Music of India – a brief outline – Part Four

22 Apr

Continued from Part Three – Overview (3)


Part Four ( of 22 ) – Music of Sama Veda


 Sama Veda Samhita

1.1. The earliest form of organized Music that we know about is the Music of Sama Veda or the Saman. Sama Veda is linked to music through Yajna.

The Yajna-s, were at the very heart of the Vedic way of living. During the Yajna-s, it was customary to invoke and invite devas (gods) by singing hymns dear to them or dedicated to them ; and to recite the mantras while submitting to them offerings (havish) through Agni, the carrier (havya-vahana). The group of priests who sang (Samaga or Chandoga) the Mantras, initially, compiled a text for their use by putting together selected Mantras from Rig-Veda (the oldest known text) that could be sung during the performance of a Yajna or a Soma Yaga. That collection of lyrical Mantras came to be known as Sama Veda Samhita; and was regarded as the fourth Veda.

1.2. Out of the 1,549 mantras in Sama Veda Samhita, as many as 1,474 mantras are taken from Rig Veda (mainly from the eighth and the ninth Mandalas). Most of the mantras are in Gayatri chhandas (metre), while some are in Pragatha. It is said; the term Sama is composed of: SA, which stands for Rik (Vedic Mantra); and AMA, meaning various notes (Brihad Up: 1-3-22). Sama Veda is thus, virtually, a musical rendering of the selected mantras from Rig Veda. In other words, Sama took maathu (words) from Rig Veda; and provided dhathu   the musical substance to those words. Sama Veda is perhaps the earliest known musical literature.

1.3. The Sama Veda Samhita has two segments. The first segment is called Sama – Yoni (adhara) mantra Samhita, meaning that it is the basic text. This segment contains the selected mantras as they appear in the Rig Veda .This, virtually, is the source book. The second segment called Sama–gana text. Here, the mantras are not in the order they originally appear in Rigveda. But, the selected mantras are rearranged to suit the sequence of rituals during the Yajna; or according to the meters (chhandas) or the gods to whom mantras are addressed.


2.1. While rearranging the text for the purpose of singing, the selected mantras are converted to Saman by turning, twisting, elongating its syllables; and, by inserting various modulations, rests, and other modifications.  The musical effect or the ‘floating form’ of the Sama-gana is enhanced by interpolation of Svaras and meaningless sounds called Stobha (which resemble shouts of joy) such as: Hoyi, Hoi, Hova, Hai, Haw, Oi, Ai, Ha, Ho, Uha, Tayo, etc. This is the text for singing; expanding each mantra with notations and instructing how mantras are to be sung. This is the Sama Veda as it is generally understood and sung.

2.2. Sama-singing (Sama-gana) was an integral part of a Yajna. Sama, thus, represents the earliest known instance of deep relationship between religious life and Music. There were numerous styles of singing Sama. Patanjali in his Mahabhashya remarks that there were a thousand recessions (shakhas) or ways of singing Sama – sahasra-vartma samvedah.  That perhaps was a poetic manner of suggesting there were a range of styles of rendering Sama.  [Some texts speak of thirteen Samaga-charyas – ways of singing Sama. But names of about only eleven are mentioned:  Ranayaniya; Chatyamugra; Kaleya; Kalvala; Mahakaleya; Langalayana; Mahakalvala; Sardula; Langala; Kouthuma; Jaiminiya]

2.3.  In any case, of the many, only three recessions (shakhas) Viz. Kauthumiya, Ranayaniya and Jaiminiya, have survived. The Kauthumiya and Ranayaniya carry the same set of mantras; but their internal grouping differs; and there are also variations in their svaras (accent). The Jaiminiya is said to be different from the other two, in both the aspects. Of the three shakhas, Kauthumiya is regarded the prominent one.


3.1. Throughout, Sama Veda is arranged in two streams of classification. And, the two often   interrelate. One is Arcika, the way in which Sama Veda text is structured and the way its Riks (stanzas) are grouped. The other is Gana, the musical aspect which details the manner of singing the Sama Riks.

First, Archika (group of Riks sung in adoration), is essentially the collection of the texts (yoni) of individual Riks adopted from Rigveda. Here, the selected Riks from Rigveda are put together under several chapters (prapathakas). And, under each prapathakas; the Riks are bunched into sets of ten (dasasti) or less.

3.2. The Sama Veda text is broadly made into two Arcikas. The first Arcika (Purvarchika or Shadarchika) is made of six chapters (prapathakas) together with an Appendix.  The Purvarchika consists about 650 Riks selected from Rigveda that  are grouped partly according to meters (chhandas) and partly according the gods  (devatha) that are propitiated. The first five prapathakas have about 585 Riks to be sung in honour of Agni, Indra and Soma-Pavamana.  The sixth prapathaka having 55 Riks is called Aaranya or Aranyakanda.  There is also an Appendix consisting 10 Riks attached to Purvarchika; and is called Mahanamani (or Sakravayah) to be sung in honour of Indra the Great (Mahan).

3.3. The second Arcika, Uttararcika (that which follows the first) is made up of nine prapathakas divided into number of segments (khandas). Under these Khandas, about 900 Riks are grouped into about 300 songs of three Riks each. The Riks, here, are arranged according to the sequence of events that occur in the course of the performance of the Yajna. It is presumed that the Uttararcika is, comparatively, of a later origin. And, it is regarded as an essential supplement to the Purvarchika.


4.1. As regards the Gana, the musical element of the Sama Veda, the Riks included in the first five chapters (prapathakas) of the first Arcika (Purvarchika) and those under Mahanamani are known as Grama-geya-gana – that is the songs meant to be sung in homes in the villages – praying to gods (devatha) Agni, Indra Soma and Visvedevah – during the course of domestic functions such as Brahmayajna (teaching of Vedas), Upakarma and other worships.

The Riks included under the sixth chapter (prapathaka) of the Purvarchika – that is Aaranya or Aranyakanda – are meant to be sung in the solitude of forests. Hence, they are named Aranya gana. The singing is of contemplative nature; and, it is deemed as sacred-music.

The Purvarchika way of singing (both the Grama and the Aranya gana) is deemed Prakrti-gana, the natural way of rendering a song.  And, it appears that the hymn-melodies for the Soma-yaga performed at homes in the villages (Grama) were different from those performed by the hermits living in the forests (Aranya).

4.2. As regards the singing (Gana) of the Riks included under the second Arcika (Uttararcika), it basically consisted two kinds of songs: Uha-gana (numbering 936) sung during the Soma Yajna; and Uhya-gana (numbering 209) singing within oneself. The texts (yoni Riks) of most of the songs were adopted from Purvarchika. But, here, the singing style is improvised with unusual variations; and, therefore it is named Vikrti-gana (not the straightway of singing). It is also said; the same Rik can be sung in different tunes, producing different Samas. The number of such Samas can vary from one to eighteen..!

[It is also said; Uha and Uhya were composed for the purpose of indicating the order of rituals in the Yajna. And, that Uha is related to Grama-gana, and Uhya to Aranya –gana.]

In summary; The Sama Veda Samhita, is arranged in two primary sections – the verse books (Arcika) and melody books (Gana). The Arcika is divided in two parts: Purvarchika and Uttararcika.  And, as regards melody (Gana) there are four styles of singing hymns: Grama-geya-gana; Aranya-gana; Uha –gana; and; Uhya-gana.  There is a mutual relation between the Riks contained in Arcika and the Gana books.


5.1. The priests who sing the Mantras at the Yajna are designated as Udgathru-s (derived from udgita – to sing ’high’ or loud). The Sama Veda Samhita came to be compiled, essentially, for their use and guidance.  They were usually a group of three singers (Prasthothru, Udgathru and Prathiharthra). And, the group, together, rendered the Sama in five stages.

Prasthava: The initial portion of the mantra is sung by an Udgathru designated as Prasthothru.  And, he starts with a deep Huuum sound (Hoon- Kara).

Udgita: Prasthothru is followed by the chef Ritwik (designated the chief Udgathru) who sings his portion of the Rik. He commences with an elongated Om Kara.

Prathihara: the mid-portion is sung loudly by Prathiharthra. This adulates the Devatha to whom Rik is addressed.

Upadrava: The chief Udgathru sings again;


Nidhana: the final portion is sung by all the three together, commencing with prolonged Om-kara.

When a mantra, as per the above format, is sung three times, it is then a stoma. Some texts describe the set of these five stages (Prasthava, Udgita, Prathihara, Upadrava and Nidhana) as Bhakthi. Its number is extended to seven by adding Hoon- Kara and Om Kara.

Elements of chanting

6.1. Shiksha, a branch of Veda lore (vedanga), deals with elements of chanting and phonetics. According to Taittereya Upanishad (1. 2), the elements of chanting includes six factors: Varna (syllable); Svara (accent); Maatra (duration); Balam (stress); Sama (even tone) ; and Santana (continuity) . The first four deal with correct pronunciation of individual syllables; and the last two with the recitation of the entire line or the verse.

Briefly, Varna is the correct pronunciation of every isolated syllable, combination of consonants and ovals and compound letters. Svara is how a syllable has to be pronounced in one of the three accents (udatta, anudatta and svarita). Maatra is the time duration for pronouncing a syllable. There are of four types: hrasva– a short one – duration for short ovals; dhirga –  two unit-duration for long vowels; plutam- longer than two–unit duration; and, the fourth is ardha- maatra, half unit, meant for consonants not accompanied by vowels.

Sama Svaras

6.2. In the beginning, Sama-gana employed only three notes called Udatta, Anudatta and Svarita. The lyre (Vana-Veena) accompanying the singing had only three strings, one for each note. The songs were perhaps like Ga Ga -Re Re -Sa Sa Sa. This kind of singing might have suited for chanting hymns.

The three notes were differentiated depending on whether it was produced from above or below the palate (taalu).

Udatta refers to sound produced from above the palate; and is acutely accented (uchchaih).

Anudatta was gravely accented (nichaih); produced from below the palate.

Svarita is a combination of udatta and anudatta, with udatta in the first-half. It is called a circumflexed accent.

[It is also explained that in context of Sama Veda , Udatta meant the highest Svara; Anudatta , just lower; and Svarita is the summation of the two.]

In the written/printed texts of the Rig Veda, Udatta is not indicated by any symbol; Anudatta is indicated by underlining the syllable; and Svarita is indicated by a vertical line above the syllable.

The Sama–gana texts, however, indicate Udatta by writing the Sanskrit numeral –one above the letter; Anudatta by writing the numeral–three above the letter; and Svarita by writing the numeral–two above the letter. In the Sama text, the syllables that have no symbols are called prachaya.

Please see the following example:

sama verse



Sama Svara and Venu Svara

7.1. Dr. Lalmani Misra, a noted scholar, explained the (Rig) Vedic priests used a single or two notes. The Sama singers improved on that and used at least three notes. “The singers explored further and discovered more notes. M G R S D has been determined to be the basic set of notes used in this order by Sāmik singers” , he said, “Sāmik notes were exactly those followed in Shadja grāmik tradition.”

7.2. As Sama-gana originated from the Yajna, its purpose, at least in the initial stages, was limited to chanting by the Udgathrus. Later, as the Sama Music developed, the number of notes increased from three to four, then five (which continued for a very long time), then six and finally seven. With that, the number of strings of the lyre too increased. Thus, over a period, the Sama scales expanded from three to seven notes. (It is not clear when or at what stage seven notes were introduced into Sama).

7.3. Naradiya Shiksha is a text that deals mainly with the musical notes and the pronunciation of the words in the Vedic language. Some believe it might pre-date Bharata’s Natyashastra. Narada Shiksha explaining the Sama music states that there were three Gramas (Sadja, Madhyama and Gandhara). It also mentions that each Grama has seven Murchanas (a total of 21 Murchanas). (But, it does not define Grama or Murchana). The set Murchanas related to Gandhara Grama are meant to please Devas; and the other two to please Pitris and Rishis. In addition, it mentions 49 Taanas.

[According to some other texts (Samavidhana Brahmana and Arseya Brahmana), Sama-Gana employed seven Svaras (notes): 1. Prathama; 2. Dvitiya; 3. Tritiya; 4. Chaturtha; 5. Panchama or Mandra (low); 6. Shasta or Krusts (high); and, Antya or Atiswara (very high)]

7.4. Naradiya Shiksha relates the Sama Svaras to the notes on the flute (Venu) as: Ma, Ga, Ri, Sa, Dha, Ni, and Pa.

       Sama svara                      Venu svara
01 Prathama Madhyama Ma
02 Dwithiya Gandhara Ga
03 Trithiya Rishabha Ri
04 Chathurtha Shadja Sa
05 Panchama Nishadha Ni
06 Shasta Daiwatha Dha
07 Sapthama Panchama Pa


7.5. In the later Sama texts, it became customary to write the numerals (one to seven) on top of the Sama mantras to indicate their note-delineations (Sama vikara).




Derivation of Svaras

8.1 . Naradiya Shiksha (1.5.3; 1.5.4) explains that each Sama-svara was derived from the sounds made by a bird or an animal in its appropriate season. For instance, bulls roar was Rishabha; kraunchaka’s (heron) cry was Madhyama; elephant’s trumpet was Nishadha; and koel’s (cuckoo) melodious whistle was Panchama and so on. Please see the table below.

Name in Sama Music Symbol Sama Veda Svara Bird/animal Sound associated
Madhyama Ma svarita heron
Gandhara Ga udatta goat
Rishabha Ri anudatta bull
Shadja Sa svarita peacock
Nishadha Ni udatta elephant
Daiwatha Dha anudatta horse
Panchama Pa svarita koel


Descending order of Sama Svaras

9.1. As can be seen, the Sama notes were of Nidhana prakriti (diminishing nature) or Vakragati, following Avaroha karma, a descending order (uttarottaram nicha bhavanthi).

The order of the Svaras in Sama-music was: Ma, Ga, Ri, Sa, Ni, Dha, and Pa. The order of the svaras was revised in the later texts to: Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni ; as we are familiar with it today. [Another Shiksha text, the Yajnavalkya Shiksha gives the names of the seven Svaras as SA-RI-GA-MA-PA-DA-NI; and says that the seven Svaras belonged to Aranya-gana.]

Dr. Misra says  that the ancient musical scale using notes in descending order can be translated into modern Shadja grām by considering the Madhyam  to be Shadja and moving up the scale.

9. 2. Even then, since the Sama notes were in a descending order there was not much flexibility in music. Dr. Misra remarks “In those times there were no microphones or loudspeakers. Sam was sung in large, wide, open or canopied spaces, with the intention that all present should be able to hear it. In such a condition if the song has notes M G R S D(as in Sama) it would be audible at best in a single room, but if the notes, S N D P Gstarting from Tār-saptak are sung they would be loud enough for all to hear. So, from this angle of usage too, S N D P G seems more appropriate than M G R S D. “

Further since the Raga concept was, then, yet to be evolved, there might not have been much depth and variation in the rendering of Vedic or Sama music.

As Dr. N.Ramanathan, a noted musicologist remarked, Sama music was to acquire the rhythmic-time- patterns. That is to say, the taala system was yet to evolve.

 Development of Sama music

10.1. The Sama music, in its later stages, was just ripe; and it was also eager to grow and expand both in scope and content.

Historically, the Sama chanting is recognized by all musicologists as the basis for the Indian Music. The roots of Sangita, the traditional (classic) Indian Music are firmly founded in Sama- gana.

10.2. The Saman initially gave rise to a body of devotional songs called Marga or Gandharva sung in Jati (melody). No matter who sang and in which region it was sung, the Sama and the Marga music had to follow the traditional approved format.

As a result of the disciplines evolved over the ages, a well structured system of music could be erected during the Gupta period on the foundations of the Sama–gana. It was during this period that Indian music started gaining the form with which we now are familiar.

10.3. From Marga, the devotional music (Vaidika) , was born the Art music (laukika) Desi,  the Music of Ragas. Desi, the one derived from regions, sprang from the common people; and, it varied from region to region. Desi was inspired from life, spontaneous and fluid.

10.4. Then for over a thousand years the Music scene was dominated by a structured Music (Nibaddha-samgita) format called Prabandhas (a type of Khandakavya). Since Prabandha grew rigid it had to give place, by about 17th century, to varieties of free flowing (Manodharma-samgita) such as Padas,  Kritis or Kirtanas, Varnas, Javalis etc.

9.5. Of late, the Marga and Desi; the classical folk and other improvised forms Of Music are coming together, enriching and inspiring each other. It is wonderfully delightful development.

Music and spiritual progress

11.1. Music in the Vedic times was sung and played for entertainment. Its other main use was during the performance of the Yajna; and it was here that Sama-gana was born. The concept of Nada-Brahman does not appear in Rigveda or in the early Upanishads. The metaphysical concept of Nada – Brahman is not discussed either in Sama Veda or its recitations (shakhas).  It seems to have come from Yoga or Agama.  Similarly, the notion  that music would lead to spiritual development did not seem to have existed then.

11.2. It was only in the later texts, say of 4th to 6th century AD, such as Brihaddeshi, Vayupurana and Naradiya 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).

Musical instruments

12.1 Vocal music was accompanied by lot of musical instruments in the Rig-Veda.

Some of the instruments of Rig-Veda are:  Dundubhi, Vaana, Nadi, Venu, Karkari, Gargar, Godha, Ping and Aghati. The sound of Dundubhi has been described as sound of clouds. Veena commonly denoted string instruments. The other instruments mentioned are: Venu or Vamsha (flute) and Mridanga (drums).

12.2. The string instruments such as Veena were played during a Yajna. Vana was the most popular string instrument of Vedic period. Among string instruments, frequent   references were made to the bow-shaped harp Vana. Vana (RV 1.85.10; 6.24.9 etc.) was a lyre; a plucked string instrument like a harp. Rig Veda (10.32.4) mentions the seven tones (varas0 of the Vana (vanasya saptha dhaturit janah).

Karkari (RV 2.43.3) and Tunabha were also veena – like string instruments. The other kind of string instruments mentioned in Rig-Veda is Kand-veena, which was made by combining together bamboo joints and stretching strings on it.

The other kinds of Veena mentioned are : Aghati, Ghatlika or Apghatika, Pichchola or Pichchora stambalveena, Taluk Veena, Godha Veena, Alabu, and  Kapishirshni etc.

In fact, all string instruments were called Veena.

12.3. Some others that were mentioned are:

Naali (RV 10.135.7) was a wind instrument similar to flute.

Dundhubhi (RV 1.28.51; 6.47.29 etc.) was a conical shaped drum with two faces, made by hollowing out a block of wood and stretching an ox’s hide over the mouth. It was played with a stick.

Adambarara was also a drum made from Udambara tree.

Shanka vadya blowing of conch is also mentioned.

Musical instruments were basically used as accompaniments to singing and dancing. There are no references to playing them solo; or in an orchestra





While on the subject of svaras, let me append here the wonderful explanation of the swaras in Indian music offered by Shri S Rajam the renowned artist and musician. He says:  The Seven swaras have twelve swara divisions:

Carnatic System Syllable Hindustani System Western
Shadja SA Shadj C
Suddha Ri R1 Komal Rishab D Flat Db
Chatusruti Ri R2 Thivra Rishab D
Sadarana GA G1 Komal GA E Flat Eb
Antara GA G2 Thivra GA E
Suddha MA M1 Komal MA F
Prati MA M2 Thivra MA F Sharp F+
Panchama PA Pancham G
Suddha Da D1 Komal Da A Flat Ab
Chatusruti Da D2 Thivra Da A
Kaisiki NI N1 Komal NI B Flat Bb
KakaliNI N2 Thivra NI B


 SA & PA are constant. Others have two levels (sthanas). Thus there exist twelve swara sthanas. Four more having shades of other swaras – Suddha Gandharam, Shatsruti Rishaba, and Suddha Nishada  & Shatsruti Dhaivata – make up a total of sixteen.

72 Sampoorna Ragas having all seven swaras both in ascending (arohana) & descending (avarohana) emerge as Mela ragas. Each mela has all the seven swaras but drafts varying swarasthana formulations.

Each mela raga applied to permutations & combinations of swara sthanas gives scope to 484 janya (sub) ragas. 72 mela ragas have thus a potential to give the colossal 34776 janya ragas. Of course, this is only an arithmetical projection & not a melodic feasibility.

Of 72 melas, the first 36 have M1 & the second 36 have M2.


Continued in Part Five

Gandharva Music

Sources and References Dr. Lalmani Mishra

Sama-gana :

The tradition of Indian art music (a historical sketch)   by Acharya Chintamani Rath

Sama Veda & its Music by R L Kashyap

 Vaidika sahithya Charithre by Dr, NS Anantharanga Char,%20September%29.pdf

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Posted by on April 22, 2015 in Music, Sangita


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