This is a short post to share a surprising discovery today while reading a Bengali essay by a Belgian Catholic priest (he may be French - I am not wholly certain but definitely a French speaker who reads and writes fluent Bengali; things are getting mixed up already).
Haven't played a game of cards for a long time except the solitary ones on the computer. It used to be a favorite pastime during the long hot summer vacations. We used the Bengali, Hindi/Urdu and English names for the suits of cards depending on the game and the company. At home, where my mother was very often a participant, we almost always used Benglai. I had always wondered about the Bengali card names because unlike their counterparts in English and Hindi / Urdu, they do not mean anything. Now I know why. They are distortions of foreign words. Three of the four names of the suits of playing cards in Bengali derive from Dutch! Ruhiton, Haroton and Ishkapon (diamonds, hearts and spades respectively) in Bengali correspond to Ruiten, Harten and Schoppen in Dutch. The exception is the suit of clubs which is Chiraton in Bengali and Klaveren in Dutch for clover. Chiraton is related to the Hindi / Urdu name, Chiri meaning bird. It seems that Bengalis learnt to play the western (French origin) 52 card game from sailors of the Dutch East India Company.
Prior to that card games with 96 card decks were popular in India. The cards were called Ganjifa (or Ganjipha) and they had been imported to India by the Persians employed by the Mughal courts. Ganjifa cards had some similarity with the French system in assigning value to each card but were otherwise distinct. Gradually they assumed regional flavor in different parts of India, often supplanting Persian iconography with Hindu religious mythology, such as the ten Avatars of the god Vishnu and other folklore. The production of the handmade Ganjifa cards became an art form. From the distinct Persian form of the Mughal court in the north, different versions of the card game became popular in Maharashtra and Gujarat in western India and Bengal and Orissa in the east, giving rise in the process to new artistic renditions and games with local rules.
(The title of my post refers to a popular Bengali dance drama written and composed by Rabindranath Tagore. Perhaps Sujatha can provide some good links to the music. Thanks to my sister Mandira for educating me on the history of Ganjifa.)