India ATLAS of Plucked Instruments

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Here we find the interesting instruments of India. Also included are a few typical instruments from Bangladesh. For Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan see page Central Asia.

Not all plucked instruments from the Indian Sub-continent are wellknown in the west : just the sitar and the sarod can be heard quite often - the others only occasionally enter our music stages.

One of the main remarkable features of Indian instruments is the addition of a number of thin extra (resonance or sympathetic) strings. They are not plucked themselves, but start to vibrate when the main strings are plucked. Usually they are tuned to all the different notes that are used in a particular piece (raga). This gives quite an enhancement of the sound - like a vague echo. Drone strings are also used, like they are on many long-neck lutes of Central Asia.

Another interesting thing is that some Indian instruments are played like a lapsteelguitar; just recently this playing style has been transferred to a modified western guitar (see mohan veena).

Note that Indian instruments are LARGE !

Most of the instruments mentioned here can also be found in Pakistan and among the Indian populations of South East Asia.

For lots of information about Indian instruments see Chandrakantha.


top North India
example : bought in Amersfoort NL 1983
L=1100 B=300 H=210mm
scale 785mm

The example instrument is a 3/4 size sitar
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The sitar is India's most famous instrument (mainly thanks to Ravi Shankar) and used in Hindustani music. It is made in different sizes.

The body of the sitar is made from a large gourd, with a front of hard wood. The neck is also made of hardwood and hollowed out. It is covered with a fingerboard, which is slightly concave. The neck extents into the tuninghead. The frets are made of half round metal hoops, which are tied to the neck with nylon string, and can be moved. The second gourd on the top is mainly for decoration and is often absent. The edges of the neck, body and tuning head are inlayed with bone, often with red and white etching. The back of the body has some woodcarving.

All strings are of metal. There are 7 main strings, 3 of which are fingered; the others serve as drones. The two lowest ones are the high chikari strings, which are played separately for rhythmic effects. Usually there are two big round friction tuning pegs on the front, and 3 on the left side of the tuning head, while the two pegs for the chikari strings are of similar size, but on the left side of the neck and run over separate stick bridges half way the neck.
Underneath the chikari pegs are 12 smaller pegs for the resonance strings, which run through small holes in the neck over a tiny bone individual nut bridge. All 7 main strings run over a flat bridge, and all resonance strings run over a smaller, lower bridge underneath the main strings. Both bridges are slightly rounded, giving the strings a buzzing sound.

Playing the sitar is with a wire finger-plectrum (mizrab), so you can pick up and down. The strings are all on the left side of the neck, so you have space to pull the strings (mainly only the first one) upwards to 4 notes. Music was not written down, but learned by the pupil from the masterplayer. Classical Indian music is very old and a whole repertoire of raga's exist.

left :
the mizrab

right :
the bridges

example : bought from bookshop in Den Haag, 1993
L=1150 B=300 H=165mm
scale 640mm
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The sarod is one of the leading Hindustani instrument of today. It is a descendant from the wooden rabab (see seni rabab here under). A well known sarod player is Ali Akhbar Khan.

The body and neck is made from one piece of hardwood, hollowed out (it is more rounded and less deep than the afghan rabab). The bottom half is covered with (glued) skin and the top half (with the neck) is covered with a (screwed on) shiny metal plate. Between neck and body are hollow ridges on both sides. The pegbox is a solid piece of wood, joined to the neck and curves slightly to the back. On the back of the neck is a metal gourd-shaped resonator. All wood is painted dark brown.

There are 23 metal strings, divided in 4 main strings, running from 4 big round friction tuning pegs on the left of the pegbox, over the main nut to the right side of the single main bridge on the skin. Then 4 thin strings running from the 4 pegs on the left side of the pegbox, over a flat separate nut, to the left side of the bridge, where they go through separate individual holes. The shikari strings (used for rhythmic effect) run from 2 pegs on the top of the neck, via a special nut half way the neck to the top of the bridge, on the left side. On the left side of the body are 13 smaller pegs (in 2 rows) from where the resonance strings run via small holes in the fretboard, to the lowest level of holes at the left side of the bridge. All strings are fixed to 8 steel pins at the edge of the body.

Playing the sarod is done with a special thick plectrum made of coconut. The music is similar to the music played on the sitar, with ragas which are handed down from master player to the pupil. The left hand fingers the string with the edge of the nail (of the first two fingers). Often players glue artificial nails to their own nails.

Looking down on the bridge of the sarod, with on the top left the 4 main strings, at the top right the two shikari strings, right middle the 4 drone strings, and the 13 resonance strings on the bottom row. Notice the crossing of the strings (also vertical).
seni rabab
example :
bought via eBay from BuyRaagini, India 2012
L=1040 B=260 H=220mm
scale 625mm
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seni rabab

The Afghan rabab (see : Central Asia) used to have an Indian relative, called the seni rabab. It differed from the Afghan rabab by having only 6 main (thick gut) strings and no frets. The seni rabab fell in disuse since the first half of the 20th century, and was still only played by the Sikhs to accompany their songs.
Nowadays there is a slow revival of the instrument, although with some influence from other Indian instruments, by adding resonance and drone strings, and decreasing the number of main strings from 6 to 5 or 4. Other names are Indian rabab, Sikh rabab, Hindustani rabab, Punjabi rabab, etc.

The body and neck is made from one piece of hardwood, hollowed out (the body is round with grooves). The bottom half is covered with (glued) skin and the top half (with the neck) is covered with a thin piece of wood. Between neck and body is a thick rim. The neck is fretless. The pegbox is part of the neck and runs straight on, with on the back a round pole as rest and a wheel as decoration. All wood is painted dark brown.
The main strings are thick gut, and run from 5 or 4 big round friction tuning pegs on both sides of the open pegbox, over the main bone bridge on the skin to a metal stringholder at the edge of the body.
The drone string (if present) runs from a big friction peg on the left side of the body over a (fish shaped) nut through the left side of a row of small holes at a layer in the middle of the bridge, to a fixing pin at the end of the body.
The resonance strings (if present) run from the pegs at the side of the neck through small circular bone nuts and then also through the small holes in the middle of the bridge to the same fixing pole at the end of the body.

Playing the seni rabab is done with a thick plectrum.

For more information see : Chandrakantha.

example :
picture from eBay /
L=00 B=00 H=00mm; scale 00mm
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The surbahar is the bass sitar. It was developed in the 18th century to play the classical dhrupad music style on a sitar-like instrument. Later the sitar itself was modernized halfway the 20th century to its modern shape.

The main difference between a surbahar and a sitar is (besides being a larger instrument, with thicker strings) the peghead, which has a carving of a snake or a bird. Also the back of the body may be flatter.

rudra veena
example :
picture from
L=0 B=00 H=0mm
scale 00mm
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Asad Ali Khan
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Bahauddin Dagar
rudra veena

The rudra veena [also bin, been, vina] is an old North Indian instrument used in Hindustani music, and similar to the vichitra veena . It is rarely used anymore. One modern player is Bahauddin Dagar (large veena).

The rudra veena is basically a rounded teak wood body/neck/ fingerboard, fixed on two large gourds and on both ends a woodcarving of a peacock. Twenty-two straight wooden frets are fixed to the fingerboard with wax, or tied around the neck. All strings run from 8 friction pegs on the tuning head - 4 on each side.

There are 8 strings - 4 main strings, 3 drone strings on the right (the side of the player) and one drone on the left. It has no resonance strings, and there are 3 separate bridges.

The veena is played sitting down with one gourd over the shoulder, or resting on the left knee. The right hand picks (often with 2 wire plectrums worn on index and middle finger), while the drone strings are played with the nail of the little finger. The left hand fingering is quite difficult as you have to grip the strings from underneath the horizontal neck. The hand also touches (blocks) the drone string on the side.

vichitra veena
example :
picture from eBay/
L=0 B=0 H=0mm
scale 0mm
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vichitra veena

The vichitra veena is a North Indian instrument used in Hindustani music and looks quite similar to the rudra veena. The difference is that the vichitra veena has no frets - it is played with a "steel", like the gottu vadyam in Carnactic music. It is rarely played anymore.

The body is made from teakwood, more wider than the round shape of the rudra veena, and with a small body. Also both ends have a wood carving (often of a bird). Besides the 7 main strings, there are about 12 resonance strings, with the pegs on the side of the neck (facing the player).

It is played sitting down with the instrument horizontally in front of the player. The right hand picks with a wire plectrum, while the left hand "frets" with some piece of rounded glass. This way of playing (like lapsteel) makes it difficult to play fast passages accurately.

from the LP Nectar of the Moon, by Dr. Lalmani Misra
example : bought from Tablaman UK, 2008
L=440 B=90 H=60mm
scale 305mm
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This simple and small folk instrument tumbi is used In North India, in the Punjab. It is sometimes called ektara (''one string"); a similar instrument with 2 strings is called dotara.

The tumbi (also spelled toombi) is made from a small piece of round hard wood, hollowed out, and covered with a thin animal skin; usually glued around the edge, but sometimes also nails are used.

The neck is a simple rounded stick, that goes all the way through the body. One metal string is fastened to a rather large tuning peg (from the front) in the neck extension that serves as tuning head. The peg serves as nut. The string runs over a rather large loose bridge on the centre of the skin, to the end of the stick, which sticks out of the wooden body.
Some instruments are decorated with paintings, or with bits of metal stuck on, or made with different woods.

The tumbi is played by holding it almost horizontally and strumming the string gently with the forefinger of the right hand. With the left hand a few notes can be played.
It is nowadays very popular in Western Bhangra Music.

picture from Hinduonnet
top South India
example :
bought via eBay from Marvelmusicmaker, India 2011
L=1350 B=400 H=350mm
scale 840mm
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(saraswati) veena

The veena (or been or bin or tanjore veena or tanjauri veena or saraswati veena) is an old South Indian instrument for playing Carnatic music; it is still very popular - so nowadays even fiberglass bodies are made.

The body of the veena is not made of a gourd (like most of the North Indian instruments), but carved from a solid piece of Jack wood, in quite a round body shape. The better quality ones have the entire instrument (body plus neck) carved from one piece. The neck is hollow, with on top a U-shaped box. On the edges of that box are about 24 round brass frets glued with black wax. The body has usually two round soundholes on the front. The top resonator has no musical function, and can be made from brass, plastic or papermaché and is often decorated.
The pegbox ends in a backwards curve, with a carved (and often colourfull painted) down-looking head of a dragon. The long round tuning pegs are two on both sides of the head, and three similar ones for the drone strings on the left side of the neck (players side). The veena has no resonance strings.

The 4 main strings run over the top of the main (brass) bridge, and are fixed via some screwing device to the edge of the body.
The drone strings run over a small metal stick on the side as "nut", to a rounded brass bridge at the side of the main bridge, to similar fixing devices.

The veena is played horizontally, while sitting down. The right hand picks with 2 wire plectrums worn on index and middle finger. The drone strings are struck with the little finger.
The left hand fingering is quite difficult as the strings are the wrong way around : you have to grip the strings from underneath the horizontal neck over the bass strings to the main string.

(picture from

For more information on how they are made see swansong.
gottu vadyam
example :
picture from website
L=0 B=00 H=00mm
scale 000mm
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gottu vadyam

The gottu vadyam (or gottuvadyam or gottuvadhyam) is a popular instrument in South India, for playing Carnatic music. It is also called chitravina. It is in fact a fretless veena.

In general the instrument looks very much like the veena, except that there are no frets and that it has resonance strings (as the only instrument in South India), which are fixed to tuning pegs at the side of the hollow neck.

The gottu vadyam is played like the vichitra veena : laying horizontal in front of the player, with in the left hand a piece of hard wood or round glass object as "steel". It is difficult to play accurate in fast passages.

(picture from website
top all India
example : from Indian shop in Utrecht NL, 1995
L=910 B=290 H=80mm
scale 600mm
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The Indian tampura is in fact not a plucked stringed instrument in the sense of this website, as the (3, 4 or 5 ) strings are only played open, as drones. However it would be a pity not to include it here.

There are several types - the large male and the smaller female tampura, while there is a third smaller one - the travelling tampura. (see the example)

The tampura is made quite similar to the sitar : the body from a large gourd, with a wooden top. The neck is made of hardwood, and hollow. There are 4 metal strings, fixed to 4 tuning pegs : two on the front and one on each side of the pegbox. The bridge is wide and rounded to give a buzzing sound to the strings. There is quite a lot of woodcarving on the body, and lots of inlay with red and white drawings all over the instrument.

The body of the small travelling tampura is made from wood, and is rather flat on the back.

Playing is done sitting down on the ground, and holding the tampura straight up with the left hand. The right hand plucks the strings one by one in a slow tempo, to give a continues drone for the main (solo) instrument.

Here are two full size tampuras :

the male tampura
1500 x 400mm

the female tampura 1350 x 350mm

Both pictures from website

mohan veena
example :
bought via internet from Gibtone, Kolkatta, India 2004
L=1050 B=430 H=110mm
scale 660mm
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Vishwa Mohan Bhatt
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Debashish Bhattacharya

mohan veena / indian slide guitar

Some Indian players have picked up the western jazz guitar and transformed it into a real Indian-style instrument, playing it like a lapsteel. One of the main players (and inventors) is Mr. Vishwa Mohan Bhatth, whose name is often used for this type of guitar - the mohan veena. Another renewer/player is Debashish Bhattacharya. Both play classical Indian music and manage to play the raga's extremely fast, but very accurate. Another name is Jaywant Guitar.

The type of guitar that is used for the mohan veena is usually a modern large jazz guitar with f-holes. There are 8 strings on the tuning head, and at the side (on a plank fixed to the side of the neck) are about 12 extra tuning machines for the resonance strings. Usually only 3 main strings are played with the steel, the rest are drones.

Some players put the shikari strings (the high strings used for rhythmic effect) on the right side of the main strings. On some instruments the resonance strings are underneath the main strings, on others they are at the left side; they always have a flat, rounded bridge of their own.




Mr Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, taken during concert in Holland 2011.

The instrument is not (yet) very popular - I was told that only about 1% of the total output of guitars from the Gibtone guitar factory is a mohan veena - it is still only made on special order.
bulbul tarang example : from souvenirshop in Utrecht, NL
L=595 B=125 H=85mm; scale 500mm
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This instrument is also found (and made) in Nepal, China and South East Asia, and may have fancy names like "Japan Benjo", "Germany Banjo", etc. In Germany a similar instrument is called Akkordolia (see page Miscellaneous).

It is also very popular in Baluchistan (South Pakistan - see page Central Asia), where it is larger and called "benju", and often played together with the suroz (fiddle).

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In Japan it is quite populair under the name taishogoto
(see page Far East).

bulbul tarang

This nice small music box is like a combination of a typewriter, a mandolin and a dulcimer.

Some 5 metal strings (usually all tuned the same) run over a square wooden box. They can be tuned on the left side with tuners (in this case with a tuning-key). At the right the strings can be strummed with with a plectrum.

The keys (usually keys from an old typewriter) press their arm onto the strings like it is a fret, shortening the strings to the appropriate note. The keys have the names of 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. (like our do, re mi) according to the tonic.

For more information about the bulbul tarang, see chandrakantha.

example :
bought via friend Khlur Mukhim from Shillong, NE-India 2018
L=900 B=140 H=80mm
scale 530mm
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The Khasi tribe (living in and near Shillong in Meghalaya, northeast India) uses a folk instrument called duitara. Note that in Bangladesh exists a different plucked instrument called dotara - used by the Baul people (see under).

The body, neck and peghead of a duitara are carved from one piece of wood. The hollowed out body (a bit resembling an upside down toadstool) is covered with a thick skin, glued and nailed to the sides. Some makers give the body sharp corners, others make it more rounded.

The fretless neck can be either with a fingerboard that overhangs the front skin, on others the neck is flush with the front.
The pegbox usually is quite a solid square, and often has some simple woodcarved decoration on the top.

The strings run through holes behind the nut to the open back of the pegbox, to four stick-like friction pegs, two on each side.

The 4 yellow rope strings run over a loose wooden bridge to a (metal) stringholder at the end of the body. On some instruments the 4 strings are separate, on others the two middle strings are as one pair. Tuning could be : A dd a.
A wooden plectrum is fixed with a rope to the bridge, which is fixed with a rope to the stringholder.

The duitara is played with a plectrum, to accompany singing in a style that resembles the Tibetan dramyen.

top Bangladesh
example : bought in Amersfoort NL, 1994
L=770 B=145 H=100mm
scale 420mm
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tonkari from Assam

This small folk instrument dotara is used by the Baul people in Bangladesh. In Assam (India) a similar instrument exists and is called tokari.
Note that in Northeast India an instrument is called duitara and used by the Khasi (see above).

The body, neck and peghead of a dotara are carved from one piece of wood. The hollowed out body is covered with a thick skin. Sometimes the body looks a bit like an Indian sarod, with grooves on both sides. The neck is covered with a fingerboard of very flat and slippery material, like formica, metal or plastic. There are no frets. The pegbox often ends in a woodcarving, usually the figure of a bird.

The 4 or 5 (metal) strings run to friction pegs on the open pegbox, 2 on the right and 2 or 3 on the left side. They go over a loose wooden bridge to pins at the end of the body. Some dotaras have a few resonance strings on the left side of the neck.

Tuning could be something like g c' g' g' c".

It is played with a plectrum.

example : bought from souvenirshop Utrecht NL
scale 300mm
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This is in fact a rhythm instrument, but I have decided to include it here anyway, as the tone can be slightly altered. It is sometiomes also called ektara ("one string"), although that name is also used for the tumbi of the Punjab (see above).

The gopichand is made from a coconut shell, with attached to it a "split" piece of wood, with two "arms". The top and bottom of the coconut shell are cut off, the top side is left open and the bottom side is covered with a thin skin. A thin metal string is fastened through the centre of the skin, which can be tuned with a friction peg on the end of the (split) piece of wood.

By strumming the string with a finger, a bright twanging sound can be produced, the volume increased by the skin. By pushing the two arms together the pitch of the tone can be changed. However it is not the intention to play a melody on this instrument - it is solely to provide rhythm.

This instrument is nowadays also made in Indonesia, in a stylish Asian design and sold via eBay as Timor guitar, or as Borneo Zicadrum.
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