These 22 cards depict Buddhist masters, individuals who are adepts at meditation and ritual. This particular set of initiation cards has been carbon-dated to 1174-1293 CE. These cards, called Tsakli or Tsagli, continue to be used by Tibetan monks as a way of carrying liturgical traditions around with them.
Like other Tsakli, these were printed objects. I do not claim that the Tsagli are the ancestors of the Tarot. However, they have a great deal to teach us, as another example of how cards might be used.
This particular set of Tsagli has 22 cards, just like the Tarot (most do not; most have several dozen cards).
Mongolians brought the art of printing to the Himalayas in the beginning of the 12th century.
Folk tales show that playing cards were historically used in Mongolia, but unfortunately we do not know what type of cards they were or how prevalent they were.
Mongolians, Persians, and Tibetans share a tradition of miniature paintings.
Not all of the items scholars have called Persian playing cards are actually associated with any suit. Nevertheless, these objects do seem to be playing cards, so what are they?
Even though these are not a direct ancestor of the Tarot, they are important to scholars of the Tarot as an ethnographic example of cards being used for initiation. In this case, the meanings of the cards are well known and overt; a description of the card is printed on the back of each one.
I have seen no evidence that Tsagli are or were used in divination, but they are certainly used in the performance of spells. Many of them represent spirits or deities to whom one might make offering, while many others represent the offerings themselves.
Interestingly, the offerings and deities often take shapes of things found in either Persian or Indian playing cards, such as decorative wands, slaves, grotesque heads, buddhas, crowns, mandalas, bolts of cloth, cups, bowls, and swords.
The game was often referred to as "gold speckled leaves", which does make it sound quite a lot like early gold-leaf Tarot cards. Many scholars will tell you that playing cards were invented in 827 because they have conflated these two games. If there is any relationship between these games, which I doubt, it is this:
On the twenty-third day of the sixth month in the thirty-first year of the zhiyuan period (17 July 1294), we caught Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Zhugou playing cards, and have also found wood blocks to print cards. Each person has admitted to the truth of the accusation. We have, according to the rules, passed judgement and punished correctly the organizer Lu Donger, accessory to gambling Zheng Zhugou, the owner of the premises Jiang Sier, and the block printer Ye Lin, and dispatched to the Ever-abundant Treasury for deposit the nine cards (zhipai) that were about to be destroyed, and...