Last updated
Percussion instrument
Classification Indian percussion instrument, goatskin heads with syahi
Playing range
Bolt tuned or rope tuned with dowels and hammer
Related instruments
Pakhavaj, mridangam, khol, dholak, nagara, madal, tbilat

The tabla [nb 1] is a membranophone percussion instrument originating from the Indian subcontinent, consisting of a pair of drums, used in traditional, classical, popular and folk music. [1] It has been a particularly important instrument in Hindustani classical music since the 18th century, and remains in use in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. [2] The name tabla likely comes from tabl, the Persian and Arabic word for drum. [3] However, the ultimate origin of the musical instrument is contested by scholars, some tracing it to West Asia, others tracing the evolution of indigenous musical instruments of the Indian subcontinent. [4]

A membranophone is any musical instrument which produces sound primarily by way of a vibrating stretched membrane. It is one of the four main divisions of instruments in the original Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification.

Indian subcontinent Peninsular region in south-central Asia south of the Himalayas

The Indian subcontinent, is a southern region and peninsula of Asia, mostly situated on the Indian Plate and projecting southwards into the Indian Ocean from the Himalayas. Geologically, the Indian subcontinent is related to the land mass that rifted from Gondwana and merged with the Eurasian plate nearly 55 million years ago. Geographically, it is the peninsular region in south-central Asia delineated by the Himalayas in the north, the Hindu Kush in the west, and the Arakanese in the east. Politically, the Indian subcontinent includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Hindustani classical music form of Indian classical music originating in modern-day northern India and Pakistan

Hindustani classical music is the traditional music of northern regions of the Indian subcontinent. It may also be called North Indian classical music or Śāstriya Saṅgīt. Its origins date from the 12th century CE, when it diverged from Carnatic music, the classical tradition of southern regions of the Indian subcontinent.


The tabla consists of two single-headed, barrel-shaped small drums of slightly different size and shape: daya also called dahina meaning right (also called "tabla"), and baya also called bahina meaning left (also called "dagga"). [2] [5] The daya tabla is played by the musician's right hand (dominant hand), and is about 15 centimetres (~6 in) in diameter and 25 centimetres (~10 in) high. The baya tabla is a bit bigger and deep kettledrum shaped, about 20 centimetres (~8 in) in diameter and 25 centimetres (~10 in) in height. Each is made of hollowed out wood or clay or brass, the daya drum laced with hoops, thongs and wooden dowels on its sides. The dowels and hoops are used to tighten the tension of the membrane. The daya is tuned to the ground note of the raga called Sa (tonic in India music). [2] [6] The baya construction and tuning is about a fifth to an octave below that of the daya drum. The musician uses his hand's heel pressure to change the pitch and tone colour of each drum during a performance. [2] [6]

Raga Melodic mode in South Asian music

A raga or raag is a melodic framework for improvisation akin to a melodic mode in Indian classical music. While the rāga is a remarkable and central feature of the classical Indian music tradition, it has no direct translation to concepts in the classical European music tradition. Each rāga is an array of melodic structures with musical motifs, considered in the Indian tradition to have the ability to "colour the mind" and affect the emotions of the audience.

In music, the tonic is the first scale degree of a diatonic scale and the tonal center or final resolution tone that is commonly used in the final cadence in tonal classical music, popular music, and traditional music. In the movable do solfège system, the tonic note is sung as do. More generally, the tonic is the note upon which all other notes of a piece are hierarchically referenced. Scales are named after their tonics: for instance, the tonic of the C major scale is the note C.

A demo of Tabla playing

The playing technique is complex and involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different sounds and rhythms, reflected in mnemonic syllables ( bol ). In the Hindustani style tabla is played in two ways: band bol and khula bol. In the sense of classical music it is termed "tali" and "khali". It is one of the main qawali instrument used by Sufi musicians of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. [7] The tabla is also an important instrument in the bhakti devotional traditions of Hinduism and Sikhism, such as during bhajan and kirtan singing. [8] [9]

A bol is a mnemonic syllable. It is used in Indian music to define the tala, or rhythmic pattern, and is one of the most important parts of Indian rhythm. Bol is derived from the Hindi word bolna, which means "to speak."

Bhakti literally means "attachment, participation, fondness for, homage, faith, love, devotion, worship, purity". In Hinduism, it refers to devotion to, and love for, a personal god or a representational god by a devotee. In ancient texts such as the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, the term simply means participation, devotion and love for any endeavor, while in the Bhagavad Gita, it connotes one of the possible paths of spirituality and towards moksha, as in bhakti marga.

Hinduism is an Indian religion and dharma, or way of life, widely practised in the Indian subcontinent and parts of Southeast Asia. Hinduism has been called the oldest religion in the world, and some practitioners and scholars refer to it as Sanātana Dharma, "the eternal tradition", or the "eternal way", beyond human history. Scholars regard Hinduism as a fusion or synthesis of various Indian cultures and traditions, with diverse roots and no founder. This "Hindu synthesis" started to develop between 500 BCE and 300 CE, after the end of the Vedic period, and flourished in the medieval period, with the decline of Buddhism in India.


An old tabla Tabla1.png
An old tabla

The history of tabla is unclear, and there are multiple theories regarding its origins. [4] [10] There are two groups of theories, one that traces its origins to Muslim and Moghul invaders of the Indian subcontinent, the other traces it to indigenous origins. [4] One example of the latter theory is carvings in Bhaja Caves. However, clear pictorial evidence of the drum emerges only from about 1745, and the drum continued to develop in shape until the early 1800s. [11]

Bhaja Caves

Bhaja Caves or Bhaje caves is a group of 22 rock-cut caves dating back to the 2nd century BC located in Pune district, near Lonavala, Maharashtra. The caves are 400 feet above the village of Bhaja, on an important ancient trade route running from the Arabian Sea eastward into the Deccan Plateau. The inscriptions and the cave temple are protected as a Monument of National Importance, by the Archaeological Survey of India per Notification No. 2407-A. It belongs to the Hinayana Buddhism sect in Maharashtra. The caves have a number of stupas, one of their significant features. The most prominent excavation is its chaitya, a good example of the early development of this form from wooden architecture, with a vaulted horseshoe ceiling. Its vihara has a pillared verandah in front and is adorned with unique reliefs. These caves are notable for their indications of the awareness of wooden architecture. The carvings prove that tabla – a percussion instrument – was used in India for at least 2300 years, disproving the centuries-held belief that the tabla was introduced to India by outsiders or from Turko-Arab. The carving shows a woman playing tabla and another woman, performing dance.

Turk-Arab origins

The first theory, very common during the colonial period scholarship, is based on the etymological links of the word tabla to Arabic word tabl which means "drum". Beyond the root of the word, this proposal points to the abundant documentary evidence that the Muslim armies, as they invaded the Indian subcontinent, had hundreds of soldiers on camels and horses carrying paired drums. They would beat these drums to scare the residents, the non-Muslim armies, their elephants and chariots, that they intended to attack. Babur, the Turk founder of the Mughal Empire, is known to have used these paired drums carrying battalions in their military campaigns. However, this theory has had the flaw that the war drums did not look or sound anything like tabla, they were large paired drums and were called naqqara (noise, chaos makers). [4]

Babur 1st Mughal Emperor

Babur, born Zahīr ud-Dīn Muhammad, was the founder and first Emperor of the Mughal dynasty in South Asia. He was a direct descendant of Emperor Timur (Tamerlane) from what is now Uzbekistan.

Mughal Empire dynastic empire extending over large parts of the Indian subcontinent

The MughalEmpire was an early-modern empire in South Asia. For some two centuries, the empire stretched from the outer fringes of the Indus basin in the west, northern Afghanistan in the northwest, and Kashmir in the north, to the highlands of present-day Assam and Bangladesh in the east, and the uplands of the Deccan plateau in South India.

The second version of the Arab theory is that Amir Khusraw, a musician patronized by Sultan Alauddin Khalji invented the tabla when he cut an Awaj drum, which used to be hourglass shaped. This is, however, unlikely, as no painting or sculpture or document dated to his period supports it with evidence. If tabla had arrived, or had been invented under Arabic influence from the root word tabl, it would be in the list of musical instruments that were written down by Muslim historians, but such evidence is also absent. For example, Abul Fazi included a long list of musical instruments in his Ain-i-akbari written in the time of the 16th century Mughal Emperor Akbar, the generous patron of music. Abul Fazi's list makes no mention of tabla. [4]

Alauddin Khalji 13th Sultan of the Delhi Sultanate and 2nd from the Khalji dynasty

ʿAlāʾ ud-Dīn Khaljī was the second and the most powerful ruler of the Khalji dynasty that ruled the Delhi Sultanate in the Indian subcontinent.

Akbar third Mughal emperor

Abu'l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar, popularly known as Akbar I, also as Akbar the Great, was the third Mughal emperor, who reigned from 1556 to 1605. Akbar succeeded his father, Humayun, under a regent, Bairam Khan, who helped the young emperor expand and consolidate Mughal domains in India. A strong personality and a successful general, Akbar gradually enlarged the Mughal Empire to include nearly all of the Indian Subcontinent north of the Godavari river. His power and influence, however, extended over the entire subcontinent because of Mughal military, political, cultural, and economic dominance. To unify the vast Mughal state, Akbar established a centralised system of administration throughout his empire and adopted a policy of conciliating conquered rulers through marriage and diplomacy. To preserve peace and order in a religiously and culturally diverse empire, he adopted policies that won him the support of his non-Muslim subjects. Eschewing tribal bonds and Islamic state identity, Akbar strove to unite far-flung lands of his realm through loyalty, expressed through an Indo-Persian culture, to himself as an emperor who had near-divine status.

The third version of the Arab theory credits the invention of tabla to the 18th century musician, with a similar sounding name Amir Khusru, where he is suggested to have cut a Pakhawaj into two to create tabla. This is not an entirely unreasonable theory, and miniature paintings of this era show instruments that sort of look like tabla, but this would mean that tabla emerged from within the Muslim community of Indian subcontinent and were not an Arabian import. [4] [12] However, scholars such as Neil Sorrell and Ram Narayan state that this legend of cutting a pakhawaj drum into two to make tabla drums "cannot be given any credence". [6]

Indian origins

Five Gandharvas (celestial musicians) from 4th-5th century CE. Two of them are playing drums, but these don't look like tabla. Other temple carvings do. Five Celestial Musicians LACMA AC1992.254.1-.5.jpg
Five Gandharvas (celestial musicians) from 4th-5th century CE. Two of them are playing drums, but these don't look like tabla. Other temple carvings do.

The Indian theory traces the origin of tabla to indigenous ancient civilization. The stone sculture carvings in Bhaja Caves depict a woman playing a pair of drums, which some have claimed as evidence for the ancient origin of the tabla in India. [15] [16] A different version of this theory states that the tabla acquired a new Arabic name during the Islamic rule, having evolved from ancient Indian puskara drums. The evidence of the hand-held puskara is founded in many temple carvings, such as at the 6th and 7th century Muktesvara and Bhuvaneswara temples in India. [10] [13] [17] These arts show drummers who are sitting, with two or three separate small drums, with their palm and fingers in a position as if they are playing those drums. [13] However, it is not apparent in any of these ancient carvings that those drums were made of the same material and skin, or played the same music, as the modern tabla. [13]

The textual evidence for similar material and methods of construction as tabla comes from Sanskrit texts. The earliest discussion of tabla-like musical instrument building methods, including paste-patches, are found in the Hindu text Natyashastra . [13] The Natyashastra also discusses how to play these drums. The South Indian text Silappatikaram , likely composed in the early centuries of 1st millennium CE, describes thirty types of drums along with many stringed and other instruments. These are named as Pushkara - name Tabla comes in later periods [18]


200 BCE carvings at Buddhist Bhaja Caves, Maharashtra, India showing a woman playing a pair of drums and another dancer performing. Stone carvings at Bhaje caves.jpg
200 BCE carvings at Buddhist Bhaja Caves, Maharashtra, India showing a woman playing a pair of drums and another dancer performing.

Drums and Talas are mentioned in the Vedic era texts. [20] [21] A percussion musical instrument with two or three small drums, held with strings, called Pushkara (also spelled Pushkala) were in existence in pre-5th century Indian subcontinent along with other drums such as the Mridang, but these are not called tabla then. [22] The pre-5th century paintings in the Ajanta Caves, for example, show a group of musicians playing small tabla-like upright seated drums, a kettle-shaped mridang drum and cymbals. [23] Similar artwork with seated musicians playing drums, but carved in stone, are found in the Ellora Caves, [24] and others. [25]

A type of small Indian drums, along with many other musical instruments, are also mentioned in Tibetan and Chinese memoirs written by Buddhist monks who visited the Indian subcontinent in the 1st millennium CE. The pushkala are called rdzogs pa (pronounced dzokpa) in Tibetan literature. [26] The pushkara drums are also mentioned in many ancient Jainism and Buddhism texts, such as Samavayasutra, Lalitavistara and Sutralamkara. [27]

Some drums of central India that look like tabla, but are a different since they do not have Syahi which creates notation. 6 ancient drum types of Madhya Pradesh, Indian subcontinent.jpg
Some drums of central India that look like tabla, but are a different since they do not have Syahi which creates notation.

Various Hindu and Jain temples, such as the Eklingji in Udaipur, Rajasthan show stone carvings of a person playing tabla-like small pair of drums. Small drums were popular during the Yadava rule (1210 to 1247) in the south, at the time when Sangita Ratnakara was written by Sarangadeva. Madhava Kandali, 14th century Assamese poet and writer of Saptakanda Ramayana, lists several instruments in his version of "Ramayana", such as tabal, jhajhar, dotara, vina, rudra-vipanchi, etc. (meaning that these instruments existed since his time in 14th century or earlier).There is recent iconography of the tabla dating back to 1799. [28] This theory is now obsolete with iconography carvings found in Bhaje caves providing solid proof that the tabla was used in ancient India. There are Hindu temple carvings of double hand drums resembling the tabla that date back to 500 BCE. [29] The tabla was spread widely across ancient India. A Hoysaleshwara temple in Karnataka shows a carving of a woman playing a tabla in a dance performance. [30]

The tabla uses a "complex finger tip and hand percussive" technique played from the top unlike the Pakhawaj and mridangam which mainly use the full palm, and are sideways in motion and are more limited in terms of sound complexity. [31]

The origins of tabla repertoire and technique may be found in all three, and in physical structure there are also similar elements: the smaller pakhawaj head for the dayan, the naqqara kettledrum for the bayan, and the flexible use of the bass of the dholak. [32]

Construction and features

The smaller drum, played with the dominant hand, is sometimes called dayan (literally "right" side ), dāhina, siddha or chattū, but is correctly called the "tabla." It is made from a conical piece of mostly teak and rosewood hollowed out to approximately half of its total depth. The drum is tuned to a specific note, usually either the tonic, dominant or subdominant of the soloist's key and thus complements the melody. The tuning range is limited although different dāyāñs are produced in different sizes, each with a different range. Cylindrical wood blocks, known as gatta, are inserted between the strap and the shell allowing tension to be adjusted by their vertical positioning. Fine tuning is achieved while striking vertically on the braided portion of the head using a small, heavy hammer.

The larger drum, played with the other hand, is called bāyāñ (literally "left") duggī or dhāmā (correctly called "dagga"), has a much deeper bass tone, much like its distant cousin, the kettle drum. The bāyāñ may be made of any of a number of materials. Brass is the most common, copper is more expensive, but generally held to be the best, while aluminum and steel are often found in inexpensive models. Sometimes wood is used, especially in old bāyāñs from the Punjab. Clay is also used, although not favored for durability; these are generally found in the North-East region of Bengal.

The name of the head areas are:

The head of each drum has a central area of "tuning paste" called the syahi (lit. "ink"; a.k.a. shāī or gāb). This is constructed using multiple layers of a paste made from starch (rice or wheat) mixed with a black powder of various origins. The precise construction and shaping of this area is responsible for modification of the drum's natural overtones, resulting in the clarity of pitch (see inharmonicity) and variety of tonal possibilities unique to this instrument which has a bell-like sound. The skill required for the proper construction of this area is highly refined and is the main differentiating factor in the quality of a particular instrument.

For stability while playing, each drum is positioned on a toroidal bundle called chutta or guddi, consisting of plant fiber or another malleable material wrapped in cloth.

Musical notation

Indian music is traditionally practice-oriented and until the 20th century did not employ written notations as the primary media of instruction, understanding, or transmission. The rules of Indian music and compositions themselves are taught from a guru to a shishya, in person. Thus oral notation, such as the tabla stroke names, is very developed and exact. However, written notation is regarded as a matter of taste and is not standardized. Thus there is no universal system of written notation for the rest of the world to study Indian music.

Maula Bakhsh (born as Chole Khan in 1833) was an Indian musician, singer and poet. His grandfather was Inayat Khan, founder of Universal Sufism. He developed the "first system of notation for Indian music". He also founded the "first Academy of Music in India" in 1886, based in Baroda that encompassed both Eastern and Western musical cultural traditions. [33]

Basic strokes

Ustad Zakir Hussain performing at Konark, Odisha Ustad Zakir Hussain 2.jpg
Ustad Zakir Hussain performing at Konark, Odisha

Some basic strokes with the dayan on the right side and the bayan on the left side are:

Tabla Taals

Newly made tabla with hammer Prop. Tabla.jpg
Newly made tabla with hammer

Some taals, for example Dhamaar, Ek, Jhoomra and Chau tals, lend themselves better to slow and medium tempos. Others flourish at faster speeds, pratham bhagati like Jhap or Rupak talas. Trital or Teental is one of the most popular, since it is as aesthetic at slower tempos as it is at faster speeds.

There are many taals in Hindustani music. Some of the more popular ones are:

Tintal (or Trital or Teental)164+4+4+4X 2 0 3
Jhoomra 143+4+3+4X 2 0 3
Tilwada 164+4+4+4x 2 0 3
Dhamar 145+2+3+4X 2 0 3
Ektal and Chautal122+2+2+2+2+2X 0 2 0 3 4
Jhaptal 102+3+2+3X 2 0 3
Keherwa 84+4X 0
Rupak (Mughlai/Roopak)73+2+20 X 2
Dadra 63+3X 0

Rare Hindustani taals

Adachoutal142+2+2+2+2+2+2X 2 0 3 0 4 0
Brahmtal282+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2X 0 2 3 0 4 5 6 0 7 8 9 10 0
Dipchandi143+4+3+4X 2 0 3
Shikar176+6+2+3X 0 3 4
Sultal102+2+2+2+2x 0 2 3 0
teevra73+2+2x 2 3
Ussole e Fakhta51+1+1+1+1x 3
Farodast143+4+3+4X 2 0 3
Pancham Savari153+4+4+4x 2 0 3
Gaj jhampa155+5+5x 2 0 3

See also


  1. In other languages: Bengali: তবলা, Dari: طبلا, Gujarati: તબલા, Hindi: तबला, Kannada: ತಬಲಾ, Malayalam: തബല, Marathi: तबला, Nepali: तबला, Odia: ତବଲା, Pashto: طبله, Punjabi: ਤਬਲਾ, Tamil: தபலா, Telugu: తబలా, Urdu: طبلہ

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Further reading