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Beats and Melodies

Right: Ramesh Pariyar performs on the damaha.


Salle, Dhading Naumati Baja


Panchai/Naumati Baja Instruments

The Panchai Baja (literally "five instruments") is named after its five main instruments: the sahnai (shawm), the damaha (large kettledrum), the tyamko (small kettledrum), the dolakhi (two-headed drum), and the jhyali (cymbals). Damai music scholar Ram Saran Darnal restricts the name "Panchai Baja" to a group using these five instruments only, while others categorize the bands more loosely. The term Naumati Baja (nine instruments) is sometimes used to describe a larger band; Darnal states that the Naumati Baja specifically contains nine instruments: those that comprise the Panchai Baja with an added damaha and sahanai, as well as two narsingha (long, curved horn, popular in central Nepal), or karnal (natural trumpet, popular in western Nepal). In popular speech, the term Panchai Baja is often used for both the five-instrument ensemble and the larger Naumati Baja. Both Darnal and ethnomusicologist Carol Tingey mention nagara orchestras of up to 36 nagara of increasing size, as a popular ensemble in far-western Nepal, and Tingey notes that the term Panchai Baja is sometimes also applied to this ensemble.

Ramesh Pariyar with tyamko

Tyamko The tyamko is a small unpitched kettledrum, made of wood, copper, iron or earthenware in different areas. The shape of its bowl varies considerably throughout the places where it is used, and like the other drums it has a head made of animal hide. It is made in the same fashion as the damaha, but on a smaller scale. When playing the tyamko it is held at waist level by a strap around the neck. In eastern Nepal, the tyamko is very important in the Panchai Baja, and is referred to as "guru". In Gorkha and in Dhading it usually takes a supporting role to the dolakhi, but it is still referred to as the "jetho" (oldest) member of the ensemble.

Tyamko close-up.

Bidul Pariyar performs on the damaha

Subha Pariyar shows his son Manoj and a friend how to tighten the damaha before playing

Damaha The damaha is the kettledrum that gives its name to the Damai caste. It is a large, unpitched kettledrum made of copper with a head of bullock (goru) hide. Damaha are made by coppersmiths blacksmiths of the middle hills. To forge a damaha requires about 4 kilos of raw copper, which is melted and then forged into a bowl shape by two or three smiths working together with heavy hammers. The heads are usually made and attached to the bodies by members of the Badi or Sarki occupational castes of tanners. Tanning the skin for the heads requires soaking it in water with several types of herbs for two to three days, and then curing with herbs, turmeric and oil. As the heads must be wet when played, a small hole is made in the bottom of the copper body to facilitate wetting the inside of the damaha head. A base ring of layers of hide is attached around this hole, and the damaha is inverted onto the head, which is then attached with strips of hide in a straight-lacing or v-lacing pattern. When the head is attached, a shoulder strap is added, and the damaha is complete. The damaha is unique because it is made of copper, a sacred metal, and has a higher ritual significance than the other instruments of the Panchai Baja. For this reason, says Tingey of the damaha making tradition in Gorkha, a puja must be performed for the damaha right when it is made. This puja is required for both kettledrums, the damaha and the nagara, because when lacing the head onto the copper body, the feet are used to support the instrument. Touching the instrument with one's feet is considered an insult to the deity for which the instrument will be played, so a puja must be performed in apology. Tingey suggests that though the dolakhi is also laced using the feet for support, it does not require a puja because it is less ritually significant. The way that the damaha is played varies from region to region. In central Nepal, it is played with one large stick (gajo), though in ritual contexts it is played with two sticks, as a nagara.

In Dhading, Damai musicians refer to the nagara and the damaha as the same instrument, with the only difference being its playing style and context (two sticks and a sacred context makes a damaha into a nagara). In Gorkha and Dhading, damahas are often played in pairs. In western Nepal, where drumming is the most significant part of the Panchai Baja repertoire, there exist orchestras of damaha numbering in the 30s. In this setting, the damaha are played with two angled sticks in a call and response fashion, responding to one single damaha that plays the calls. In eastern Nepal, damaha are larger than their western counterparts and are played singly.

Ram Saran Pariyar performs on the dolakhi

Dolakhi The dolakhi is a medium-sized drum with two unpitched heads, one large and one small. The smaller head is played with the hand, while the larger is often, though not always, played with a stick. As with the sahanai, the dolakhi is made using wood that is available locally. An appropriate length is cut from a tree trunk, and the bark is removed from the outside. Then, the inside is chiseled away, a painstaking task that can take an entire day to complete. After this, a decorative pattern is chiseled into the outside of the drum. The dolakhi heads are made from animal hide, which is usually tanned by members of the Badi occupational caste. Cow or goat skin is preferable to buffalo skin, which is said to be too thick. The heads are then soaked in water and laced on to the body of the dolakhi with strips of hide. According to Tingey, Damai musicians sometimes make their own dolakhi, but most often commission them from specialist drum-makers, who also make other drums such as madal and tyamko. To play the dolakhi, the musician supports it with a shoulder strap so that it hangs at waist level. Different strokes with the stick and with the hand are combined in virtuosic rhythmic patterns. According to Tingey, central Nepal is the center of dolakhi virtuosity, while in other areas, other drums take on greater importance in the Panchai Baja.

Manoj Pariyar performs on the jhyali

Jhyali (Jhyamta) Jhyali are thin-walled, plate-shaped cymbals of varying sizes. They are usually made by Newari coppersmiths, and in Asan (Kathmandu) and Patan, they are made of brass or an alloy called pancha dhatu (five metals): brass, copper, silver, zinc and gold. Jhyali are not clashed directly together but rather played with a stroking motion that keeps the flat sides in contact with each other and produces a more resonating sound.

Subha and Kancha Pariyar perform on sahanai. Below: Subha Pariyar readies the lip plate of his sahanai to attach the reed.

Sahanai The sahanai used in the Damai ensembles is a compound double-reed wind instrument with a curved conical bore. The reed is mounted on a lip disc and attached to the wooden body with a conical brass staple. The wooden body ends in a flared metal bell. Apart from these general characteristics, sahanais vary greatly in form throughout Nepal. 6 to 8 finger holes are the norm, though the 8th is not used in playing the instrument. Some sahanais have a dorsal (thumb) hole, while others do not. The type of wood used to make the sahanai varies according to area; usually the wood of local trees is used. Carol Tingey describes how the sahanai is made by Damai sahanai makers in Gorkha district. There, sahanais are constructed in two halves: first, a solid body is made, and then it is cut in half and most of the bore is hollowed out of each piece. The first 4 cm, near the mouthpiece, is left to hollow out later. The two sides of the sahanai are joined together with a glue made from sugar cane juice, and then bound with rings of braided cane. Then, the holes are burnt into the wood at equally-spaced intervals with a heated poker, which is also used to burn the final, cylindrical part of the instrument's bore. The wooden body of the sahanai is then seasoned by soaking it in water, then in yogurt, for several days. The metal parts are made by blacksmiths from any metal, though brass is often preferred, and are added on to the sahanai after the body's completion.

The reed is made from two layers of palm leaf, folded over a small stick (mandrel) that is used to mount the reed on the staple. Sahanai players must have some skill at making reeds to ensure they have a playable reed ready when needed. Usually, they make several reeds and keep them at the ready by tying them to the staple of the sahanai. The tuning of the sahanai, and thus the fingering required to produce specific pitches, varies from instrument to instrument and from player to player. The sahanai is often played using circular breathing, and notes are articulated with the breath and with the fingers, using techniques such as taps and trills.

Subha Pariyar attaches his sahanai reed.

Ram Bahadur and Bajra Pariyar perform on narsingha

Narsingha The name narsingha means "buffalo horn," but the instrument is much larger than the horn of a buffalo. The narsingha is a long curved natural horn with a conical bore, which varies widely in size, shape and usage in ensembles throughout Nepal. Narsinghas are made by coppersmiths and blacksmiths, in Kathmandu and in the middle hills. They are crafted usually in four sections, but players often have the sections fixed together into two pieces so that the instrument does not fall apart during processionals. Some narsinghas have a pronounced C-shaped curve, while others are put together in the form of an S. Carol Tingey states that the S-shape was the trend in the late 1980s in Gorkha; musicians in Kathmandu and Dhading today seem to prefer the C.The shape of the instrument does not seem to significantly affect the sound, and it is often the case that narsingha players will assemble their unwieldy instrument in whatever way is convenient to the location in which they are playing. In eastern Nepal, narsinghas are shorter and thicker, while in western Nepal, narsinghas are longer and thinner. The mouthpiece is connected to the first joint of the instrument, and is made of two layers of copper. The bore inside the mouthpiece is conical, tapering to a tiny hole in the center. Around the hole is the cup-shaped horn mouthpiece. Carol Tingey found that narsinghas in central Nepal were tuned to an approximate pitch of E flat, with variations of up to a semitone higher. These narsinghas produced their third through ninth harmonics; the fundamental frequency and the first and second harmonics being difficult to produce on the small mouthpiece. Narsingha players use circular breathing, as do sahanai players, and notes are articulated by rapid tonguing techniques. Flutter tonguing is also used on some occasions, as a virtuosic technique. In Naumati Baja processions, the narsinghas are the leading instrument. They usually perform in pairs, alternating fanfares, and the number of narsinghas hired by the patron of the group increases the amount of prestige this person enjoys. Different players and different ensembles develop distinct narsingha calls that are unique to the ensemble and sometimes to the individual. While the general public is not usually aware of these musical identity markers, musicians often pay attention to these narsingha calls and are able to identify a number of bands from their area.

Karnal The karnal is a straight, conical bore natural trumpet that substitutes for the narsingha in some Panchai Bajas, especially those from the area northwest of Pokhara. It is also used in combination with the narsingha, and in Nagara Bana temple music. It is made of copper by blacksmiths of the Kami occupational caste, and is constructed in the same way as the narsingha except that it is straight, in only two sections, and its copper walls are much thicker. Its thicker walls make it more difficult to produce the range of harmonics that is possible on the narsingha, so most of the karnal fanfares are played using the third and fifth harmonics, with occasional use of the second and sixth. The members of the Panchai Baja in Salle, Dhading, say that people in their area used to use karnal several generations ago, but that the instrument has now been completely replaced by the narsingha as its sound was preferable to the karnal.
Nagara Bana Temple Instruments


Nagara The nagara is a large kettledrum very similar to the damaha. Its predecessors were the kettledrums of the Moghul Naqqara Bana, transported to South Asia starting in the 12th century C.E. The nagara is the most sacred of the instruments played by the Damai, and is accorded the greatest respect. At temples that use, or may have once used, a full Nagara Bana, the nagara remains the minimum requirement for sacred music if other instruments are not present. Nagaras are made often of copper, or of the same pancha dhatu (five metals) alloy of which some jhyali are made. They are constructed in the same way as the damaha, but are usually much larger. Their heads are made from buffalo hide, and they are played with two thick sticks. In Carol Tingey's study of the Damai and their music in Gorkha, the nagara are significant in both temple and palace (Gorkha Darbar) rituals throughout the year. The making of the nagara is connected to the ritual sacrifices of Dasain (Durga puja): the largest buffalo sacrificed provides the hide for new nagara heads. Dasain is celebrated to mark the goddess Durga's slaying of a demon who had taken the form of a buffalo; the Damai musicians in Gorkha also attribute the origin of their instruments to the body of a demon slain by the goddess. The tradition of using the sacrificial buffalo to make the nagara heads thus perpetuates the linkage of these two myths. During the sacrifice, the Nagara Bana plays special tunes specific to the occasion. In Jumla, according to Darnal, the nagara is used instead of the damaha in the Panchai Baja. In Dhading, in central Nepal, the damaha and the nagara are considered to be the same except for playing style and context; damahas played with two sticks, and used in a sacred context, are considered nagaras, though they may be used as damahas at other times. In far western Nepal, a common type of ensemble consists of up to 36 nagara ranging from small to very large.


Different types of sahanais.

Rasa Sahanai The rasa sahanai is a regular sahanai, named for the temple ensemble after the rag, rasa, which is specific to the Nagara Bana. The term rag in this sense refers more to a tune or piece, with expected improvisations added, than to a rag in the shastriya classical sense. For more on rags in the Panchai/Naumati Baja, please see the Beats and Melodies page.

Karnal The karnal is also used in temple music, playing fanfares in the same manner as in the Panchai Baja. Tingey noted a great variety of karnals in use in temple ensembles throughout Nepal, some long and straight like the karnals at Gorkha Darbar and some smaller, more closely resembling the Tibetan dungchen. The following instruments are mentioned by Tingey in her study of the instruments in temple ensembles around central Nepal. They are not necessarily regulars in the ensembles.

Dhop Bana The dhop bana is another straight, conical bore natural trumpet that is made from copper in the same manner as the karnal, but is significantly larger.
Kahal The kahal is a straight, conical-bore natural horn made in one piece. Unlike the karnal and dhop bana, it does not have a bell at the end. Its sizes and decorations vary widely throughout Nepal.

Nag-beli baja (bijuli bana) The nag-beli baja (snake instrument), also known as bijuli bana (lightning instrument), is most likely so called because of its double S-curve that resembles a snake or, with imagination, a bolt of lightning. It is a cylindrical-bore natural trumpet with a detachable mouthpiece. It is used to play fanfares, like the other trumpets used in temple ensembles.
Bheri The beri is a cylindrical-bore natural trumpet with a detachable mouthpiece, resembling a Western natural trumpet. It is also known as the Bhairavi baja, according to Tingey, because it is said to call "Bhairavi, Bhairavi."
Hudke Dance: Far Western Nepal

A hudke of Karnali zone poses in costume with hudko.

Hudko The hudko is an hourglass-shaped drum whose pitch can be adjusted while playing, as the player tightens or loosens his grip on the lacing connecting the two drum heads. The lacing is straight, and the drum heads are of equal sizes. The hudko is played with the hand, and is most often used in the performance of the hudke dance-a spectacle in which the major performer, called the hudke, dances and accompanies himself on the hudko while singing epic ballads (ghata) of regional and Puranic heroes. It is common throughout far western Nepal and in the Kumaon and Garwhal regions of India, directly across the international border.

Voice Integral to the performance of the hudke dance is the voice, an instrument in its own right. The hudko player must also be a masterful singer, actor and dancer, narrating stories in song while drumming and dancing. In addition to the hudke, two or more singers will add their voices to the song.

Kaijadi The Kaijadi frame drum is sometimes used to accompany the hudke dance. Its head is usually made of goat's hide and its frame out of a hard wood. It is held by the frame in one hand, and played with the other hand.

For more about the hudke dance, please visit the Beats and Melodies page.

Band Baja

The Everest Band Baja leads a wedding procession along the main street in Saugal, Patan.

The Panchai Baja is sometimes augmented by, or replaced by, the Band Baja which uses Western band instruments. The Band Baja is different from the Panchai Baja in that it is not necessarily a uniquely Damai ensemble; in addition to its roots in Western military bands, it is also played by members of other castes. However, the Damai who play in Band Bajas do often see this practice as characteristic of, and special to, their caste. Like the Panchai Baja, the Band Baja serves as a processional band at weddings and other special occasions, and also plays versions of popular songs. The following instruments are common in the Band Baja:

Clarinet, Trumpet, Euphonium, Snare drum (tamar), Tenor frame drum, Bass Drum (dhol), Maracas (rama, jhunjhuna).

These instruments can be seen in the photo below, with the euphoniums leading the way, followed by trumpets, then a maracas player, a tenor drum and snare drum visible on the far side, and a bass drum on the near side of the photo. Between the tenor drum and the bass drum, in black with his back turned, is the clarinetist--the master, or leader of the band.

Photos: Dhading: Rashil Palanchoke. Instruments alone: Spiny Babbler archives. Hudke: Ram Saran Darnal. Band Baja: Anna Stirr.


Pariyar, Subha and the Salle, Dhading Panchai Baja. Personal Communication, June 2005.

Pariyar, Sukha Bhagat. Personal communication, July 2005.

Tingey, Carol. Heartbeat of Nepal: The Panchai Baja. Royal Nepal Academy, 1989.

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