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Home: Religion: Sikhism: Sikh Music

Sikh Music & Musical Instruments

Overview of music and Sikhism. Music is an important part of Sikh culture.

An Overview of Sikh Musical Instruments

Sikhs have developed their own instruments: Rabab, Dilruba, Taus, Jori and the Sarinda. The Sarangi was also encouraged by Guru Har Gobind. The Rabaab was first used by Bhai Mardana, as he accompanied Guru Nanak Dev on his journeys. Jori and Sarinda were both designed by Guru Arjan Dev. The Taus was made by Guru Har Gobind, it is said that he heard a peacock singing and wished to create such an instrument that could mimic it sounds, Taus is the Persian word for peacock. The Dilruba was made by Guru Gobind Singh at the request of his Sikhs. They wished for a smaller instrument as the Taus was hard to carry and maintain, due to constant battles. After Japji Sahib all of the shabd in the Guru Granth Sahib are written in raag. The shabd is typically played in accordance with that particular raag. This style of singing is known as Gurmat Sangeet.

Sikhism use of music in battle
When marching into battle, the Sikhs would boost their moral and become siked. This was called the Ranjit Nagara (Drum of Victory). Nagaras are huge war drums, making a thundering sound. These are huge, about 2 to 3 feet in diameter, and played with two sticks. The special or original Ranjit Nagara, used in past battles, are up to 5 feet across. The thundering beat of the huge drums usually meant that the army was marching into battle. It was also taken into the battle sometimes, the Singhs would rise the Nishan high, the opposing forces would know the Singhs were coming. While the Singhs spirit was boosting, the opposing forces would get more worried.

The Rebab

The Rebab is a type of string instrument so named no later than the 8th century and spread via Islamic trading routes over much of North Africa, the Middle East, parts of Europe, and the Far East. The bowed variety often has a spike at the bottom to rest on the ground, and is thus called a spike fiddle in certain areas, but there exist plucked versions like the kabuli rebab (sometimes referred to as the robab or rubab).

The rebab usually consists of a small, usually rounded body, the front of which is covered in a membrane such as parchment or sheepskin and has a long neck attached. There is a long thin neck with a pegbox at the end and there are one, two or three strings. There is no fingerboard. The instrument is held upright, either resting on the lap or on the floor. The bow is usually more curved than that of the violin.

The rebab, though valued for its voice-like tone, has a very limited range (little over an octave), and was gradually replaced throughout much of the Arab world by the violin and kemenche. It is related to the Iraqi instrument the Joza, which has four strings.

The introduction of the rebab into Western Europe has possibly coincided with the conquest of Spain by the Moors, in the Iberian Peninsula. There is however evidence of the existence of bowed instruments in the 9th century also in Eastern Europe: the Persian geographer of the 9th century Ibn Khurradadhbih cited the bowed Byzantine lira (or lūrā) as typical bowed instrument of the Byzantines and equivalent to the Arab rabāb.

The Dilruba and Esraj

The Esraj is a string instrument found in two forms throughout the north, central, and east regions of India. It is a young instrument by Indian terms, being only about 200 years old. The dilruba is found in the north, where it is used in religious music and light classical songs in the urban areas. Its name is translated as "robber of the heart." The esraj is found in the east and central areas, particularly Bengal, as well as Bangladesh, and it is used in a somewhat wider variety of musical styles than is the dilruba.

The Dilruba originates from the Taus and some argue is the work of the 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, whilst that of the Taus was the work of Guru Hargobind, the sixth guru of the Sikhs. The Dilruba was then produced to replace the previously heavy instrument (the Taus). This attempt was intended to 'scale down' the Taus into what is now known to be the Dilruba. This made it more convenient for the Sikh army to carry the instrument on horseback.
The structure of both instruments is very similar, each having a medium sized sitar-like neck with 20 heavy metal frets. This neck holds on a long wooden rack of 12-15 sympathetic strings. While the dilruba has more sympathetic strings and a differently shaped body than the esraj, they both have four main strings which are bowed. All strings are metal. The soundboard is a stretched piece of goatskin similar to what is found on a sarangi. Sometimes the instrument has a gourd affixed to the top for balance or for tone enhancement.

The instrument can be rested between the knees while the player kneels, or more commonly rested on the knee of the player while sitting, or also on the floor just in front of the player, with the neck leaning on the left shoulder. It is played with a bow, with the other hand moving along the strings above the frets. The player may slide the note up or down to achieve the portamento, or meend, characteristic of Indian music. a Sikh boy playing the dilruba

The esraj is mostly used as an accompanying instrument. It is the accompanying instrument of choice for Rabindra Sangeet singing. However, it has also been used as a solo instrument to interpret Hindustani Classical Music, mostly in the Vishnupur tradition. Additionally, the esrag is a more modern invention from the Dilruba that was made and promoted by the Namdharis.

Both the dilruba and the esraj had been declining in popularity for many decades. By the 1980's the instrument was nearly extinct. However with the rising influence of the "Gurmat Sangeet" movement, these instruments are once again attracting considerable attention.

Notable Dilruba Players
A. R. Rahman is known as one of the composers in India who has used the Dilruba, in works like "Dil Se" and "Vande Mataram". Possibly the most famous exponent of the esraj has been Pandit Ranadhir Ray, who died in 1988. Ranadhir Ray was a student of Ashesh Bandopadhyay, and was on the faculty at the Music department of Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan. Today, the best known exponent is Buddhadeb Das, also from Santiniketan. One of his leading student is Dattatreya Ghosh,reading in Nava Nalanda High School of there. Ravi Shankar (known then as Rabindra) played the esraj in the 1930s, as a member of the dance group of his older brother.


A sarinda is a stringed Indian folk musical instrument similar to lutes or fiddles. It is played with a bow and has three strings. The bottom part of the front of its hollow wooden soundbox is covered with animal skin. It is played while sitting on the ground in a vertical orientation.

The sarinda was invented by sikh Guru Arjan Dev. The tribes of India, e.g. Tripuris, find use of sarinda in their traditional music and dance. It is the sole accompany for a solo or group folk singers.


The Sarangi is a bowed, short-necked lute of the Indian subcontinent. It is an important bowed string instrument of India's Hindustani classical music tradition. Of all Indian instruments, it is said to most resemble the sound of the human voice – able to imitate vocal ornaments such as gamakas (shakers) and meend (sliding movements). It is also said to be the hardest Indian instrument to master.

The word sarangi is derived from two Hindi words: sau (meaning "hundred") and rang (meaning "colour"). This is because the sound of the sarangi is said to be as expressive and evocative as a hundred colours. Its origins are unknown, however most people believe that it became a mainstream instrument in the mid 18th Century. Notoriously difficult to play and tune, the sarangi has traditionally been used primarily for accompanying singers (shadowing the vocalist's improvisations),in recent times it has become recognised as a solo instrument by the efforts of Ram Narayan and Sabri Khan. Other current celebrated performers include, Sultan Khan,Kamal Sabri, Dhruba Ghosh and Aruna Narayan Kalle, while eminent maestros of the past have included Bundu Khan, Nathu Khan, Sagiruddin Khan, Gopal Mishra and Shakoor Khan.

The repertoire of sarangi players is traditionally very closely related to vocal music. Nevertheless, a concert with a solo sarangi as the main item will probably include a full-scale raga presentation with an extensive alap (the unmeasured improvisatory development of the raga) in increasing intensity (alap-jor-jhala) and several compositions in increasing tempi. As such, it is on a par with other instrumental styles such as for sitar, sarod, and bansuri. This full-fledged raga development has its roots in the Dhrupad style of raga presentation.

Sarangi music is often vocal music. It is rare to find a sarangi player who does not know the words of many classical compositions. The words are usually mentally present during performance, and performance almost always adheres to the conventions of vocal performance including the organisational structure, the types of elaboration, the tempo, the relationship between sound and silence, and the presentation of khyal and thumri compositions. The vocal quality of sarangi is in a quite separate category from, for instance, the so-called gayaki-ang of sitar which attempts to imitate the nuances of khyal while overall conforming to the structures and usually keeping to the gat compositions of instrumental music. (A gat is a composition set to a cyclic rhythm.)

The sarangi is also a traditional stringed musical instrument of Nepal, commonly played by the Gaine or Gandarbha ethnic group.

Structure and construction of the Sarangi
Carved from a single block of wood, the sarangi has a box-like shape, usually around two feet long and around half a foot wide. The lower resonance chamber is made from a hollowed-out block of tun (red cedar) wood and covered with parchment and a decorated strip of leather at the waist which supports the elephant-shaped bridge. The bridge in turn supports the huge pressure of approximately 40 strings. Three of the strings – the comparatively thick, tight and short ones – are bowed with a heavy horsehair bow and "stopped" not with the finger-tips but with the nails, cuticles and surrounding flesh (talcum powder is applied to the fingers as a lubricant). The remaining strings are resonance strings or tarabs (see: sympathetic strings), numbering up to around 35, divided into 4 different "choirs". On the lowest level are a diatonic row of 9 tarabs and a chromatic row of 15 tarabs, each encompassing a full octave plus 1–3 extra notes above or below. Between these lower tarabs and the main playing strings lie two more sets of longer tarabs, which pass over a small flat ivory bridge at the top of the instrument. These are tuned to the important tones (swaras) of the raga. A properly tuned sarangi will hum and buzz like a bee-hive, with tones played on any of the main strings eliciting echo-like resonances.

The Taus

The taus is a bowed string instrument from the north and central India. Taus was the work of Guru Hargobind (the sixth guru of the Sikhs). From this instrument originates the lighter dilruba. It has a peacock body sound box ('taus' is a Persian word meaning peacock) and a neck with 20 heavy metal frets. This neck holds on a long wooden rack 28-30 strings strings and the instrument is played with a bow. This instrument projects a sound with a deeper, fuller tone.

Sikh Musical Insruments Links and Resources

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