Decorative in Indian art : musical instruments in sculpture

The music of India is highly developed and a sophisticated product of an ancient culture. Lord Shiva’s mystic dance symbolises the rhythmic motion in the universe. Music is sound in rhythm. Goddess Saraswati is represented as the goddess of art and learning and is seen sitting on a white lotus with a veena in one hand and playing it with another, a book in the third hand and a necklace of pearls in the fourth hand. Sage Bharata is believed to have taught the arts to apsaras, the heavenly dancers. Narada muni who wanders both on earth and heaven playing his veena taught the art to men. In Indra’s heaven, Gandharvas are the singers , apsaras are the dancers, and the centaur-like beings the Kinnaras play musical instruments. Gandharva veda means the art of music.

A very wide variety of musical instruments were used in Vedic times, both percussion and stringed. The ordinary drum was the dundhubi. Adambara, bhumi dundhubi were others. Aghati was a cymbal which accompanied dancing. The kandaveena was a kind of lute, karkari, another kind of lute, vana , a lute of 100 strings and the veena. The veena is suitable to all types of Indian music.

Wind instruments included tunava, a wooden flute, the nadi a reed flute etc. Music was vocal during Rigvedic times and the hymns were words set to music according to rules. Instruments have been mentioned in the Upanishads. Panini mentions two persons named Silalin and Krisasvin as authors of two sutras on dancing. Palipitaka of 300 B.C mentions two disciples of Gautama Buddha having attended a musical performance.

Musical theory is mentioned in the Rikpratisakhya (400 B.C). The Ramayana (400 B C -200 A.D)  mentions singing of ballads. The Mahabharata (500 B.C. – 200 A.D.)mentions seven swaras. The oldest detailed exposition of Indian musical theory is Natyasastra composed by Sage Bharata (6th century). One chapter is completely devoted to music. As mentioned already musical instruments of India are various and interesting. Early instruments are still in use. Arabian and Persian instruments have been adopted after invasions.

Sculptures of many musical instruments exist on old cave temples and Buddhist stupas. Amaravati  and Sanchi depict many such sculptures.

Indian stringed instruments include the veena, an instrument which consists of a large bowl, hollowed out of one piece of wood. The flat top of this bowl is one foot in diameter. A bridge is placed on the bowl and near it are anumber of small sound holes. The veena is played using finger nails or using a plectrum. Sitar, dilruba,esraj,ektara are other stringed instruments. Sarangi,surbahar are also stringed instruments. Kinnari is a primitive Indian instrument supposed to have been invented by Kinnara , one of the musicians in Indra’s heaven. It has representation in sculpture and paintings. It has 2-3 strings, sound is not very strong.

The tanpura is another important instrument  also called tambur, which accompanies most Indian classical music.The number of strings are four or five. It is made out of aged wood and a carved gourd. Tanpuras provide the drone in the background.


Goddess Saraswati with veena at Wargal, Medak District, Telangana

By Gopaloza – Own work, Public Domain,

Wind instruments include the horn called sringa also called komiki or kombu in South India. The conch shell or sankhu is an ancient wind instrument.  The reed flute or Bansuri is the commonest wind instrument. Also called Murali, it is associated with Lord Krishna. Other instruments include nagasara, ninkairna, pongi,sruti upanga,tombi or punji and nallatarang. Trumpets include Kuma, turahi,Sanai, Karana, nafari etc.


Krishna playing flute, Belur, Karnataka

By Santhoshbapu (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Percussions instruments include drum which has many types. The Mridanga is the most ancient of Indian drums which is about two feet long. As per legend Brahma invented it to accompany Lord Shiva’s cosmic dance and Ganesha is said to be the first to play on it.


Woman playing tabla, Bhaja caves, near Lonavla, Maharashtra 

By Sagarborkar – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


The tabla is also an important percussion instrument especially in North and Central India. It is not a drum with two heads but two drums, the two heads being one on each of the two, each slightly smaller in size than the mridanga. The pakhawaj  is a drum larger than a mridanga used in north India. The nagara is a large kettle-drum used during war or for religious ceremonies. It is called dundhubi in ancient literature. The dhol is the wedding drum, twenty inches long and twelve inches in diameter, made of wood bored out of a single piece. Initially the mridanga used to be made of clay but later was made of wood, the two heads are covered with parchment. The tabla is usually  made of wood, sometimes one is in copper and the other drum is in wood.  Damaru is another instrument shaped like an hour-glass, believed to have been used by Lord Shiva.

Some other percussion instruments include Nahabet, Karadsamila,edaka,udupa, Karadivadya etc.

Cymbals are also used called Kaitala or Manjiva, made of brass,copper or bronze. Jharigha are the larger cymbals. Chintla is another cymbal used in Bundelkhand region of India.


Playing drums, shalabhanjikas at Belur, Karnataka

By Push203 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Column , Natya mandapa at Sun temple Konark, Odisha showing female musicians under tree canopies with musical instruments.

By G41rn8 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

References :

References :

  • The music of India/H.A. Popley and A. Coomaraswamy,New Delhi : Award Publishing House,1986.
  • The music and musical instruments of Southern India and the Deccan/C. R. Day,B R. Publishing Corporation,1974.
  • Musical Instruments in Hoysala Sculpture (Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries)/ Deloche, Jean  Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient  Année 1988  Volume 77  Numéro 1  pp. 57-68


Posted by : Soma Ghosh


9 thoughts on “Decorative in Indian art : musical instruments in sculpture

  1. George reddy

    You are doing a wonderful work. Leaving valuable treasure information for generations to see them. Great work
    Keep posting your work


  2. Mini anand

    That is a lot of information most of us are unaware of ! Sincerely hope it gets wide readership…we’re overloaded with info on already well known landmarks , when there is so much more to be acquainted with…keep them coming and here’s wishing that it turns from a trickle to a deluge !


  3. Pingback: Drummer Harappa Script hieroglyph & metallic timbre in Hindu musical tradition | Sarasvati

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