Musical Instruments

Indian music, considered a spiritual aid for attaining paramatma (enlightenment), stresses on melody and rhythm; harmony follows. It consists of swara (notes), tala (rhythm) and pada (rhythmic words). Raga (melody) projects mood, emotion and feeling, and is a combination of swaras inspired by the sounds of seven particular animals and birds:



Rishaba Ox
Gandhara Goat

Krouncha bird (extinct)



Daivata Horse



In addition to singing, ancients clapped their hands, stomped their feet, beat their chests, flanks and bellies. Rattles followed, then drums. Skulls, nutshells, seeds and stones got replaced by manjira (cymbals in metal or wood), gong (metal with stick of wood-cum-leather), bell (metal), ghunguru (metal anklets with bells), and kartal (wooden clapper).


A variety of musical instruments are very much a part of Indian music because they generate rhythm and dynamism. The three main classes are percussion, string and wind instruments.

Percussion Instruments

A percussion instrument is one that is sounded with a beater to produce rhythm, melody and harmony.


Indian percussion instruments consist of many types of drums like hand drums, hand frame drums, stick and hand drums, stick drums, idiophones and melodic drums. They are broadly called tabla or dhol: a two sided drum, covered with goat hides, held around the neck, and played with two sticks.


The tabla is said to have originated from the mridangam and pakhavaj. It consists of a rounded shell: male called bayan made of metal, and the female is called dayan and made from wood. Both are covered with hide and fastened to leather hoops which are stretched over the body of the drum by means of leather braces.


Kolkata is the tabla capital of the world because the greatest tabla players have hailed from there. Even today parents send their sons on Sunday mornings to attend tabla classes. The number of tabla players is certainly not dwindling!


Although Hindustani music, Rabindra-sangeet, Nazulgeeti, film music, adhunik (modern) songs are performed and recorded with the help of key-boards, guitars and octopads, the tabla has not been replaced.


Small manufacturing workshops owned by drum makers usually pass on their trade from father to son, to grandson. Various types of drums are manufactured from scratch: tabla, dagga, pakhwaj, dholki and dholak and sold with some accompanying instruments like lezim and taal. (Tablas are not only made for music, but for use as furniture too like stools to sit on and side tables.)


The raw materials required for drums are procured from different parts of the country. For instance, the drum makers of Pune who mainly specialise in all kinds of skin instruments obtain hide/leather from Solapur, whereas the wood used to carve the base of the tabla or dholki comes from Delhi, and iron from Gujarat. Some manufacturers in Pune have also begun making large steel drums that are played during the annual Ganesh Chaturthi festival.


Incidentally, over 80 dhol-tasha pathaks (groups of drummers) with each organisation having up to 700 persons, including a charitable trust and another that is all-women, exist in Pune. There is a difference between playing a drum and a dhol-tasha. The sticks are made of wood and different. The grip required is also different. They practise regularly preparing for the time when their troupe will hit the streets. About Rs 60,000/- is charged by them from the Ganesh Mandals for a 2-hour participation in their local immersion procession.


Drums such as the bhoomi dundhubhi may have been discovered with observing the outcome of a casual banging on a hollow item which progressed to the making of the duff, kanjari/kanjira or tambourine with an animal skin stretched over an open frame. The nagara then emerged. It is a percussion instrument made of wood, iron, metal and leather. Mainly used by the Ho tribes of Madhya Pradesh, it is also found in Himachal Pradesh and Bihar (Seraikela Chhau dance) and is used as an accompaniment with shehnai on festive occasions.


The duff is a large frame tambourine without jingles and has goatskin stretched over it; whereas a lizard-skin is stretched over one side of the wooden frame of the kanjari/kanjira used for Karnatic and folk music.


There is another percussion instrument called hari khol which is specially utilised to play music for Lord Vishnu during naam kirtan. Adharjhor in Patamda block of Jharkhand is the village where these instruments are traditionally made.


Here again, the craft has been passed down generations by the clan of cobbler-artisans who take their goods for sale to Jamshedpur every Sunday, but trade picks up considerably before Maghi Purnima each year. In addition to the hari khol, they also make the khol, kartal, tabla, dhol, madol, nagara, juninagara, nal and trishat – all used in temples and during festivals and jatras.


Instruments produced at the Adharjhor village are also sold to Vishnu temples in North India. The cheap hardwoods utilised are from the shish, neem, jackfruit and sal trees. Using coir rope, the dried wood moulds (drums) are usually “dressed” (fitted) with goat skin, but buffalo or ox hide may also be used.


The joh nagara or two kettle drums are played with two sticks, used in Mahakali dances and accompanied with chhusyah and muhali. The big drum is made of copper and is covered with buffalo skin for producing a deep sound, but the smaller drum is made of steel and is covered with camel skin for a lighter sound.


The dhol of Rajasthan is also famous. The state is full of drummers that take to the streets often. The dhol has goat skin on the sides and is slung over the neck with a strap made of woven cotton and played with two wooden, bamboo or cane sticks.


The mridangam is a double sided drum made from one piece of hollowed cylindrica wood. The left face (bigger than the right) has two layers of skin whereas the right has three. The two faces are held together with leather straps. Hides of three animals go into the making of a mridangam: goat, cow and the buffalo. The right head consists of three membranous coverings. The inner most one is in the form an annual ring with its inner edge slightly projecting into the opening. The middle membrane is the main vibrating membrane to which a layer of permanent black paste made of boiled rice, iron ore and a few other ingredients is applied to facilitate tuning to a particular pitch. Both these layers are made of goat skin. The outer most membrane having a circular cut-out is made of cow skin. The left head consists of generally three membranes. The innermost membrane is made of goat skin. Two thick layers of buffalo skin each having large equi-diameter cut-outs constitute the outer layers. All the layers are braided together at their outer edges and fastened to a long leather thong made of buffalo skin that weaves back and forth between the right and left sides of the drum holding the two heads together.

The chenda of Kerala is similar but always made from jackfruit tree wood.


The pakhavaj is also similar to the mridangam and has two heads, the right identical to the tabla; and the left is similar to the tabla-bayan except for the application of flour and water.


Tanvil is another drum like the mridangam used to accompany Nagaswaram music, saxophone and violin. Both sides of the barrel are wood fastened with inter-woven leather straps, while the sides are covered with hide. A leather band that runs through the middle of the barrel is used to loosen or tighten the skin.


Ghumot, an earthenware pot covered with the skin of the monitor lizard is used as a drum in Goa. (It was in 2019 granted state heritage status albeit with goat or sheep skin substituted, but BWC doubts that the use of monitor lizard skin has been totally discontinued.) The wildlife officials probably also overlook the use of udumbu another type of large lizard whose skin forms part of the kanjira percussion instrument.


The hand-held damroo or the monkey drum is hour-glass shaped and made of wood and leather. The player gives a hard twist causing the beads to strike the drum heads. It consists of wood today but was formerly made from the human cranium/skull and used by exorcists.


The tambourine can also have animal skin stretched over the drumhead frame in addition to metal jingles.


The parai / thappu / dappu, believed to be one of the oldest instruments in the world are played through the night at funerals. They are usually accompanied by dance performances called parai attam. The parai is a frame-drum consisting of a cow hide glued to a neem wooden frame and played with two different types of wooden sticks. To the accompaniment of this instrument, Tirupavai puja songs composed by the Tamil saint-poetess Andal, are sung to the deity Paavai extolling the greatness of Shri Krishna, compassion for cows and calves and describing nature. Until the end of the Chola dynasty the parai was considered holy and since it was distributed by the temple, it was made from the skin of naturally dead cows. Therefore, the songs that were sung requested a parai as a gift from the temple. In 1980, during a protest in Cuddalore, a scholar was murdered for suggesting that parai could be played by people who were not Dalits.

In Tamil Nadu villages the thandora (called dhandhora or tom-tom elsewhere in India) used for public announcements/proclamations was banned in 2022. This musical instrument which is a kind of drum contains leather.

Most modern foreign percussion instruments are made with non-animal “skin”. So why can’t India try this material in place of goat and other animals’ skins?

In fact, the ghatam is one of the oldest and only percussion instrument that is made without animal products. It is a secondary percussion instrument that contains no animal skin or leather. It is used along with the mridangam. A mixture of clay with brass or copper with little iron filings are baked to obtain this pot with a narrow end. It is mainly manufactured at Panruti and Manamadurai in Tamil Nadu. The mouth of the pot is held against the stomach and the strokes are given at the neck, centre and bottom with two hands, wrist, ten fingers and nails.


A fibreglass Balaram/Tilak/Mridanga was created by an ISKCON devotee. In fact artificial mridanga including the material as a substitute for cow hide for the khol is been produced by them.

In 2015 a synthetic mridangam without animal skin used for drumheads was developed after several years of research by Dr K Varadarangan from Bengaluru who is a scientist, musician (vocalist) and vegan. See for full details. It consists of a fibreglass shell, with polyester films and rubber material used for the drumheads.


Then in 2018 Dr Varadarangan came out with a synthetic tabla with stabilised sounds and aesthetically done synthetic strips for alignment. The acoustic principle was the same as in the traditional one, but the change was in the material and process. The key aspect of his research was subjecting rubber material bonds and a polyester film to a chemical process with the use of adhesives.

Although a synthetic khol had already been developed by ISKCON a new vegan khol was the third percussion instrument developed by Dr K Varadarangan sans leather and wood. This instrument beautifully replicates the authentic sound of the original clay khol with animal skin. The drum head incorporates a special design which produces a high pitched sharp cutting tone which a traditional khol produces. Another important feature of this new vegan khol is that it is easily tuneable since there is access to the tuning screws from outside the instrument. (BWC’s role had been to put ISKCON in touch with Dr Varadarangan.)

Soon after, BWC gave nominal financial support to Dr Varadarangan towards his research to develop a vegan dholak which was ready in 2021.

In 2020 Dr Varadarangan launched his fourth SRI synthetic percussion instrument mainly used in Karnataka called maddale. It is very similar in construction to their South Indian Mridanga but has a different type of right head that produces a different tone.

String Instruments

When ever there has been drought in Maharashtra it has adversely affected the makers of sitars and tanpuras (plucked stringed instruments used for classical Hindustani music) in Miraj of Sangli district. Gourds or pumpkins form the base of the resonating chamber these instruments. No wonder Made-in-Miraj sitars and tanpuras – a tradition since 1850 – got the GI tags in March 2024.


The gourds are cultivated in Pandharpur taluka of Solapur on the banks of the river at Begumpet and other villages. The sitars from this area are distinguished as Miraj Sitars. It is said that these gourds are sturdier than the ones grown in West Bengal and Bangladesh because the latter need to be specially treated prior to use which affects the quality of sound emitted.


The method of making the instruments involves scooping out the inside and drying the outside of the gourd which forms the sound-box. The front and neck are of hollowed out hardwood.


The flat bridge called jawari is made of camel bone and its contour is responsible for the unique buzz forms. String tuning is done using pegs which are carved in wood or are plastic. Over time the grooves of the jawari get affected and filing is required. Plastic jawari guards that last longer are also available.


The strings which can be 18, 19 or 20 in number (7 of these are played/plucked, the remainder are resonance or sympathetic strings – they are not plucked but vibrate when the main ones are plucked) are made from metal and required to be changed every three months.


The wood used for the neck and faceplate is usually Indian toon wood or seasoned teak wood, and has mother of pearl or celluloid inlay work and is shellac vanished.

Extreme temperatures affect the instrument: if hot, the wood can crack, and if cold, the gourd can crack, resulting in the strings loosening and going off-key. The slightest hit can damage the gourd and although it can be repaired with hide glue, the sound will not be perfect. Repair is costly and often cheaper to buy a new instrument.

Similar, but different to sitar in the way it is played, the veena comes in variations. It is built in a single piece of wood. Beeswax is used to fix the 24 metal frets. The bridge has a brass plate glued with resin and horn/bone (previously ivory) in-lay work on the resonator. All seven strings of the veena are usually of steel, but the base string can some times be catgut.

The rudraveena / bin is integral to the Dhrupad genre of Hindustani classical music. Its stem is traditionally made from bamboo with two large sized round resonators from dried and hollowed pumpkins (gourds) placed at each end to give it its deep tonal quality. While some players attach tumbas to the dandi with leather thongs modern instruments use brass screw tubes to attach the tumbas.

The tanpura looks like the veena without the second gourd. It is made of wood and the bridge contains bone/horn. Three strings are steel and one is brass.

The gopichand, ektara or tumbi is a one metal string instrument that is used in processions. It comprises of split-wood arms and a large coconut shell, the top and bottom of which are cut off. The top is left open, but the bottom is covered with a thin skin. Not as popular as the sitar, the sarod made of teak, has goat skin stretched (or hide-glued) across its resonator. The instrument is played with a shellac laminated coconut shell called javva.

Although anand lahari consists of a drum (like a small dholak) it is actually a Bengali string instrument: one side of the wooden drum has animal skin through which an animal gut is passed, subjected to high tension and plucked with a small stick to produce rhythmical sounds.

The ravan hatta is a string instrument in Rajasthan and accompanies songs in praise of Pabuji, a folk deity of the pastoral tribes. Its neck is made of bamboo that is attached to a coconut shell covered in goat’s skin and it is played using a horsehair bow.

The kamaicha, synonymous with the Manganiar community of bards from Rajasthan, consists of 17 strings, in which the three main ones are made from goat’s intestine called roda and joda. The remaining 14 are called jhara and are made of copper or steel wire.

Wind Instruments

Animal horns are played all over Africa. The shofar is a musical horn made of ram’s horn used for Jewish religious purposes.

The blowing horn is actually a horn of a bovid (hollow-horned hoofed ruminants such as cattle, sheep, goats and buffalos) though which a person blows from a hole made in the pointed end. During celebrations one often sees a buffalo horn being blown.

Horns made of wood and bronze are also available. Descendents of the horn are the bugle and trumpet, made of brass.

The shankh is a conch shell in which a hole is carefully made at the base without its natural whorl being affected. When blown it produces a loud, sharp and piercing sound. They are used as musical instruments although terracotta and resin alternatives are available. The exquisite Bishnupur terracotta shankh in brick and black colours, bearing designs found on temple walls, blow just like real conch shells, considered absolutely necessary in many parts of India on auspicious occasions and for religious ceremonies. They can thus be easily obtained for use without the loss of a life – that of the sea creature living inside the real shell which would otherwise need to be killed for the shell.

Magudi is the flute used by snake charmers and jugglers. It consists of a bottle shaped gourd into which two pieces of cane reed are inserted and fixed with beeswax. The pungi and been are similar. Other flutes are bansuri, venu, vamshi, murali and kuzhal, whereas ayarkuzhal is a shepherd’s flute made of a 4-foot long bamboo staff to which a palm leaf reed is fixed.

The nadaswaram, played at most Hindu weddings in South India, is a double reed, loudest non-brass acoustic wind instrument, similar to the North Indian shehnai. It has a hardwood body and a large flaring bell made of wood or metal.

Bone, Gut, Shell, Hair, Beeswax

Leather is not only found in musical instruments, but also in the cases used to carry them – they say strong cow hide is essential to protect the instrument during transport. Even the ones marketed as artificial leather often have leather trimmings.

Ivory, bone, hooves or horn may have been traditionally used to decorate musical instruments or as a covering on the keys as in pianos and harmoniums. However, today many piano makers like Steinway and Baldwin, use white plastic, as do harmonium makers.

Guts or animals’ intestines are often used as string in musical instruments like veenas and violins and the bows made from horse hair. Although, commonly called catgut, it could be prepared from any animal species’ intestines or sinews/serosa, such as sheep, goat, horse, mule, donkey and fish, although usually from the pig/hog or ox/cattle. The ability of the lining of the intestine to expand while eating and shrink after digestion is what makes natural gut so desirable to string manufacturers. A single string uses any where from 7 to 16 piles of ribbons and the average animal provides 3 to 5 piles so it takes roughly three animals to make just one string.

In 2022 an Irish luthier created the world’s first vegan violin instrument without animal hide glue, strings and bows of horse hair or animal intestines, or thumb leather on bow or straps.

Previously tortoise-shell obtained from the carapace of certain tortoises and turtles especially the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, was always used for guitar and banjo picks. Now guitar picks of plastic are available; also, most guitar strings are made from metal or nylon. Tortex picks replicate tortoise-shell for guitarists, and the Torti pick for the banjo players.

Cakes/blocks of rosin (plant origin to which beeswax could have been added) are extensively used for their friction increasing capacity on bow hair; similarly violin rosin and fine violin varnish could also contain beeswax and is applied to the bridges in other musical instruments like banjo and banjolele as well. In fact, decorative banjos can be made from the carapace of tortoises.

Hide glue/binding glue/saras/vajjram of animal origin is used in the making and repairing of string instruments. It is a form of gelatine that comes in slabs (looks like chocolate) and is cheap. Made from horns and hooves with added glycerine, the slabs need to be immersed into hot water to melt, and the resultant glue is utilised.

Some companies advocate the use of lanolin, tallow and other animal oils to clean drumheads although the use of vegetable oils is satisfactory.

Cats and Dogs not Spared

Extremely expensive cat skin is used to cover the sound box of a musical instrument called shamisen (it resembles a violin played with a bow) used in Japan. Cat skin has to be well pounded, stretched, dried and while processing stretched without tearing, so that it is of uniform thickness to produce a good melodious sound. The cat's nipples are visible on the skins of the best shamisen.

The shamisen used by students is usually made of dog skin, and sometimes with plastic, as they are cheaper to replace, and more durable.

Page last updated on 03/04/24