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Indian Hand Drums

Tabla dayan.

Some Background On Indian Hand Drums

It's generally agreed that hand drums date back at least 6,000 years, but nobody knows for sure when Indian drums first appeared. We do know that a very advanced and sophisticated culture of drumming developed in India thousands of years ago.

In the Sanskrit classic, Panchatantra (2OO BC), it is related that there exist 49 types of rhythms. The ancient Indian sage and musicologist, Bharata Muni, declared in his, now classic, Natya Shastra (200-400 BC) that music consists of seven notes, three scales, twenty-one modulations, forty-nine rhythms and three speeds.

It can be reasonably assumed that, in its infancy, drumming consisted of a two-beat rhythm. This rhythm is basic to Indian drumming, as it is throughout the world.

But in Indian drumming, this fundamental rhythm evolved, little by little, into rhythms of 4, 8, 12 and 16 beats and their variations. A single beat was added to the primary rhythm and the three beat rhythm was born. Different combinations of beats resulted in 5 and 7 beat rhythms, also with variations.

And so it went: different combinations and permutations only led to further possibilities. As the possibilities grew, so did the need for Indian hand drums capable of producing the growing variety of rhythms and vocabularies.

In this way, India has made incalculable contributions to the music of the world. None greater than in the sphere of drumming. No nation can claim a rhythmic art as elaborate and complete as India, nor a system of notation that can compare.

With the passage of time, India only continues to refine the art of drumming. Let's take a look at some of hand drums of India that make this possible.

Essential Hand Drums of India

The Tabla

The tabla consists of two hand drums (dayan and bayan, literally "right" and "left") whose tones complement each other.

The dayan is slightly conical in shape and made of hollow wood (teak, rosewood or oak). The head is made of a stretched and layered leather membrane held in place by leather braces. The instrument is tuned by adjusting the tension with wooden pegs between the braces and the drum. Finer tuning is accomplished by hammering on the braided edge of the drum head. The bayan is larger than the dayan and provides the bass. It's construction is similar to the dayan's, except the body is made of either clay or, now much more commonly, metal (brass, copper or aluminum).

The tabla is probably the world's most recognized Indian hand drum and certainly the preeminent percussion instrument of India itself. Yet, in historical terms, the tabla is a mere fledgling.

There is an abundance of lore regarding the origin of the tabla, including that it came about when a pakhawaj was split in two. Another story says that it's a smaller version of the dukkar and that it came about because no one was allowed to sit in the presence of the king, so smaller drums were required to perform in his presence.

The fact is that there is no historical evidence in terms of paintings, carvings or writings depicting this Idian drum until the 18th century, when paintings depict standing tabla players with a platform attached to their waists upon which their instruments rest. This seems to support the theory that the tabla is a descendant of the dukkar. It would seem that this Indian hand drum is a modern vehicle for ancient music.

Musician playing several tablas.

As is typical of Indian hand drums, each head of the tabla has a paste (siyahi) applied that controls the pitch and tone. This is what makes these drums ring so clearly. It's worth noting that the paste applied to the modern tabla drum head was invented at about the time that the drums began to be depicted in Indian art.

The tabla is played with the fingers, palms and heels of the hands and can produce an incredible array of sounds and rhythms. Its vocabulary is astounding and is commonly considered to be the most challenging hand drum in the world.

Is your tabla in need of repair? Please visit our page on Tabla Repair.


The mridangam (mrudangam, mrdangam, mrithangam, miruthangam, mirudhangam) is an ancient two-headed Indian hand drum with a wooden shell approximately 27 inches long. In Sanskrit the words 'mrda' and 'anga' translate to 'clay' and 'body', so it's generally accepted that this Indian drum was originally made of clay. Now more commonly constructed from wood, generally from the jackfruit tree, the drum is famous for its distinctive buzzing sound and is the primary rhythmic accompaniment in Carnatic music.

Sitting musician playing the mridangam.

Indian mythology has it that Lord Nandi, vehicle and escort of Lord Shiva, used to play the mridangam during the performance of the primordial "Taandav" dance by Lord Shiva. According to another myth, the mridangam was created because an instrument was needed that could recreate the sound of Indra, king of the gods, as he moved through the heavens on his elephant Airavata. Today, the mridangam is also known as "Deva Vaadyam," or "Instrument of the Lords."

How about a duet?

Tabla and mridangam duet.


The Ghatam is is a bulbous earthenware pot that is open at the top and has a narrow neck. The instrument resembles an ordinary clay pot, but is made specifically to produce an even tone. It can be positioned on the lap or on a tabla ring and is played with both hands using fingers, thumbs, palms, and heels of the hands to strike the surface. An airy, bass sound of low-pitch is created by hitting the mouth of the pot with an open hand. The bass stroke can be deepened by pressing the mouth of the pot against the bare belly.

Sitting musician playing the ghatam.

There are two types of this Indian drum that usually consist of a mixture of clay, iron dust or other metallic components. The Manamadurai ghaṭam is a heavy, thick pot with tiny shards of metal mixed into the clay. This type of ghaṭam must be played with some force but produces a distinct ringing sound which is favored by some players. The Madras ghaṭam is a lighter pot which is easier to play, so it's suited for extended, more intricate playing.

This unique Indian hand drum is so ancient that it's mentioned in the great Indian epic, the Ramayana.


Considering its highly-developed drumming culture, it seems a bit odd that India gets little credit for its contribution to music by way of the frame drum. On the relatively rare occasion when a frame drum is featured in an Indian musical performance, the drum is often one generally thought to be of Middle Eastern origin, such as the daf or doyre.

There is at least one frame drum, however, that is uniquely Indian.

The kanjira is a South Indian frame drum of the tambourine family used primarily in Carnatic music in support of the mridangam.

The wooden frame of the kanjira is about 8 inches in diameter and made of the jackfruit tree. A single slit in the 2 to 4 inch-deep frame will contain two to four zils that create a cut sound. The drum head comes from the skin of a monitor lizard and is pulled tight, so the drum is pitched quite high. To offset this and provide a bass, the tension is reduced by applying water to the inside of the skin repeatedly during a performance.

Tuning this Indian drum is very temporary and not exactly a science, so performers typically keep several kanjiras in the hope of having one ready to play at any given time.

Sitting musician playing the kanjira.

Given the complexity of the percussion patterns used in Indian music and the fact that the kanjira is played with a single hand, the kanjira is a challenging drum to play. This Indian hand drum is played with the palm and fingers of the right hand, while the left hand supports it. The pitch is bent by applying pressure to the skin near the outer rim with the fingers of the left hand.

The variety and intricacy of the sounds produced by this small and seemingly simple and limited instrument are astounding. By sight alone, one might dismiss this drum as primitive or even crude. The truth is that the kanjira is a monument to Indian hand drums and Indian drumming.

Continue the tour of world hand drums!

African Hand Drums

Middle Eastern Hand Drums

Come back soon. More to come!