Instrument Features

Bulbul Tarang

Bulbul tarang, also known as the Banjo is a common instrument in India. The name bulbul tarang literally translates to "waves of nightingales". It is made of a number of strings passing over what resembles a finger board. However instead of directly fingering the keys, they are pressed with a series of keys like a piano. Sometimes the keys are similar to a piano keyboard but more often they resemble typewriter keys.


The chimpta is actually a fire tong. However, it has evolved into a musical instrument by the permanent addition of small brass jingles.

This instrument is especially popular in Punjabi folk music and the Sikh religious music known as Shabad.


Damaru is the most common hour-glass drum in India. It has a resonator which is anywhere from 4-10 inches in length and 3-8 inches in diameter. The resonator is usually either metal or wood. There are two drumheads on each side of the resonator which are laced together with cord. Near the centre of the lacing are two loose knoted cords. The knots on each end strike both heads to produce a rattling sound. This is affected by rotating the drum rapidly in alternating directions. The pitch is bent by squeezing the lacing.

The damaru has very strong cultural associations. It is strongly associated with the God Shiva and sadhus (wandering Hindu religious men).

The damaru appears to be the last common representative of a family of hour-glass drums. Although other representatives (e.g., udaku, hurduk, idakka, etc) may be found, they are very rare. This is in stark contrast to the abundance of forms that are found carved on temple walls.


Dholak is a very popular folk drum of northern India.It is barrel shaped with a simple membrane on the right hand side. The left hand is also a single membrane with a special application on the inner surface.

This application is a mixture of tar, clay and sand (dholak masala) which lowers the pitch and provides a well defined tone.

There are two ways of tightening the dholak. They are laced with rope, in which case, a series of metal rings are pulled to tighten the instrument. Sometimes, metal turnbuckles are employed.

It is said that this instrument used to occupy a position of considerable prestige. Today it is merely relegated to filmi and folk music.


Dholki, also called nal, is an drum with a barrel shaped shell. The left side resembles the bayan (large metal drum of the tabla) except that it uses dholak masala (oil based application) on the inner surface instead of a syahi (permanent black spot). The right head is unique in its construction. Goat-skin is stitched onto an iron ring. In the centre of this skin is a syahi, similar to tabla except much thinner.

The traditional nals were laced with rope and had sticks to function as turnbuckles. Today, metal turnbuckles have replaced the rope lacing in most models. The nal is very popular in the tamasha (street performance) of Maharashtra.

It has been absorbed into the Hindi film industry and today the nal is very popular for filmi music.


Dilruba is a cross between the sitar and sarangi. It is extremely close to the esraj and the mayuri vina. It so close that most people are unable to tell them apart. The difference is to be found in the shape of the resonators and the manner in which the sympathetic strings attach. Still they are so similar that a dilruba player has no trouble playing an esraj or a mayuri vina and vice versa.

The dilruba is popular in north-west India. It is found in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.


Dotar is a two stringed version of the ektar.

However, in Bengal there is an unrelated instrument also called dotar which is very similar to the Kabuli rabab.


Duff is a tambourine. It is quite large, about two feet across, with a conspicuous absence of jingles. It is commonly used in folk music but is rarely heard in other styles.

Duff is also called dapphu, daffali, or a number of other names. It is related to the kanjira of South Indian music.


Ektar is a simple folk instrument. It may be the oldest stringed instrument in the Indian subcontinent. The ektar is described in ancient Sanskrit texts as the ekatantri vina, literally the "one stringed lute".

The construction is very simple, it is nothing more than a gourd which has been penetrated by a stick of bamboo. Another piece of bamboo forms the tuning peg. The bridge is merely a coin, piece of coconut, plastic or similar object.

Ektars such as this are common in the south. In the north, their construction is a little more complicated. A membrane is stretched over the gourd and the bridge is placed over the taut membrane. The term ektar literally means "one string", as such the term is loosely applied to a variety of one-stringed folk instruments.

This includes such instruments as the tuntun, katho, anand lahari, and gopichand. The ektar is very popular in folk music and has a strong rustic connotation. It is very much associated with the saint Mira Bai.


Ghatam is a unique clay instrument that is an apt accompaniment to the mridangam. It is one of the main percussion instruments in a concert of classical Carnatic music.

The ghatam is of two kinds - one has very thick walls and the other very thin walls. The thick-walled ghatam is considered to have a pleasanter sound than the thin-walled one. However, it is more difficult to play the thick-walled ghatam as extra pressure is required to achieve the right sound.


Ghunghroo are the "tinklebells" or "jingle bells" which are used to adorn the feet of dancers. When tied to the feet, they are played by the act of dancing. They may also be played by hand. This instrument evolved from the payal which are traditional anklets worn by women in India.

The terms payal and ghungharu are nearly interchangeable; there is but a slight difference in the colour of the word. Whereas the term ghungharu evokes an image of the musical or dance performance, the term payal evokes the image of a mere adornment of the feet. The term payal shows up repeatedly in song and poetry in northern India where it is said to be an indication of a girl's comings and goings, her dancing, and a general joyous mood of the wearer.

There are two common forms of the ghungharu. The traditional form is merely a number of bells woven together on a string. However today it is common to find them stitched to a padded cushion. This may then be strapped to the feet of a dancer. Both forms are shown in the accompanying illustration.


The gopichhand, also, known as gopiyantra or khamak, is a very popular folk instrument of Bengal. It is an instrument that is much used by the wandering minstrels known as the Baul.

There are several variations on the construction. The length may be as small as one foot or as long as three feet, however 2-3 feet is the norm. It consists of a length of bamboo that is split through most of the length. The two ends are pried apart and attached to a resonator. This resonator may be a coconut, gourd, metal container or a hollowed out cylindrical section of wood. The open end of the resonator is covered with taught skin and a string penetrates the centre. This string is attached to a reinforced section in the centre. This string then passes through the hollow of the resonator and attaches to a tuning peg located in the bamboo.

The sound of the gopichand is most distinctive. There is a peculiar bending of the pitch as the two legs of the bamboo are squeezed together by the left hand while the right hand plucks the string. This is a rhythmic instrument rather than a melodic instrument and it is used to accompany instruments such as kartal, dotar, or khol.


The harmonium is also known as peti or baja. This instrument is not a native Indian instrument. It is a European instrument which was imported in the last century. It is a reed organ with hand pumped bellows. Although it is a relatively recent introduction, it has spread throughout the subcontinent. Today, it is used in virtually every musical genre except the south Indian classical.

Although this is a European invention, it has evolved into a truly bi-cultural instrument. The keyboard is European, but it has a number of drone reeds which are particularly Indian. European models came in both hand pumped and foot pumped models.


Kartal are a pair of wooden blocks or frames with small metal jingles mounted in them. They are simply beaten together to provide a rhythmic support to bhajans, kirtan, folk and other light music.

In Manipur (Northeast India) the term "kartal" is used for a large set of manjira. This is a very different instrument and should not be confused with the more common Kartal.


The kanjira is a small tambourine. It is made by stretching lizard skin over a wooden frame. The frame is about seven inches in diameter with one metal jingle mounted in it.

The kanjira is very popular in South Indian classical performances. It is related to the daffli.



Khol also called "Mridang", is a folk drum of northeast India. It has a body made of clay, a very small head on the right side (approximately 4 inches), and a larger head on the left side (approximately 10 inches). A fiberglass version of the khol has become popular in the West among the members of ISKCON. It is very popular in the kirtans of Bengal.


Manjira is known by many names. It is also called jhanj, tala or a host of other names. It is basically a set of small cymbals. It is a ubiquitous component of dance music and bhajans. It is a very ancient instrument; examples may be seen on temple walls going back to the earliest of times.


Mridangam is a South Indian version of the pakhawaj. It bears a strong superficial resemblance to pakhawaj but there are major differences in construction and technique. The tone of the instrument is quite different. This is due to differences in construction.

It has heavy annular membrane around the right side, and a number of pieces of straw which are placed radially between the annular membrane and the main membrane. The right side has a permanent application, known as soru or karanai. The left side uses a mixture of flour and water to provide a proper tone. This application must be removed after each performance. The lacing and heads are all placed upon a barrel shaped wooden shell. The wood is usually of jackwood.


Murchang (or Morsing) is a Jew's harp. It is variously called, mursang, morchang, morsang, or moorsang. It is commonly played in south Indian performances along with the ghatam and the mridangam.


The nadaswaram has seven finger holes. There are five additional holes drilled at the bottom, which are used as controllers. Like the flute, it has a range of two and a half octaves. The system of fingering is also similar to that of the flute. But unlike the flute, where semi and quartertones are produced by the partial opening and closing of the finger holes, in the nadaswaram adjusting the pressure and strength of the airflow into the pipe produces them.

Owing to its intense volume and strength it is basically an outdoor instrument and much more suitable for open spaces than for closed indoor concert situations.


Nagada are the kettle drums of the old naubat (traditional ensemble of nine instruments). These drums are about 1 - 2 feet in diameter, and played with sticks.

Today, this instrument is usually used to accompany shehnai.


Pungi or Bin is the snake charmer's instrument. The word "pungi" is a generic term for many reeded noisemakers. The term bin is really a misnomer. The word bin is a typical East Indian corruption of vina. The term vina implies a stringed instrument so it should not be applied to a reeded instrument.

The pungi is typically one to two feet in length. It consists of two reeds or bamboo tubes. One of which is for the melody and the other is for the drone. These are attached to a larger cavity made of gourd or coconut. Inside of which are two reeds. These reeds vibrate when air is passed over them.


Pungi or Bin is the snake charmer's instrument. The word "pungi" is a generic term for many reeded noisemakers. The term bin is really a misnomer. The word bin is a typical East Indian corruption of vina. The term vina implies a stringed instrument so it should not be applied to a reeded instrument.

The pungi is typically one to two feet in length. It consists of two reeds or bamboo tubes. One of which is for the melody and the other is for the drone. These are attached to a larger cavity made of gourd or coconut. Inside of which are two reeds. These reeds vibrate when air is passed over them.


Santoor is an instrument indigenous to Kashmir, but nowadays played throughout the North. It is a hammered dulcimer which is struck with light wooden mallets. The number of strings may be as few as 24 or more than 100. Typical sizes tend to be around 80. It has a vibrant tone and has become very popular in the last 20 years.

One must not confuse the Indian santoor with the Persian santoor. The Indian version is box-like, while the Persian one is much wider.


Shankh is a conch shell. This instrument has a strong association with the Hindu religion. It is said that when it is blown it announces the victory of good over evil.This instrument has limited musical applications.


The shehnai is a north Indian oboe. Although it is referred to as a double-reeded instrument it is actually a quadruple-reed instrument. This is because it has two upper reeds and two lower reeds. The instrument has a wooden body with a brass bell. The reed is attached to a brass tube which is wrapped in string.

The shehnai has eight holes but it is common to find some of the holes partially or completely occluded with wax. The sound of the shehnai is considered particularly auspicious. For this reason it is found in temples and is an indispensable component of any North Indian wedding. In the past, shehnai was part of the naubat or traditional ensembles of nine instruments found at royal courts. This instrument is a close relative of the nadaswaram found in south Indian music.

Philtre Labs, India, has released a sample library of Indian instruments such as Tabla, Dhol, Dholak, Duff, Ghunghroo-Tabla and Dholak-Tabla. These are loops of ensembles / rhythm sections, that are popularly used in most Bollywood style of songs. Check out the demos on >>

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