Ravana’s fiddle

Panchamukha vadhyam  

(This new column will focus on ancient instruments, their origins and myths.)

As an introduction, violinist-researcher Dr. M. Lalitha writes:

I was selected for the Ministry of Culture, New Delhi,’s award under the Production Grant. Being an instrumentalist, I wanted to focus on divine musical instruments as suggested by my guide, Nandini Ramani. Along with my sister, M. Nandini, I began working on this project. The highlight was a comparative study of similar instruments all over the globe and how they are all connected with divinity, rituals and deities.

We worked on the history and evolution of an instrument, mythological, sculptural evidences, its usage in temple rituals, similarities in global musical cultures, and took references from literature, from both Sanskrit and Tamil, such as the Vedas, Natyasastra, Periyapuranam and Silappadigaram.

Nandini and I hail from a family of musicians. Our grandfather V. Lakshminarayana Iyer was an accomplished musician-composer and our uncles, L. Vaidyanathan, L. Subramanian and L. Shenkar are names to reckon with in the violin world. We have been awarded with several National and International Fellowships including the prestigious Fulbright Fellowships in Performing Arts - USA, Fulbright Nehru lecture Fellowship -USA, The Occasional Lecture Fund Award -USA, Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship – UK and were selected as Cultural Ambassadors to the U.S. and the U.K. respectively.

We begin with Ravanhatha, a two stringed fiddle.


We were in Jodhpur for a concert where we managed to shop for traditional Meenakari jhumkas and colourful dhurries. A visit to the Umaid Bhavan palace was a peep into the past and took us back to the old world of kings and kingdoms.

We also visited the Mehrangarh Fort, regarded as one of the largest forts in India. The museum there houses a huge collection of royal exhibits including palanquins, watches, silver swords studded with precious stones such as emeralds and rubies. The exhibits included the swords of Akbar the Great, the royal outfits worn by the monarchs of Marwar and distinct Marwar paintings.

As we took the lift to go to the different floors, we were captivated by the gentle strains of music which created an aura of the past in the old fort. The instrument being played was a stringed–bowed instrument that resembled the primitive coconut-shell violin. On speaking to one of them, we learnt that this instrument was the Ravanhatha, a two stringed fiddle popular in both Western India and Sri Lanka.

We also learnt that it is made of coconut shell and covered with a goat’s hide. There is a fingerboard made of bamboo attached to the shell where two main strings made of steel and horsehair are seen passing through a small bridge. The string made up of horse hair is used to play the melody while the metal string is used as a drone. There are two huge pegs to which these two strings are attached. Apart from these two strings, there are more than 8-12 sympathetic strings attached to the small pegs. The bow is a bit concave and has jingle bells fitted that provide rhythmic accompaniment.

This bowed, stringed instrument also known as Ravanhatta, Ravanahastha and Ravanastron, is said to have originated during the time of Ravana, the mighty king of Lanka. According to mythology, Ravana was an ardent devotee of Lord Siva. He played on the Ravanhatta as a musical offering to the Lord. It is believed that at the end of the war between Lord Rama and Ravana, Hanuman took the Ravanhatha to North India.

Ravanhatha is said to be the precursor to the violin. The beautiful strains of Ravanhatha can be heard in Rajasthan in their lilting folk music. It is said that the royals of Rajasthan and Gujarat popularised this instrument where this became the first musical instrument to be taught to the princes of royal families as well as among the women.

It is a main accompanying instrument used by the Bhopas, the priest singers of the folk deities in Rajasthan. They sing of the tales of the folk deity, Pabuji, who lived in Rajasthan during the 14th century. The Bhopas belong to the Nayak community and usually depict the tale of Pabuji in front of the Phad/ Par which is a painted canvas about 15-30 ft. long and 4-5 ft. deep where paintings depict the life of Pabuji.

The Phads or Pars are painted by citero or professional painters. These Phads or paintings are drawn on a cotton cloth and treated with utmost reverence by the Bhopas. The epic of Pabuji is sung by both the Bhopa and the Bhopi – the wife of the Bhopa who holds a lamp near the Phad as the narration is in progress. The Phad is practically a movable temple and the story is only narrated in the night. The singing is interspersed with dancing too. The epic of Pabuji has about 4,000 lines and its performance lasts for full five nights of eight hours duration from dusk to dawn.

The melodic strains of the Ravanhatha still fill the desert State with vibrancy.

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2020 8:31:42 PM |

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