Indian Drums: History, Discovery, and Tradition

There is no reveal of Tabla or Pakhwaj in primeval India. Also, talking about Pakhwaj and Mridangam in general, no principle difference can be put to paper regarding the use of these instruments in India. Beliefs and estimations vary about their past existence and the time of their arrival.

Some of the seals of the Mohenjodaro (pertaining to Indus valley civilization) contain depictions of men playing long cylindrical drums hung around their necks placed horizontally. These drums looked similar to the kharrang of Assam and the dhole of the Reddis of Andra Pradesh. Other drums inscribed on the seals include castanets, cymbals and an hour glass shaped drum like the hudukka. Some arched harps found in their hieroglyphics and unearthed clay whistles demonstrate the fact that they developed a tonal system, but no written literature exists which we can translate in order to learn more about these instruments.

The first written credentials of music occurred in the Vedic scriptures of the Aryan culture. The most ancient Vedic literature describes drums covered with the skins of wild animals, large earthen drums, and the role of the drums in various rituals. The name of the drum mentioned in Vedic literature was ‘dundhubi’.

Literature from the Nardiyasiksa and the Natyasastra that was written around 100 B.C.E. provides a great deal of knowledge regarding music. Naradiysiksa describes Vedic and Ghandharva music. It states that semi-divine Ghandharva music is composed of three elements: svara, tala, and pada. Narad describes the essentials of vocal and instrumental music. In the 31st and 32nd chapters, the Natyasastra gives descriptions of tala, the fundamental aspects of India rhythm. According to Bharata, tala was known as 'ghana' and time as 'kala'. Laya, called kalapata, was subdivided into vilamvita (slow), madhya (medium), and druta (fast). Kala was divided into three parts, citra (two matras), vartika (four mantras) and daksima (eight mantras). Bharata stated that tala, or time unit, was known as the measurement of kala, ('kala kala pramanena tala ityabhdhiyate' 31.7). Two kinds of talas existed: n'sabda (soundless or beatless), and sa'sabda (with sound or beat). The soundless tala was again subdivided into 4 kinds: samya, tala, dhruva, and sannipata. Other terminology regarding rhythm included: yati (a method of applying a tempo of a tala  of which they had several kinds: sama, srotogata, gopuccha, damaru, pipilika), prakarana (to make a song ready for singing), satala (with any rhythm) and atala (without rhythm).

With such terminology they clearly developed a complicated rhythmic system. This originated before the classical music age (600 to 500 B.C.E.) as Ghandharva music became obsolete before the Bharata period. Ghandharva music provides the link between vedic music and post-vedic marga type of music (which evolved around 700 B.C.E. and provides insight to the classical period as well.)

Mridangam was found to have existence from archaic times, but it was found unfeasible to prove their existence in Vedic ages and the Puranas do not give any description of the shape of Mridangam in particular. The Natyasastra epoch of India provides us some information regarding the silhouette of the instrument. At that time the ‘Mridangam’ that was played placed in one’s lap was much like the present day’s ‘Mridangam’ but it lacked the black portion in the middle known as ‘Gab’. Other features that we see in today’s ‘Mridangam’ including its name were added to it during the time of Bharatmuni. Swati noticed the salient features of the instrument and named it ‘Tripushkar’ or ‘Pushkartray’. Muktesvara temple (6th-7th century) and Bhuranesvara (and three other cave temples) of Badari in Bombay (6th century) contain depictions of the Puskara. Musicians often placed the puskara's smaller vertical drum (called 'Alinga') on their lap and played more than one drum at a time. Given the design, technology, and musical structure for drums common in this period, we can piece together numerous features of the Tabla. During the time of Shrangadeb the name ‘Mridangam’ again replaced the name ‘Pushkar’ and the name ‘Mardol’ accompanied it. The difference between ‘Mridangam’ and ‘Mardol’ were  the former had 12 finger size of the two faces while the latter had 13 and 14 finger size respectively; ‘Mardol’ was made of wood and had rings to adjust the scale and tune while ‘Mridangam’ was made of tight clay and mud. The only similarity was the black middle portion ‘gab’ which was densely made in both cases.

The name of ‘Mardol’ and ‘Mridangam’ was found to be associated in the music of different cults in India but none of the books have clearly mentioned about them. Suddenly during the Muslim advent in India the name ‘Pakhwaj’ came into existence. It is guessed that in the 14th century, ‘Pushkar’ and another instrument named ‘Abja’ was combined to create ‘Pakhwaj’.

Coming down to the most popular of all Indian Drums, the book named Sangeetoponishadsarodhar written by Sudhakashal, in its 87th page indicates the use of Tabla and Pakhwaj in Northern and Western India during the 14th and 15th century through a four line sloka.

Taking a look into the discovery of Tabla, there are so many conclusions and varying opinions about it. The correct and concrete one is still unheard of.

Some of the noted and widely accepted ones are below:

  1. Some experts consider that Tabla originated from the Arabian instrument ‘Tabl’. The name has been supposed to come from the son of musician Jubal’s son Tubal.
  2. One strong belief is in 1300 A.D. during the reign of Allauddin Khilji, Parsi Poet Amir Khusrau discovered Tabla.
  3. In Paras another instrument named ‘Nakkara’ was prevalent. Therefore there is a belief that Tabla might be a Parsi instrument.
  4. Going into ancient times, some people believe that Tabla has originated from the instrument “Audharka” which was much like Tabla in structure.
  5. Sangeetacharya Gopeshwar Bandopadhyay believe that Amir Khusrau the second, the disciple of Sadaranga was the real founder of Tabla. This was during the period of Mughal Ruler 3rd Mohammad Shah.
  6. Some people believe that famous Pakhwaj player of Delhi Ustad Sudhar separated Pakhwaj to make Tabla.

Sudhakushal said that Tabla is a Muslim instrument, but there is no proof in history supporting his statement. There is no substantiation anywhere that Tabla was used in the 12th Century before the coming of Anir Khusrau but again in some books of western writers it has been mentioned that an instrument like the Tabla was used since the 6th century. Another thing worth mentioning here is in Italy there was an instrument named ‘Tipani’ similar to Tabla. The 192nd page of the book Musical Instruments Through the Ages indicates clearly that the Arabian ‘Tabl’ was like the ‘Bayan’ of a Tabla. Another instrument named ‘Tabar’ was found in Western lands that indicated the shape of the ‘Dahina’ of a Tabla. So the time period from which this instrument came into play is still controversial, but the reason of the discovery of Tabla was quite obvious. Musical instruments like ‘Mridangam’ or ‘Pakhwaj’ produced heavy and deep seated sounds and were suitable for songs like ‘Dhrupads’ but on the other hand as the light classical like ‘Khayals’ and ‘Ghazals’ became popular there was a need for a much more lyrical and sharp sounding musical instrument. This led to the discovery of Tabla.

Leather instruments are mainly called as ‘Anabadha’ or ‘Abadha’.

In India there are several types of instruments. The significant names among them are Pakhawaj, Tabla, Khol, Dhol, Nakkara, Mridangam, Dvil, Sudha Maddalam, Chenda, Urumi, Pambai, Udukku, Tumbakanari, Huduk, Tilima, etc.

The descriptions of some of them are as follows:


The other name of ‘Khol’ is ‘Mridangam’ but it should not be confused with the ‘North Indian ancient Mridangam’ or ‘Pakhwaj’. The whole body of ‘Khol’ is made with burnt clay. The middle portion is higher and has two slanting faces on either side. The two faces are made of leather and the middle of each face has a black portion called ‘Gab’. The right face (maxm. size-2/3 inches) is smaller as compared to the left face. The specialty of ‘Khol’ is there is no need of adjusting ‘sur’ or scale as in the case of Tabla. ‘Khol’ is usually used with ‘Kirtans’, Devotional songs and ‘Kirtananga Rabindra Sangeet’. It is also used with Manipuri dances.


The body of a Dhol is made of wood and the faces are of leather. Normally a ‘Dhol’ is 18’’ to 20’’ inches in length and 12’’ in breadth. The two sides are fitted with strong ‘Rojju’ which are fixed through small round rings. The rings are used to adjust the scale of the instrument. They are usually played with free hands but sometimes also with the help of sticks. They are mostly used to accompany folk songs.


‘Nakkara’ is one of the most significant ancient musical instruments. ‘Bheri’ or ‘Dundubi’ can be considered just as different types of ‘Nakkara’. Usually ‘Nakkara’ is made of Bronze or Brass and its shape is much like the ‘Bayan’ of a tabla. The face is made of leather and is tightly fitted by ‘Rojju’. Its height is approximately 2’1/2 feet to 3 feet. ‘Nakkara’ is played with the help of sticks, but while accompanying the ‘Sanai’ of North India ‘Nakkara’ is played with hand only.


The North Indian ‘Pakhawaj’ is called ‘Mridangam’ but it has certain dissimilarities with the ‘Mridangam’ of South India. The size of a ‘Mridangam’ is less than that of a ‘Pakhawaj’ and the left face of a ‘Pakhawaj’ is played with open palm but in case of ‘Mridangam’ it is played with fingers like that of a ‘Bayan’ of a Tabla. The length of a ‘Mridangam’ is approximately 1’1/2 to 2 feet. It is usually played with heavy classical music and songs of North India.


The shape of a ‘Tabhil’ is much like that of a ‘Dhol’. Its right face is played with fingers while the left face with a strong wooden stick. This instrument is used with other North Indian classical musical instruments.

Suddha Maddalam:

It’s a North Indian musical instrument and resembles a Mridangam but much bigger in size than ‘Mridangam’. Its ‘gab’ is also much thicker and larger. It has a much heavier sound wave than ‘Mridangam’. This instrument is indispensable for the Kathakali dance of Kerela.


‘Chenda’ is a type of ‘Dhol’ with a length of 2 feet and breadth of 1 foot. It is played with the help of two sticks in two hands. It is also used with Kathakali dance of Kerela. It is also used with the folk dances of northern and southern India.


It is also like a ‘Dhol’ in structure and the two faces are made of leather. It is played with the help of a 1’1/2 inches long curved stick.


It is made by uniting two 1 foot long ‘Dhols’ together. The upper part is made of brass and the lower part is made of wood and both faces are of leather. It is played both with hands and stick. It is usually used with folk dances of the Northern India.


It is about one foot long with a thin middle part and is shaped like that of a ‘Dugdugi’. It is either made of wood or mud. It is held in the left hand and played with the right hand. Its use is limited to some folk songs of Tamil Nadu.


It is the popular Kashmiri ‘Dholak’. It is shaped like a water pot. The lower part is made of leather. It is held below the left arm and played with the right hand.


It is like a ‘Dumru’ but much larger in size. Its two faces are both made of leather and are held together by strong rope. It is suspended with a rope from the left shoulder and played with the right hand. It is popular in the ‘Gharwal’ areas.


It is also a type of ‘Dholak’. It is suspended with a rope from the left shoulder and the upper part is played with both hands. It is used in devotional songs of temples of Kerela.