attributes the development of the Indian Ganjifa cards to games played by Mamluk immigrants from China.

royals of india playing cards history culture
Maharana Sangram Singh II playing cards in camp at night (c. 1720-1725), opaque watercolour and gold paint on paper | National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1980

Sometime in the second half of the 14th century, playing cards arrived in Europe. Soon after their arrival though, cards were banned on account of encouraging gambling, cheating and anti-social behaviour. In the early days, playing cards were hand-painted, and consequently expensive to own. But with the invention of woodcuts, mass-producing these became easy and the first of such cards is said to have appeared sometime in the early 15th century (c.1418).

During this time, the English were fighting battles in Normandy, Touraine and eventually English soldiers brought back French playing cards to England. By the end of the 15th century, playing cards had become an important part of festivities (like Christmas) amidst the upper classes. Interestingly, playing cards became part of Christmas festivities for the larger public in England because it was the only time it was ‘legal’ to play – the May 1526 Proclamation forbade playing cards, a Statute in 1541 stated Christmas as an exception.

women of india playing cards culture
Women playing cards, B.Prabha | Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

By the 16th century, French card-makers standardised the suit of spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds (borrowing from the German suits: hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves). While Germany was the leading card maker, the French went a step ahead, dividing the 4 suits in two colour variations. Logistically, this made printing & production cheaper. They even added names for each of the King, Queen, Knight but those remained unique to the French decks. The French set of cards, thus became more popular amidst masses as they were easily affordable.

♠︎ King of Spades: David, King of Israel from the Old Testament | Queen : Pallas Athena
♣︎ King of Clubs: Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia | Queen : Juno Regina
♦︎ King of Diamonds: Julius Caesar | Queen: Rachel
♥︎ King of Hearts: Charlemagne, King of France and the first Holy Roman Emperor | Queen: Judith

If you have played cards, you know that the Spades are considered to the most powerful in some games. Ever wondered why?

Playing card historian Samuel Singer indicated that the French deck signified social status.

Spades represented royalty, hearts for the clergy, diamonds for merchants and clubs stood for peasants. Interestingly, this is also why the Ace became the top card in the suit after the French Revolution (it was meant to represent how the commoners had overthrown the monarchy).

playing cards lithograph
The Trustees of the British Museum, released as CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

At this point though, duties imposed on cards in France had forced an exodus of card-makers to Belgium, Germany and Holland.

English cards adapted from the French ones

Playing Card Makers of London & ‘trademark’ of ‘The Great Mogul’ of India

By 1628, card-making was booming in London & the several card makers registered themselves into a company protected under the Royal charter. True to the British ways of working, imports of foreign playing cards were banned, and a series of rules and ordinances followed in the commercial world of playing cards. Card makers registered & patented designs and marks – for example in 1706 the mark of Henry VIII was registered; other marks included Three Hammers, King’s Arms, Crown, Greyhound, Hand in Hand, Lion Rampant, Lurking Lion, Royal Oak, Queen’s Head.

In 1741, one of the wealthiest card-makers of the time, Mr. Christopher Blanchard registered an interesting mark : ‘The Great Mogul’, alluding to the powerful Mughal rulers of India.

india playing cards history Mughal
Trade card of Christopher Blanchard, British Museum | CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Did you know, in 1742, the Great Mogul playing card design found itself at the centre of the first trademark-related dispute in Britain’s Chancery Court (Court of Equity), and is considered as one of the landmark cases in Intellectual Property Law.

Two hundred years later, by the 19th century, these entered public domain, to be used by any maker; the ‘Mogul’ card by now was considered to be a card of ‘superior rank’.

india vintage playing cards history culture mogul
india vintage playing cards history culture
By the Belgian maker Van Genechten. The first trademark registered by him was the bust of the Great Mogul, in August 1881. In 1885 at the World Exhibition in Antwerp the company won a diploma of honour, a gold medal and a silver medal for its products. Image: The World of Playing Cards

Playing cards in the 19th century : of costumes and design

The 19th century was an interesting time for playing cards – it saw the rise of alphabet cards for children, & the court cards offered a deeper look into ‘costumes’ of the time. The latter were a work of art – illustrated, printed from copper plates and hand-coloured. This is also when the back of the cards started to be printed, and card identifiers started to appear on the corners, making it easier for players to take a quick glance at their cards.

B. P. Grimaud Paris. France, [1858]

One can say that by the 17th century, playing cards had started to resemble what we have today, but it wasn’t until 1870 that the Joker was introduced. The card served as an outlet for social satire and even advertising!

As advertising spaces, cards gained popularity only in the 19th and 20th century.

In 1765, England began to tax playing cards. The Ace of Spades was thus reserved for stamping an insignia – indicating that tax had been paid. Eventually, this led to card-companies printing the card with their logo – a tradition that continued, and one that even the Indian artist Ravi Varma used (scroll down to see!).

20th century Playing Cards : the Indian style

Art Nouveau playing cards depicting Indian courts, printed in Paris c. 1900

india vintage playing cards French culture art nouveau
source:  Bibliothèque nationale de France

With the East India Company, and the eventual colonisation of India, playing cards from England made their way into the subcontinent.

india men playing cards history
Untitled, Bamapada Banerjee, collection of Indian Museum, Kolkata

Raja Ravi Varma Printed Playing Cards, c. 1910 (historical)

india vintage playing cards raja Ravi varma culture
Image Source: World of Playing Cards; Jon Randall

Raja Ravi Varma Playing Card deck (mythological ), c. 1906.


india vintage playing cards mythology culture
Shri Ram Chandra – Sita Devi – Shri Hanuman

Dilkhus playing cards, Kamala Soap Factory (Calcutta) c. 1922

Van Genechten was one of the most well-known and successful cardmakers in Turnhout, Belgium. They produced cards for clients globally. This set of cards was printed for the Calcutta-based Kamala Soap Factory in 1922. What is ironic is, that the soap factory was one of the many Swadeshi initiatives to have sprung after the pioneering Bengal Soap was set up by Abani Bose (early 1900s). Belgian card makers produced similar playing cards for Indian markets till at least the 1930s.

india vintage playing cards history Calcutta
Image : Image Source: World of Playing Cards; Barney Townshend

Alphabet Cards by the Chitrashala Press (Poona) c.1940

The Chitrashala Press of Pune printed alphabet cards with an educational purpose. The card sets were in Marathi as well as Urdu!

Source: The World of Playing Cards

Air India Playing Cards c.1980

The Air India in-flight memorabilia is a collectors item today owing to the rare production. The cards, made in India by Playwell Playing Card Co. perhaps refer to the royals of different regions as indicated by the featured headgear.

The Heritage Lab collection

Playing cards & games are inextricably connected to human behaviour, and societal development. A study of these therefore, reveals to us so much more than we can imagine.

If you’re looking to play these games, here’s an open-access book of tricks we recommend : Expert at the Card Table

There’s historyromance, and a world of fun in a deck of cards

Luther Southworth

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A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming – Catherine Perry Hargrave (1966)
Playing cards : history of the pack and explanations of its many secrets – Benham, W. Gurney (William Gurney), Sir, 1859-1944
Zompetti, J. P. 2017. The Power of Symbols: The Ideological Representations of a French Revolution Playing Card Deck, the Revolutionnaires.
The World of Playing Cards

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