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Indian Musical Instruments

India has the most ancient and evolved music system in the world. The earliest evidence points to this discovery in the cave paintings showing musical activity and instruments at Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh (Central India), dating back 10,000 years ago. Similarly, during the later excavations of the Harappan civilization, evidence of musical activity and dance was uncovered. The study of such evidence helps us understand the evolution of music and several cultural aspects of the people who used these instruments.

The Natya Shastra, an ancient encyclopedia of the arts, compiled by Bharat Muni (200 B.C.- 200 A.D.), categorized musical instruments (vadya) into four main categories:

·         Tantu Vadya - Chordophones or Stringed instruments

·         Sushira Vadya - Aerophones or Wind instruments

·         Avanaddha Vadya - Membranophones or Percussion instruments

·         Ghana Vadya - Idiophones or Solid instruments that do not require tuning.

There have been many instruments of the distant past, of which we only know names. There are numerous instruments used in folk music too. The focus of this article is to describe instruments used in Indian Classical music.

Tantu Vadya

This is the category of string instruments. In this category, the sound is produced by the string's vibration through plucking or bowing on the string. The pitch and the sound vibration depend on the string's length and how tight it is wound to the instrument.

The Tantu Vadya are divided broadly into three categories:

·         Tat Vadya - The plucked instruments such as Tanpura, Veena, Sitar, Sarod, of which Veena and Sitar are fretted, whereas Sarod is non-fretted.

·         Vitat Vadya - The bowed instruments such as Violin, Sarangi, Dilruba and Esraj or Israj

The only string instrument that is neither plucked nor bowed is the Santoor, which is played by hammering on the strings.



The word Veena is a generic term in Sanskrit. It refers to plucked string musical instruments. Veena is one of the most ancient Indian musical instruments mentioned in Rigveda, Samveda, and other Vedic literature. Veena has been discussed in the Natya Shastra, the oldest ancient Hindu text on classical music by Bharata Muni

Sushir Vadya

Sushir Vadya or aerophones are wind instruments. These instruments use air as the primary vibrating medium for producing sound. They are diverse in structure and have been used in the music of all cultures since prehistoric times. A wind instrument has a tube, which is the resonator, in which a column of air is set into vibration. The player blows into the mouthpiece, which is set at or near the end of the resonator. In some instruments, the air can be pumped mechanically.



Flute has been used in Indian culture since the Vedic period. It is said to be the favorite instrument of Lord Krishna. It has many names such as Venu, Bansuri, Murali, and Vansi, etc. Flute is made of bamboo, and it has a cylindrical tube-like body with a uniform bore and is closed at one end

Avanaddha Vadya

These are percussion instruments. Sound is produced by a stretched membrane, such as a drum. Membranophonic instruments act as skin-vibrators because they produce sound-waves by vibrations of a stretched skin or membrane when struck, plucked, or stroked. A hollow vessel is covered with a membrane that generates beats when struck. Percussion instruments can be classified by modes of playing:

  • Played by hand like mridangam;

  • Played using sticks like nagara;

  • Played partly by hand and partly by stick-like tavil;

  • Self struck like damaru;

  • And where one side is struck and the other side stroked like a perumal madu drum.



Tabla is a percussion instrument which consists of a pair of drums. It has two single headed drums, with different shapes and sizes. The drum played with the right hand is called dayan whereas the one played with the left hand is called bayan. Both drums are placed on ring shaped holders made of plant fibre covered with cloth, to balance them while playing. The tabla is kept in a slant position away from the players’ body, during performance.

Ghana Vadya



Derived from the Sanskrit word, Tālà, which means rhythm, the Taal/ Kartaal or Manjira is a pair of clash cymbals made of bronze, brass, copper, or zinc. It is held in both hands to play. Both the cymbals connect with a chord, which passes through a hole in its center. The Taal is played to accompany devotional music such as Bhajan and Kirtan. Taals come in different sizes, and the Pitch of the Taal depends on its size, weight, and the material used to make the Taal.

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