Ganjifa Cards of Sawantwadi

Handmade playing cards of Sawantwadi remembers everyone about bygone era. These cards are made from circular pieces of paper on which intricate designs of Dashwar (Ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu) are hand pointed. Each and pack contains 120 hand pointed cards housed in equally colouful box.
History says that these cards arrived in Sawantwadi 350 years ago, when Bhosle, the royal family of Goa settled here after fleeing from Portuguese regieme there.  The Bhosle brought several artists along with them who were versed in wood varving and pointings. These families survived mainly by supplying handicraft items to the royal families.  In 1981 there were 45 such families though six such families still live in Sawantwadi today.

The craft of making the round playing cards, known as ganjifa which was almost dying four decades ago is being revived today to a great extent. The only surviving craftsmen of the Chitari community then, Pudnalik Govind Chitari, who died recently when he was in his eighties, had trained some boys of his community. Those boys have now grown into young artists who are capable of executing paintings on ganjifa with considerable skill.
Ganifa tradition of Sawantwadi is almost three hundred years old. However, the technique of executing round playing cards did not originate from Sawantwadi. Scholars believe that the game of large size circular playing cards was first invented by the Malla Kings of Bishnupur (Bengal) in the 8th Century AD. Jaipur, Orissa and Cuddappa in the South were other places where the round, plaing cards game was known. In each such place, the playing cards were executed by local artists. These were different in size and number compared to the ganjifas of Sawantwadi. Even the iconographical illustrations were different in each place, such as the Navagraha in the north and the Dashavatara in the south, including Sawantwadi. But today, except for Sawantwadi, there is no other place in India in which the craft of making ganifas is being maintained.

Rudy Von Leyden, an Austrian scholar, working for Voltas in Bombay for several years had made an exhaustive collection of round playing cards from all over India. (This collection is now in the Vienna Museum). He had written an article in Marg (Vol. III - No 4- 1949) in which he had then state, "there were still a dozen families eight or ten years ago in Sawantwadi which were engaged in painting Dashavatara ganjifas with surprising vitality of design". Sawantwadi palace authorities claim that they have in their daftar a letter from Nana Phadanvis (Prime Minister of the Peshwas) appreciating the gesture of the Sawantwadi ruler for sending the excellent ganjifa sets.
Sawantwadi ganifas are based on dashavatara - the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The incarnations are: Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimhs, Wamana, Parshurama, Rama, Krishna, Balarama and Kalaki.
A set of dashavatara ganifa consisted of 120 cards. There are ten suits, each having 12 cards. Two are the 'court cards' of picture cards and the remaining ten are numerical cards numbered from one to ten: Out of the two picture cards one illustrates the avatara of Vishnu, the other shows the image of Vazir. The box made for keeping the set of cards is also specially designed with pictures and decorative motifs all round.
During the last quarter of the 19th Century and the first four decades of this century, the craft object of Sawantwadi reached several museums in the West about which very little is known at home.

In their monthly exhibition programme the Naprstkovo Museum in Prague (Czeshoslovakia) mounted a special exhibition in January 1976 on "The Painters of Sawantwadi". Dozens of articles were displayed. The collection consisted of toys from turned wood, miniature vessels and kitchen equipment, baskets woven out of bamboo strips with double walls filled with small stones which served as rattles, bottles and vases made from coconut shells with turned wooden lids and legs, a table with a six corner table top, circular cards in a case (ganifa) and baskets from scented khaskhas grass decorated with applications made of silver thread with insect wings, filters, textile cuttings and porcupine pricks.

This collection of Indian folk arts and crafts in the Naprstkovo Museum was first initiated by Dr. Otokav Feistmantel, a Czech paleontologist, geologist and physician who was in India for 8 year in the 1870s. He was connected with the Geological Survey of India. During his travels in the Indian sub-continent he had collected some 500 items of Indian folk arts and crafts. He later presented his collection to the Museum. The technique of lacquer paintings of Sawantwadi is very sound. The surface of the objects which were to be decorated with paintings are specially prepared by the chitaries. First, they cover the object with a layer of stucco (chalk or zinc oxide mixed with gum) which they would smoothen out. In the case of articles made of bamboo strips they would first cover the surface with a cotton cloth, sticking it down carefully and then apply the stucco paste. This way the painters evened out the surface to create impenetrable foundations on which colours retained their richness and glow. A coat of lacquer gives the objects a finished look.

A note written by Hana Knizkovo of the Naprstkovo Museum of Prague on Sawantwadi painters concludes:
"The art of the Sawantwadi chitaries has vanished long ago. In the year 1888 there worked only two painters; their existence was ruined by the import of articles from Europe and China. The traditional paintings of the Chitaries however, retained their character of original home-made creations, the technological process of which, and the aesthetic norms, had a close relation to the classical art of the Deccan and South India".
Fortunately, the art of lacquer painting of Sawantwadi did not die. It has been revived without much deterioration. The new generation of chitaries of Sawantwadi are today engaged in creating all those traditional craft objects, including ganifas which had once brought fame and glory to the chitaries of Sawantwadi in the filed of arts and crafts of India. In the seventies of the last century, a collection of Sawantwadi products were even sent to Glasgow for the International Exhibition where it was highly praised. Therefore it is heartening to see that such a great traditional craft of Sawantwadi has come to life once again with full glow.


  1. I need contact details of these artisans.. please share the details..its urgent

  2. Is there a way of getting in touch with these artisans?

  3. please provide the contact details of these artists. IT will help people who want to have these cards in their collection as well as it will help the artists.

  4. Please give the contact number of these artisans.

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