The state of music in the Ramayana

15 Sep

My friend Shri DSampath posted a delightful blog weaving the Ramayana tale with colourful strands of lines of great charm set   in catchy tunes, chosen from popular Hindi movie songs. It was enterprising and highly entertaining too. Naturally, the blog was well received and was hugely popular. I enjoyed the sparkle of wit and wisdom.

That set me to think about Ramayana and music.



After the Music of Sama comes the singing of Akhyana or ballads, narrating a story in musical forms. Of all the Akhyana-s, the Ramayana of the Adi Kavi Valmiki is the most celebrated one. It is a divine ballad (Akhyanam Divyam) narrating history of ancient times (Itihasam puratanam).

It is believed; the Ramayana had its origins in folk lore; and was preserved and spread as an oral epic (Akhyana), for a very long-time. It is suggested that poet Valmiki rendered the folk lore into a very beautiful, sensitive and lyrical epic poem by about 7th century BCE. Thereafter, in age after age, the Suthas narrated and sang the glory of Rama and Sita, in divine fervour; and spread the epic to all corners of the land and beyond. Even to this day , the tradition of devote groups of listeners gathering around a Sutha to listen to the ancient story of chaste love between Rama and his beloved, and their unwavering adherence to Dharma amidst their trials and tribulations; is still very  alive. What characterize the Dharma in Ramayana are its innocence, purity and nobility. The Indian people prefer listening with joy, the rendering of Ramayana as musical discourse, to reading the epic themselves.

Ramayana of Valmiki is a renowned Kavya, an Epic poem in classic style. It is also the Adi-Kavya, the premier Kavya; the most excellent among the Kavyas (Kavyanam uttamam); and, the best in all the three worlds (Adikavyam triloke).

The Epic of Valmiki is at the very core of Indian consciousness; and is lovingly addressed variously as: Sitayasya-charitam-mahat; Rama-charitam; Raghuvira-charitam; Rama-vrttam; Rama-katha; and Raghu-vamsa-charitam.

The Great scholar-philosopher Abhinavgupta (Ca.11th century) hailed Valmiki as Rasa Rishi one who   created an almost perfect epic poem adorned with the poetic virtues of Rasa, Soundarya (beauty of poetic imagery) and Vishadya (lucid expression and comfortable communication with the reader) ; all charged and brought to life  by Prathibha , the ever fresh intuition.




Ramayana is more closely associated with music than other epics. That might be because Ramayana is rendered in verse; and, its poetry of abiding beauty melts into music like molten gold, with grace and felicity. Further, the epic has a certain lyrical lustre to it. The epic itself mentions that the Rama tale was rendered in song by two minstrels Kusi and Lava to the accompaniment of Veena, Tantri- laya-samanvitam (I.20.10), during the Asvamedha.

There are innumerable references to Music in Ramayana. Music was played for entertainment and in celebration at the weddings and other auspicious occasions; (II.7.416-36; 48.41.69; III.3, 17; 6.8; IV 38.13; V.53.17; VI.11.9; 24.3; 75.21 etc.)  . Music was also played in palaces and liquor parlours (IV 33.21; V.6.12; X.32; 37.11.4; Vi.10.4). Soulful songs were sung to the accompaniment of instruments, at religious services and in dramas. Music was played in the festivities; to welcome and see off the guests. The warriors fighting on the battlefield were lustily cheered and enthused by stout drum beats;   and piercing blow of conches, horns and trumpets. There is also mention of those who took to music as a profession. Besides, there were court (state) sponsored musicians. Music was thus a part of social fabric of the society as described in Ramayana.

There are numerous events narrated in Ramayana where Music was sung or played. The word Samgita in Ramayana is a composite term covering Gana (vocal), Vadya (instrumental) and Nritya (dance). Samgita or Music was referred to as Gandharva-vidya. There is also a mention of Karna sung to the accompaniment of Veena (R. VII. 71.5). Samgita was also Kausika (kaisika) the art of singing and dancing (gana-nrtya-vidya), the art of singing and dancing in groups (kausika-charya) to the accompaniment of instruments.

 For instance:

:- The Apsaras danced to the songs of Gandharvas, such as Narada the king of Gandharvas (Gandharva-rajanah), Tumbura, Gopa, Gargya, Sudhama, Parvata, and Suryamandala (R.VI .92.10). Tumbura sang in divine Taana (divya-taaneshu).

: – And, in the hermitage of Rishyasrnga the girls sent by King Lomapada sang and danced (R.I .9.6).

: – Sri Rama himself is said to have been proficient in Music (Gandharve Ca bhuvi Sresthah).

: – As Lakshmana enters the inner court  of the Vanara King Sugriva, he hears singing and ravishing strains of the music of the Veena and other string instruments.

: – As Hanuman flew over the sea towards Lanka he heard a group of musicians singing sons (kausika-charya).

:-Hanuman while wandering at night through the inner courts of Lanka heard songs adorned with Tristhana and Svara; and, the songs had regular Taala (sama-taala) and aksara (words) – (R.V.2.6). Hanuman sees there various musical instruments – Mridanga, Pataha, Venu, and Vipanchi and so on. He also sees a lady of the court , tired and asleep, clutching to her Veena like a cluster of lotuses entwining a boat moored  on the banks of a stream.

: – Sundara Kanda mentions that Ravana was a reputed Saman singer; and music was played in his palace. He, in fact, suggests to Sita, she could relax a bit listening to music in his palace, instead sitting tensely under the tree.

:- It is said Ravana was a well known player of Veena  called Ravana-hastaka (an instrument played with a bow).He compared the battlefield to a music stage; bow (weapon for firing arrows) to his Veena; arrow to his musical bow; and the tumultuous noise of the battle to music ( R. VI: 24:43-44).


Music terms

Ramayana is not a thesis on music; it is an epic poem rendering the story of chaste love between a husband and his wife. The music or whatever elements mentioned therein is incidental to the narration of the story. And, yet, Valmiki accorded importance to music and elements of music in his work. He crafted situations where music could be introduced naturally. More importantly, his verses have a very high lyrical quality; and, can be rendered into music quite easily. All these speak of Valmiki’s   love for music and his aesthetic refinement.

Many Music-terms are mentioned in Ramayana, indicating the state of Music obtaining during the time of its composition – (not necessarily during the event-period).

:-  Valmiki mentions that Kusi–Lava sang in Marga style – Marga-vidhana-sampada – (R. I.4.35); in seven melodic modes called Jatis (jatibhih saptabhir) that were pure (shuddha) – (R. I.4.8 ).

:-  Valmiki endorsed use of sweet sounding words, with simple and light syllables; and advises against harsh words loaded with heavy syllables (R. IV.33.21).

: – The music of Kusi-Lava was Baddha, structured into stanzas – with apt rhythm (laya), tempo (sthana) and words (Pada)-  (R.I.4.8).

:-  Valmiki mentions, Kusi-Lava were familiar with Murchana and Tri- Sthana; as also with the rhythmic patterns – Laya, Yati – in three-speeds. Tri-Sthana might either refer to three voice registers (Mandra, Madhyama and Tara) or three tempos (Vilamba, Madhyama and Druta).

: – Lava and Kusi were said not to fall away from Raga. Here, the term Raga is said to mean sweetness of voice (kanta-madhurya).

Here are some terms that  might need short explanation:

: – Marga or Gandharva is regarded the music fit for gods.  It is said to have been derived from Sama Veda; and constituted of Pada (the text), Svara (notes) and Taala (rhythm).Marga was rather sombre and not quite flexible too. Marga or Gandharva in the later centuries gave place to free flowing Desi the Music derived from the folk and the regions.

:- Baddha is a song format that is well structured into stanzas – with apt rhythm (laya), tempo (sthana) and words (Pada). It contrasts with Anibaddha unstructured Music without restrictions of Taala. It is analogous to the present-day Aalap, and rendering of Ragamalika, Slokas etc. The Baddha – Anibaddha distinction is observed even today, just as in Valmiki’s time.

: – Grama (group) was the basic gamut of notes employed in the early music-tradition. The ancient tradition is said to have employed three Grama-s beginning from ShadjaMadhyama, or Gandhara note. Later, the third Grama, based on Gandhara reportedly went out of vogue as it required moving in a usually high range of notes.

: – Jati refers to the classification of musical compositions as per the tones. Svaras and Jatis were seven primary notes such as Shadja, Rshabha etc of the octaves – patya-jati. Ana is said to be a drag note generally called ekasruti.

It means Kusi Lava rendered the verses in several melodies. However, since the raga concept was, then, yet to be evolved, there might not have been much depth and variation in their rendering.

:-   Murchhana was the ancient mode of extending available tonal frameworks by commencing ascents and descents, ranging over (purna) seven notes, every time from a new note. This mode gave place to the Mela system around the 15th -16th century.

Instrumental Music

Valmiki’s Ramayana mentions varieties of musical instruments. The term Atodhya denoted instrumental music. The musical instruments, of the time, were categorized, broadly, as those played by hand (hastha-vadya); and as those played by mouth (mukha- vadya) (R. II.65.2). The string and percussion instruments came under the former category; while the wind instruments were among the latter category.  Instrumental Music was primarily individualistic; not orchestrated. It appears instruments were used mainly as accompaniments (not solo) and depended on vocal music. Group music- vocal with instruments –appeared to be popular.

String instruments

Among the string instruments, Ramayana mentions two kinds of Veena: Vipanchi (fingerboard plucked ones with nine strings like the Veena as we know) ;Vana or Vallaki (a multi stringed harp); and, Kanda-Veena (made by joining reeds).   In fact, till about 19th century, string instruments  of all kinds were called Veena: harps like the Chitra; fingerboard plucked ones like  the Vipanchi,  Rudra Veena, the Saraswati Veena and the Kacchapi Veena; bowed ones such as the Ravana hastaveena and the Pinaki Veena.

Percussion instruments

As regards the percussion instruments, the Epic refers to quite a large number of them: Mrudanga; Panava (a kind of Mridanga which had a hole in the middle with strings were laid from one side to another); Aataha; Madduka ( a big drum of two faces having twelve and thirteen angula- finger lengths ); Dundubhi (Nagaara); Dindima (resembling Damaru but smaller in size); Muraja (a a bifacial drum, the left one of eight fingers and right one of seven fingers); Adambara ( a sort of kettle drum made of Udambara wood); Bheri (two faced metal drum in a conical shape , the leather kept taut by strings; the right face was struck by a kona and the left one by hand, striking terror in the heart of the enemy ); Pataha (resembling Dholak);  and Dundubhi (drums made of hollow wood covered with hide) played during wedding ceremonies as also for welcoming the winning-warriors . Gargara was another drum used during the wars.  All these were leather or leather bound instruments. They were played with metal or wooden drum-sticks with their ends wrapped in leather.

There is also a mention of BhumiDundubhi where the lower part of a huge drum is buried in a pit while the exposed upper part covered with animal hide is beaten with big sized metal or wooden drum-sticks to produce loud booming sounds. It was played during battles to arouse the warriors; to celebrate victory; or in dire emergency. BhumiDundubhi was also played at the time of final offering (Purna-Ahuthi) at the conclusion of a Yajna.

The other instruments to keep rhythm (Taala) were: Ghatam and cymbals. Aghathi was a sort of cymbal used while dancing.

Wind instruments

The instruments played by mouth (mukha- vadya) , that is the wind instruments, mentioned in Ramayayana include : Venu or Vamsa (flute) , Shankha ( conch) blown on auspicious occasions and at the time of wars ; Tundava ( wind instrument made of wood); Singa ( a small blower made of deer horns to produce sharp and loud sounds); and, kahale or Rana-bheri (long curved war- trumpet). The flute was also used for maintaining Aadhara- Sruthi (fundamental note). [Tambura or Tanpura did not come into use till about 15th-16th century.]

State of Music

It is evident that during the period in which Ramayana was composed (say 7th century BC) , the Music was fairly well developed ; and the basic concepts were, in place. However, a full-fledged musicology and elaborate theories on music were yet to develop. Marga system was prevalent; and, Desi with its Ragas was yet centuries away.

Singing well known texts of poetry, in public, appeared to be the standard practice.  Instruments were used for accompaniment and not for solo performances. Group singing with instrumental support appeared to be popular. Music was very much a part of the social and personal life.


Ramayanadalli Sangita (Kannada) by Dr. R Satyanarayana

Origin of Indian Instrumental Music Music is found …

Musical Instruments

Telling a Ramayana

Music of India

Glossary of music terms

The Music and Musical Instruments of North Eastern India by Dilip Ranjan Barthakur

Painting by Shri S Rajam


Posted by on September 15, 2012 in Music, Rigveda, Sanskrit


Tags: , , , ,

4 responses to “The state of music in the Ramayana

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    dear sreenivasarao,

    i am not a musically knowledgeable person..
    but i am defenitely a music lover…
    i am fascianted to note the evloution
    of ghandrvas and ragas over a perod of time..


  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    salutations to you shree shree shree sreenivasa rao…what a treasurehouse of information. i am amazed and bow to your knowledge & reasearch oriented mind & your devotion. thank you..


  3. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:29 pm


    interesting blog. i am fascinated by the history of anything and certainly of music but i know nothing about it. i would also like you to elaborate on the perceived connection between ravana and samaveda and music. regads


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:30 pm

      dear shri palahali,
      thank you for asking. let me use this to mention a few things that i did not in the blog. please bear with me.
      to start with, one has to make a clear distinction between the times of the historical rama; and the society depicted in the ramayana epic poem rendered by the great poet valmiki.

      1. the music in valmiki’s ramayana (say 7th century bc) was sung and played for entertainment; it was performed amidst public in celebrations; and it was used by minstrels to sing ballads. the concept of linking music to spiritual development did not appear to be present, then.

      the later texts, say of 4th to 6th century ad, such as brihaddeshi, vayupurana and narada shiksha assigned the musical taanas, names of the various yajnas; and said that the benefits of those yajnas could be obtained by singing the relative taanas. the yajnavalkhya shiksha said, the music would help spiritual practices. the idea that music was a way to liberation (moksha sadhana) seems to have emerged at a later stage, perhaps during the bhakthi period (10th -11th century and onwards).

      2. sundara kanda mentions that ravana was fond of music; and music was played in his palace. he, in fact, suggests to sita, she could relax a bit listening to music in his palace, instead sitting tensely under the tree.

      2.1. it is said ravana was a well known player of veena (an instrument played with a bow).he compared the battlefield to a music stage; bow (weapon for firing arrows) to his veena; arrow to his musical bow; and the tumultuous noise of the battle to music (vi: 24:43-44).

      2.2. linking ravana to sama veda is a mythological construct.

      it is said when ravana unwittingly got trapped under the weight of kailash, he cried out in pain and burst forth into the song shiva tandava stotra praying shiva to rescue him. it was here he acquired his title ravana, meaning “he of the terrible (cry) roar”. [till then, it appears, he was called dashanana vishravas (to check)]. ravana, it is said, cried out in sama music (a type of traditional music of those days) when he prayed to shiva for help and rescue.

      3.1. sama veda is linked to music through yajna. it was customary to invite and invoke deities by singing their hymas; and to recite the mantras while the rituals were being performed. those who sang were designated: udgatru .they selected riks (mantras) from rig veda, which could be sung and compiled them into a collection; and that collection came to be known as sama veda. out of the 1,549 mantras in sama veda, as many as 1,474 mantras are taken from rig veda. it is explained, sa stands for rik, while ama stands for various notes (brihad up: 1-3-22). sama veda is thus, virtually, a musical rendering of the selected mantras from rig veda.

      3.2. udgathrus were usually a group of three singers; and they together rendered the mantras in five stages;

      prasthava: the initial portion of the mantra is sung by an udgathru designated prasthothru. he starts with huuum sound (hoon kara).
      udgita: he is followed by the chef ritwik (designated the chief udgathru) who sings the rik. he commences with an om kara.
      prathihara: the mid-portion is sung loudly by prathiharthra.
      upadrava: the chief udgathru sings again; and
      nidhana: the final portion is sung by all the three together.

      3.3. in the beginning, samagana employed only three notes called udatta, anudatta and svarita. the lyre accompanying this (vana-veena) would have three strings only, one for each note. but, the scale, gradually, over a period of time, expanded into seven notes.

      3.4. narada shiksha explaining the sama music states: there were: seven notes (svaras); three gramas; 21 moorchanas; and 49 taanas in sama music. it also gives the relation between the sama notes (sama svara) and notes on the flute (venu svara) :

      sama svara
      venu svara

      in the later sama texts, it became customary to write the numerals on top of the sama mantras to indicate their note- delineations (sama vikara).

      3.5. the music, based on sama mantras was classified into:

      (i). grama_geya gana: was sung amidst people of the society. it was a natural way of singing.
      (ii).aranya gana: sung in contemplation, in the woods and groves. this was also a natural singing.
      (iii).uhaa gana :sung during the soma yajna. the singing here followed a rather complicated pattern.and,
      (iv).uhya gana: secrect or singing within oneself.

      4. it was during the gupta period that indian music gained the form which we now call classical. as a result of those disciplines, the sama gana retained a defined structure and a typical way of singing (marga).no matter who sang and in which region it was sung, the sama music had to follow the traditional approved format.

      the roots of sangita, the traditional (classic) indian music are in samagana.

      the folk music (desi) on the other hand, sprang from the common people and varied from region to region. it was spontaneous and fluid.the two systems developed independently.

      it is only of late the marga and desi; the classical and folk music are coming together, enriching and inspiring each other. it is wonderfully delightful development.

      i thank your patience.


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