Play on: Traditional Musical Instruments of Nepal

Features Issue 24 Aug, 2010

Being woven of cultures that remember their roots, Nepal has a wealth of traditional music and instruments that are still part of people’s lives.  From temple bells to woodblock khukuri holders, to the cacophonous brass and drum wedding processions and bone trumpets mourning the dead to the dream-like sitar, plaintive sarangee and meandering basuree, musical sounds mark everyday and once in a lifetime occasions here.

The instruments themselves are at once the solid reminders of the commitment of people to a musical and spiritual life, connections between cultures, signs of great ingenuity and creativity, and physical emblems of the sounds they create. Music is about expression, communication, release, celebration, worship, ritual and enjoyment, and the instruments support all of these.

Nepali instruments can be understood according to the people who use them and the purposes they are used for. Some are used in Nepali classical music, some for folk music, some by the Gandharba and Damai musician castes, some for religious or spiritual ceremonies and processions, and some for specific purposes in the village life of Nepal’s many ethnic groups.  Most of the instruments used in Nepal originated in India and to a lesser extent Tibet, but all have developed in uniquely Nepali ways.

Classical Instruments
The main instruments in Nepali classical music are familiar to most foreigners to the sub-continent through Indian classical music, which is the basis of Nepali classical music. Even people who know virtually nothing about Nepal or India have heard the mysterious, calming strains of the versatile sitar and resonant, watery sounds of the tabla in Beatles’ tunes, and anyone who has walked through Thamel has heard their exotic reverberations flowing from the CD shops there.

The sitar is the giraffe of plucked string instruments.  Its amazingly long neck is covered with the tuning pegs of seven actively played strings (two, the jhala, used exclusively to add strum to fast passages) and eleven to thirteen smaller sympathetic strings which lie underneath.  It is these sympathetic strings that give the sitar its incredibly rich sound – and keep sitar players busy tuning! There are also moveable metal frets along the length of the strings. The body of the sitar looks rather pregnant and was traditionally made from a large gourd.  Most sitars also sport a goiter-ish second globe near the end of their neck, which adds resonance. The sitar, as well as the tabla and sarod, originated in the Middle East and evolved in India in the 17th and 18th centuries, but did not reach its full complement of strings until the 20th century.  Even now some players prefer to use different numbers of strings.  The frets are also set different lengths apart as determined by each gharana, or family style of playing.

Lesser known but often heard in Nepal is the sarod, which is similar to the sitar in the plethora of strings and length of neck, but has a shiny metal fingerboard and no frets, the easier for players to make those sliding sounds.  It is also slightly lower pitched, and has a slimmer but longer body.  As Raju Hyaumikha, Assistant Director of the Kathmandu University Department of Music explained, “The sitar is female, the sarod is male,” a fair summary of the difference.

The tabla are a set of two fat egg-shaped drums of rounded metal or ceramic bodies with skin heads lashed on by leather thongs.  The head resembles a three-ring target. Raju explains that it is actually two layers of leather, the outer one with a large hole cut in it glued to the lower one.  The black spot in the middle is made from a mixture of iron powder, wheat flour, and tree resins applied layer after layer until the spot is raised and reaches the right pitch and timbre (sound quality). These methods of construction are common to many Nepali drums. The tabla are tuned by hitting spools in the thongs with a small hammer, which in effect loosens (to make the sound lower) or tightens (to make the sound higher) the head. An amazing range of sounds can be made by striking the center, edge, or breadth of the drum with the fingertips, or flat or heel of the hand. The culture of the tabla is remarkable in that players learn by singing the rhythms and pitches. Their tongues are as fast as their fingers, and the vocal articulation sometimes sounds like jazz scat or very fast rap music without words.  The tabla was originally played by low-caste people and thus not considered appropriate for classical music. But the remarkable drums overcame caste discrimination when musicians began to use them to balance and give a solid ground to the more ethereal sitar.  The virtuoso performances on the versatile tabla also impressed the high-caste patrons of classical music and the drums became a standard part of classical ensembles.

Although the sitar, sarod, and tabla are staples of Nepali classical music they are by no means a complete list of instrumentation.  Two others that are frequently used are the basuree bamboo flute (discussed later) and the ishraj, a lap-held bowed instrument a bit lower and played more freely than the violin.

Indian classical instruments came to Nepal when the Malla Kings hired Muslim musicians to play Indian classical music at court. Prithivi Narayan Shah’s enmity of the Mallas apparently extended to their court music; when he became ruler of Nepal in 1768, he banned classical musicians – and effectively, the instruments - from Nepal. His successor, Rana Bahadur Shah, was quite the opposite, even termed a bit mad for his passionate love of music, so the musicians and instruments came back.  The Ranas continued the ruling passion for classical music and supported the musicians with gifts of land (some ancestors of these musicians still receive a share of the yield of farms in the Kathmandu Valley) and elephants.  Over the past few hundred years, Nepali classical musicians have faithfully followed the basic note patterns of the Indian ragas. However, improvisation is also essential to the tradition and Nepali styles of improvisation have developed slightly differently from the styles in various regions of India.

This is the only European import that has been thoroughly incorporated into Nepali music. The system of free reeds played by pumped air actually originated in China, but Europeans added their own piano-style keyboard.  Probably brought by British missionaries to India in the 1800s, it became associated with sacred music in general. The harmonium is rarely used as a solo instrument, and perfectly matched to accompany singers with its reliable, unchanging pitch and two-octave range matching the human voice.  (Ironically, the same steady pitch quality was at variance with Indian musical sensibilities and for a time in the 1930s the harmonium was officially excluded from Indian classical music.) The harmonium typically accompanies Indian/Nepali classical ghazal singers and is also widely used for pujas at Hindu temples.  As the tradition of Dori singing – the folksongs where men and women alternately tease and flirt with each other in the improvised verses – has become popular in local restaurants and on Channel Nepal, the harmonium has joined the back-up bands.

Folk Instruments and Musician Castes

The sixty-seven odd ethnic groups of Nepal all use at least some basic forms of musical instruments. Few instruments are completely unique to one group, although they may use different names for the same basic instrument.  For example, what is known in Tibetan cultures as dameru, a hand-held drum-like instrument that has two cups joined at the small end struck by wooden beads on strings when the instruments is turned by the wrist, is known as thundar by the Tharu people, and a Newari version that has thickly braided strings instead of beads is called the kantaa dabadaha. Unfortunately, much of the ethnic folk music in Nepal is being lost as people turn to radio, television and Hindi movies for their music and there is little governmental or institutional support to keep the wonderful variety of folk traditions alive. Partial exceptions to this are the music of the Gandharba and Damai musician castes, the festival and ceremonial drumming of the Newaris, the use of shamanic drums, and Tibetan music.

The Gandharbas
The Gandharba caste of musicians probably came to Nepal from Rajasthan, north India in the 15th century, fleeing the Muslim conquerors. They were traditionally called Gaine, which literally means ‘singer’, but this name developed pejorative connotations, perhaps because of the people’s untouchable caste status and need to survive by asking alms for their music. The Gandharbas adopted their new name from that of the mythical demi-god attendant musicians of Indra.  For centuries, the Gandharbas went from village to village, singing their own songs about the news of the day and the joys and sorrows of the people, as well as absorbing and changing songs from people they met (intellectual property rights was a totally foreign concept!). The Gandharbas were also keen political observers (and sometimes satirists) and were often employed by warring parties to negotiate or spread messages throughout the kingdom. Buddha Gandharba, former president of the Gandharba Cultural and Arts Organization (GCAO), tells of their legendary role in the founding of Nepal. “King Prithivi Nayaran Shah paid us to go everywhere and sing to the people about him.” Nepal’s folk fiddle, the sarangee, and the arbaj, a long guitar like instrument, were the Gandharba’s constant companions.  In recent generations they have also adopted the madal, the two-headed Nepali drum, and basuree, the bamboo flute.  Buddha explains, “Now we play with a full band, its better.” The expert madal player continues, “The drum is the heartbeat everywhere.”

Sarangee: Although it has come to symbolize Nepali folk music, the sarangee probably originated in Rajasthan and was carried to Nepal by the Gandharbas. Sarangees were common as far back as the 7th century and can still be found in Rajasthan today.  The name comes from the saran bird, whose voice is echoed in the tones of its namesake. Many of the early sarangees had images of the saran carved on the “fiddlehead”. The Gandharbas are not only sarangee players but also the only sarangee makers. Mangal Gandharba, a skilled sarangee craftsman and member of the GCAO explains, “We make sarangees from the khirra tree. There are two kinds. The light wood comes from the hills; its soft, easy to carve. The dark wood is hard and hard to carve! It comes from Masadi Khirra, in the jungle.” Each craftsman has his own style of carving and each geographical area has its own particular characteristics. For example, the traditional Bhaktapur sarangee is quite corpulent and squat compared to the svelte sarangees of Tanahun, where Mangal is from. The Gandharbas mostly use a plain version for their own playing, but also carve elaborate sarangees with images of Ganesh, temples, and even Buddha on the backs and necks, usually out of the harder wood.  The standard sarangee is about twenty inches long. (The smaller sarangees around town are primarily intended as souvenirs and almost impossible to play well.)

The sarangee is played with a bamboo and horsetail bow, which sometimes has a small jingle bell attached for extra excitement when the music takes off. The four strings are tuned so that the lowest and highest are an octave apart with a fifth in between; usually the melody is played on one or two strings and the others act as a drone- not unlike the principle of the bagpipes! One unique aspect of playing the sarangee is that the notes are changed not by placing the fingers on the strings, as with guitar, violins, and their cousins in most of the world, but in between the strings. The sound of the bow against the string is as expressive as the human voice, perfect for the story-telling songs of the Gandharbas.

Arbaj: The arbaj also apparently originated with (and is made by) the Gandharbas. It is one meter long, has four strings (made from goat’s intestine, yum!) and a hollow neck, a small body covered with goatskin, and is played with a bamboo pick. The sound is like a low-pitched rhythm guitar. The arbaj had fallen out of use for many years but has been recently revived and is played in the GCAO nightly concerts.

Madal: This other symbol of Nepali music is made by men of the Sarki or Badi castes (who also make shoes), and found throughout Nepal. The barrel is wooden and the two heads are goatskin, tied to each other across the barrel by leather laces. The heads are constructed in the same basic way as the tabla, except that the tuning paste uses rice instead of wheat flour and fewer layers are built up, and are tuned with metal rings instead of wooden spools.  The two heads are large and smaller, producing lower and higher pitches. The drum is held in the lap with a leather strap wrapped around the knees so that the heads can resonate freely. Buddha showed me how to make several different tones by striking each head in different spots with just one finger (which has to be really strong!) or the flat or heel of my hand. It took me more than ten attempts to make one plunk remotely similar to the glorious ringing tones he made, and I could only barely begin to put together the pattern of hitting one side once and then the other twice - once with the index finger and once with the flat of the hand, then back…much practice needed for just a simple pattern! Madal players work in the same way as tabla players, singing the sounds in different rhythms, and though the sounds are not quite as varied, they can still be incredibly complex.

Basuree (transverse bamboo flute): There are records of flutes appearing 2000 years ago in India and they probably appeared in Nepal shortly thereafter. The flute is written about in Hindu sacred texts including the Vedas and Upanishads and is especially associated with shepherds and with the God Krishna. Folk music, including Gandharba music, tends to use the shorter, higher flutes especially for birdlike warbles and trills, while classical music uses the longer, lower pitched flutes which play both the slow opening parts of the ragas and elaborate improvisations.

Both transverse (held horizontal to the ground) and straight flutes have many uses in different ethnic cultures.  One short carved wooden flute in the Newari culture, the kukubhai, was used specifically for playing marriage ceremonies. A similar instrument, the cipi barua basuree, was presented by young women to the young men they intend to marry.

Damais and the Pancai baja
Another major caste of musicians in Nepal is the Damai, who play the ceremonial pancai baja instruments and are the traditional tailors of Nepal- a good combination for excellent eye-hand coordination!  According to Carol Tingey, in her thorough book ‘Auspicious Music in a Changing Soceity: The Damai Musicians of Nepal’, the name Damai comes from damaha, the word for the kettledrum that is a central part of the pancai baja. The Damai people themselves, like the Gandharbas, probably came from Rajasthan as early as the 1400s. Their auspicious music traditions quickly spread throughout Nepal, and some version of their music can be found everywhere except the highest altitude areas of the country.  Strangely, although their music and even their presence are considered auspicious, the Damais are also an untouchable caste.

The pancai baja music was considered necessary for virtually all rituals and rites of passage in Hindu culture and was absorbed into Gurung, Tamang, Thakali, Magar, and other originally Tibetan Buddhist cultures. In Newari culture, the Damai musicians were  joined by members of the Jugi musician caste, who also had the dual tailor-musician role, and the Kusle shawm-playing caste.  Marriage processions, sacred thread and other coming of age ceremonies, festivals, and civil ceremonies like royal birthdays all required Damai (or Damai/Jugi/Kusle) music, and musicians were often given regular assignments in temples, the first of these recorded at Pashupatinath in 1798. These temple musicians were often supported by Guthis, land donated and farmed specifically to raise money for the temple and its associated rituals.

The origins of the pancai baja instruments were in Arabia, where shawms, trumpets, cymbals and drums formed military bands used by kings to display their power and glory on various occasions.  The instruments were carried into India by Muslim invaders, adapted to Indian Hindu traditions, and eventually carried out to Nepal by the Damai fleeing the same invaders. In Hindu tradition, the instruments became identified with the different elements: the wind instruments (shanai, narsinga) represent sky; the damaha drum, water; the higher tyamko drum earth, and the jyhali  (cymbals), fire. The different regions of Nepal adopted different combinations of the instruments and used them for different occasions.  For instance, in far western Nepal only the damaha drums are generally used and in central Nepal the music is used primarily for weddings.

Instruments of the Pancai Baja
Shanai: A small wind instrument that can raise a big racket, the shanai is a member of the shawm family, a distant relative of the European oboe. The Nepali shanai is unique in that it uses four instead of two vibrating reeds as a mouthpiece, and has a curved body. Shanais are generally made (by the Damais or Kusle themselves) out of wood and brass with a conical bore (that is, they are a tube shape that gets gradually larger from top to bottom, which creates a distinctive sound), but rare instruments were made of ivory or silver for special purposes. The Damai version is usually about 30 cm long; the Kusle made shanais of five different sizes. They sometimes had handy slings for carrying. The instruments and reeds must be wetted before playing to achieve the desired sound quality – or sometimes to get any air actually through the instrument at all, as the sides tend to leak if they haven’t sponged up enough water. Shanai players are famous for circular breathing, which allows them to play continuously by taking air in through their noses as they blow out through their mouths.

Brass Instruments: The narsinga is a long (two meters or more) natural, conical bore trumpet which looks like a dragon or a huge snake curved into a C or S shape. Traditionally, these instruments led processions, often in pairs. They are made of fine hammered copper or brass, by the Newar coppersmiths of Kathmandu and Patan, or, especially in eastern Nepal, by the Kami blacksmiths. Many other trumpets were used by both the Damais and the Jugis; the one most resembling a European trumpet was the bheri, a small looped tube instrument with a flared bell. Nowadays, European trumpets, cornets and euphoniums have replaced the traditional trumpets in most wedding processions in Kathmandu.

Percussion: The damaha drums are bowl-shaped copper with a buffalo hide head, typically about 14 inches in diameter, held with a strap around the neck or played on the ground.  Larger versions of these drums, called dam nagara were used independently in the Gorkha palaces as early as 1609 to announce visitors, and installed in temples for special rituals. These temple drums were even ritually made, using the skins of buffaloes sacrificed at Dashain. The tyamko drum is built on the same principles as the damaha but is only six inches in diameter, in some areas is made of wood instead of copper, has a much higher sound and is worn in processions dangling from the waist by a leather strap. The dhokali is a two-headed wooden drum, similar to the madal, except generally larger and the heads are not pitched. The jhyali, and smaller jhymata cymbals complete the sacred rhythm ensemble.

Newari Drumming Traditions
According to Gert Wegner, ethnomusicologist and longtime Director of Kathmandu University’s Department of Music in Bhaktapur, the dhimey drum of the Newars may be the oldest instrument in Nepal, appearing in the seventh century. These large two-headed  wood and skin drums were played in sacred processions and ceremonies for many occasions. Like other drummers, players learned the rhythmic patterns with spoken syllables like “tik ah tik ah.”  Each god was associated with a particular rhythm pattern and that pattern had to be played on the dhimey when an image of the specific god was passed. Thus the rhythms for each procession route could be memorized by learning the rhythms of the gods along the way, in order.  Or, theoretically, if one noticed the gods and passed along the correct route, one would be able to play the procession rhythms as intended. In this way, Wegner explains, “The town of Bhaktapur is like a musical score.”

The sacred rhythms and patterns for many of the rituals were kept secret, passed on from father to son and practiced where no one other than the drummers could hear them.  Some rhythms, including the specific rhythms that accompanied each step of the process of funeral cremations, were thought to cause black magic if played outside of the ritual context.

Raju Hyaumikha, Assistant Director of the Kathmandu University Department at Bhaktapur, is himself a dhimey player. He explains that there are two dhimey drums used today, one about eighteen inches in diameter and more than two feet long with the standard black circle of tuning paste on the outside, one smaller called the dhimey-tsa, which has the tuning paste on the inside. He says, “We usually play for processions at Dashain and Nepali New Year. Sometimes we’re invited to play for a family, for a bhartoman (boy’s coming of age ceremony).  Then we gather some friends, with at least one drums and two cymbals.” He adds, “The cymbals are called bhuchyah. We try to get four drums and four cymbals if we can, that’s the usual.”

Shamanic drums
Another important use of drums in Nepal is among the Jhankris, the shamans or spiritual healers. The dhyangro, or shamanic drum has two broad heads (between one and two feet in diameter) embracing a narrow wooden circle of a body held by a thick wooden handle. The drum is played (with either a curved or a straight stick, depending on the tradition) and the shaman dances into a trance to invite the spirits forth. The patient to be cured often is also induced by the drum to shake away evil spirits.  This tradition is particularly strong among the Gurung people,  but is found throughout Nepal, including to some extent in Kathmandu. Jhankris also may wear small round bells (a bit more than one inch in diameter) called gangala attached to red strips of cloth as a sort of malla that adds to the power of their dance.  

Tibetan instruments
Most of Nepal’s hill and mountain ethnic groups originated in Tibet.  Over the centuries, they brought with them both the sacred and the folk instruments of that country. Some instruments evolved with the cultures over the years and some were lost in the new land. The 1950s and onward influx of Tibetan refugees into Nepal brought back the original (or Tibet-evolved) forms of the instruments, and some of the ethnic groups, particularly the Sherpas, are reclaiming the Tibetan instruments. Tibetans in the diaspora have put a great deal of effort into preserving their culture and incidentally have been helping to revive it in Nepal.

Some of the most ancient instruments are preserved in Buddhist rituals. Just as Buddhist tantric images feature necklaces of skulls on wrathful deities, some of the instruments are made out of human bones. Bone trumpets (kamling) were used for various rituals, including sky burial ceremonies and cho practice - chants and meditation on non-attachment - which was often done in charnal grounds (the place where bodies were left to be consumed by birds). The dameru (hand-held two cupped drum) was traditionally made from two human skulls and used in a plethora of rituals.  Another sacred natural instrument is the conch, or tung, used to call monks into the prayer hall and in pujas such as tsoks – blessing and giving away food for a special celebration such as Saka Dawa (the day of the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha).

A cacophony of wind and percussion instruments are still commonly used at monasteries to welcome important guests, for the cham sacred dances, and to make offerings of sound to the deities on many occasions. At Losar, the Tibetan New Year, in Boudha, one monastery brings out two several meter-long tungchen trumpets to blast from the rooftop.  These trumpets were traditionally made in the monasteries from silver and gold coins left as offerings.  It took eighteen blacksmiths working fulltime for eight to ten months to complete a set. The trumpets are usually decorated with motifs of lotus and dragon for purity and power and are always made and played in pairs.  When there is a procession for a special occasion such as welcoming a visiting high lama, they lead the way.  The gyalin, Tibetan shawm, has a sound not unlike the shanai but is made of metal in a manner similar to the tungchen (but less time consuming because it is much smaller).  Other common monastic instruments are the puchen singchen (cymbals) and large drums, very similar to the dhyangro shamanic drums, which may have evolved from them.  Probably the most familiar monastic instrument of all is the thibu- the hand bell used in combination with the small metal (and silent) vajra by lamas in everyday incantations. Like the Himalayan singing bowls (which may or may not have ever been used in the monasteries) the thibu creates a remarkable overtone series (notes that sound above the principle vibration) which some have associated with reaching the different realms of existence.

Tibetans have both a strong folk tradition and a related operatic tradition. Some of the same instruments are used in both. One of the most common song accompaniers is the dramyen, a six string guitar-like instrument. The Sherpa and Tamang people have a version called dungma, the top of which is usually decorated with the head of a tiger or the head of a horse respectively, and the strings are often plucked in a kind of galloping pattern that sort of makes you want to ride away into the sunset.  The small body of the dramyen is covered with animal skin. As Tsetan Chonjore, professor of Tibetan language at the University of Wisconsin and an excellent amateur musician explains, “Snake skin is best because it doesn’t change sound in any kind of weather.” Another commonly used instrument is the thychen, basically a stick with a roundish box on the end and two strings, played with a bow.  These originated in China as an instrument called the erhu, with a rather unearthly sound that could imitate the whinny of a horse or the eerie cry of a ghost. Nepali versions are sometimes only one string and called etari or otari.  The flute is very popular in Tibetan music; the straight version is called lingbu, usually wood and easier to play than the transverse flute called thiling, which is often bamboo and imported from China. For opera, big community events, and in some aristocratic families, a wonderful hammered dulcimer called the gyomang (meaning ‘many strings’) is played. Tsetan tells me that in Tibet, as in India and Nepal, it was Muslims who became the master musicians and performed for the wealthy families!