Bhumi Dundhubi: Drums in Rig Veda and Sangam Tamil Poems

modi in Japan
Prime Minister Modi in Japan with Japanese PM.

Research paper written by London Swaminathan
Research article No.1385; Dated 2nd November 2014.

Very interesting information about musical instruments is available in the Rig Veda, oldest book in the world. Sangam Tamil literature which came 1700 years after the Rig Veda, adds more interesting details about Drums!

Bhagavad Gita begins (1—12 to 19) with musical instruments that were used on the battle ground! “Conches, kettledrums, tabors, drums and trumpets blared forth and the noise was tumultuous. And the terrible sound, echoing through heaven and earth rent the hearts of Dhrtarashtra’s sons”. When we read this description we can imagine the noise it created in the battle field.

(English word tumultuous is derived from the Sanskrit word Dumula)

The use of drums in the war started in the days of the Rig Veda and continued through the Sangam period. Sangam Tamil poems were composed in the first three centuries of modern era. The most interesting information comes from the Rig Veda about Bhumi Dundubhi! It means Earth Drum.

Temple Drum in Jaffna in Sri Lanka

Dundubhi is an onomatopoetic word : Dum Dum = dum dum dhubi= drum. (The English word drum must have come from this). It is mentioned in RV 1-28-5; 6-47-29; 6-47-31. Atharva Veda and other Vedic literature repeat it many times. A special sort of drum was the earth drum, made by digging a hole on the ground and covering it with a hide. This was employed in the Mahavrata, a rite performed at the winter solstice, for the purpose of driving away the influences hostile to the return of the sun; bhumi dundubhi is mentioned in the Samhitas and Brahmanas. Taitriya Samhita vii.5-9-3 and other books refers to it. Though drums are found in all ancient civilizations from Egypt to Peru, no where we come across earth drums. Other references in the Rig-Veda are about war drums.

( From Vedic Index by Keith and Macdonell)

Drums in Kollam, Kerala

Rig Vedic Word Adambara in Tamil!

Another interesting word is Adambara. Even modern day Tamils use this word for pomp and ostentation. Not many people know that it came from the Rig Veda. Tamils say that they celebrated the marriage with Adambara. Actually it was the drum used in such ceremonies. It occurs in Vajasaneyi samhita 30—19
Lambara and Vanaspati are other drums mentioned in the Vedic literature. Of all the Hindu gods, Shiva was the one who is associated with drums like Damaruka. Tamil and Sanskrit language came from this Damaruka sound according to Panini and Tamil poet Paranjothi. The basic 14 sounds of Sanskrit language called Maheswarani Sutrani came from Shiva’s drum.

The English word tomtom also came from India. In India, kings’ and governments’ announcements came through tom toming. I myself have seen it in Madurai during my childhood days. When there is a breakout of infectious disease or 144 ban they announced it by tomtoming! We, children used to stand round the drumme,r and look at him curiously!

chenda vadhya
Chenda Vadhya in Kerala

Vedic Orchestra

During Mahavrata festival, grand music festival was organised. Agnihotram Ramanujachariar gives the following information:

“We have concrete information from the Vedas of prevalence of the orchestral music. A grand music festival with different instruments is associated with the Mahavrata Yaga. In this yaga (fire ceremony) the Udgata is seated in a chair, the Hotha in a swing and the Adhwaryu on a plank. Hotha prays to god while swinging. The wives of the performers of the Yaga sing along with the Udgata with a variety of instruments. The following instruments are mentioned in this connection:

A Vana with 100 Strings ( my comment: Vana might have given the Tamil word Pana- singer; Yaz Pana; P=V=M are interchangeable)

Naady (pipe), Thunava (wooden lute), Shanka (conch)
Kanda Veena, Godha Veenaka ( a small veena covered with the skin of godha)
Agati (cymbals), Pichchola, Apa Ghatalathika, Karkarika
Ghata karkarika, Shambala veena Ghatari with vandanam (plectrum)
Thaluka Veena, Alabu, Kapisharsaki etc.

At the same time women standing in a circle with water pots on their heads singing rhythmically, keeping time with their feet. This is like modern Tamil Karakam dance”
(From “The Hindu Speaks on Music”)

garo tribals of meghalaya
Garo Tribes of Meghalaya, India

Interesting Information on Ancient Tamil Drums

Sangam Tamil literature has hundreds of words about drums (Murasu, Parai, Kinai and Panai). A lot of percussion instruments are listed in Amarakosa and other Nighandu dictionaries in Sanskrit and Tamil.

1.Tamil forts had drums on the top floor of the forts near the entrance. Kamban in his Tamil Ramayana says that the drums were beaten on top of the gate at Ayodhya. Sangam Tamil literature says that there were three types of drums constantly beaten and they were Kodai, Padai, Mana Murasu meaning Donation, Army and Auspicious messages (Pathitru pathu 2- 4/9). In another place in the same book, they are described as Tyaga, Veera, Nyaya Murasus.

2.Drums were considered dwelling place of deities. They were worshipped with flowers and rice and meat balls (Pathitrupathu 2-17 lines 5 to 8).

3. When the person in charge of worship of drums chanted the Mantras holding the offering in his hands, even the ghosts were trembling. Those meat balls mixed with blood and rice won’t be touched even by the ghosts and ants says Pathiru pathu 3—30/39.

4.Murasu or Drum was considered one of the ten royal symbols. When Saivite saints sang about Shiva as a King they included drum in one stanza. Tamil poet Bharati who composed “Bharat Mata Dasanga”, sang about Drums as one symbol of Bharatmata.

Drums in Japan

4. One of the Sangam poets who came to see a king was dead tired and he slept on the cot meant for placing the drum. It is a crime fit for capital punishments. But the king was sympathetic to the poet and rewarded him amply.

5.War drums will be covered with the hide of a heroic bull. The hide of a bull which killed a tiger will be chosen for this purpose. This is repeated in several places in Sangam literature.

6.Abithana Chinthamani, Tamil encyclopaedia, adds that the drums were decorated with garlands, peacock feathers and Uzinjai flowers and took it in a procession.

chinese drums from incredipedia
Chinese drum from increpedia

Communication through Drums
African countries are for famous for communication through drums. The tribes exchanged information through drum beats. It is like a language understood by the tribal communities. Tamils also followed such a system and the poets were aware of it (Akam.63 and Kuruntokai 390). When the robbers saw a caravan of business people crossing through the forest or arid land they started beating the Thannumai drum and attacked the merchants. Even the sound will shake anyone. So they sent waves of fear by beating the drums – say Tamil poets.

The most popular book of Tamil language Tirukkural which is called Tamil Veda was written by a drummer. The author Tiru Valluvar belonged to Valluvar caste who used to announce the orders of the king by beating the drum from top of an elephant. Though he belonged to Pariah caste he held a high position is the caste. Valluvars used to be priests for the caste. The word Parai means a drum and Pariah means an announcer (by beating the drums).

Hundreds of different percussion instruments are available throughout India.