Indian Instruments

Indian Instruments : Nadaswaram

3 Comments 22 November 2011

Indian Instruments : Nadaswaram

The next in the series of Indian Instruments after the Indian Flute that we will see is the Nadaswaram[1] or Nagaswaram.

The Name: Nadaswaram or Nagaswaram?

Firstly the name of the instrument. This instrument has been called by different names which includes popularly Nadaswaram, Nagaswaram, Nayanam, Nagachinnam. The fact that this instrument resembles a snake in its look probably was the reason it was named as Nagaswaram or Nagachinnam. In Tamil, Naagam(நாகம்) means serpent or snake. In Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s Kriti, tyāgarāja mahadhvajārōha[2] about Lord Siva, Dikshitar mentions in the anupallavi or the second stanza of the song, ….nāga svara maddaḷādi vādyaṃ[2] ….to Lord Siva as the One who is accompanied by the music of Nagaswara and Maddala.

In carnatic classical music, the word Nada is of significance. It literally is supposed to refer to music or sound pleasing to one’s ear. Nada also considered as the path to mukti or salvation. In his kriti Nadatanumanisam, Sri Thyagaraja swamy pays obeisance to the Lord as the embodiment of Nada. In this line of thought, the name Nadaswaram also seems to suit perfectly because of the auspiciousness of this instrument about which we will see next. But in this page, we will call it uniformly as Nadaswaram.

The Importance of Nadaswaram

Nadaswaram is one of the most auspicious instrument in South India. Traditionally this instrument is played in temples and during marriages. The various rituals and ceremonies in the temples and marriages are accompanied with the music being performed on this instrument. In fact, one can easily (well atleast in those days it seems :-P) identify the ritual taking place just by hearing the song/raga being played on the Nadaswaram. Its popularity in temples and ceremonies is credited to its naturally big sound that it produces which is easily heard in the immediate vicinity of a temple or a marriage which helped the people to know what was happening.

In temples, for all the rituals, starting from the morning Thirupalliyezuhichi (Thiru – God, Palli – lying down, sleeping; Yezuchi – to awaken)(திருப்பள்ளியெழுச்சி) which is the ritual of waking up the Lord to the Ardhajaama pooja and Palliarai pooja which are rituals to let the Lord go to sleep, the Nadaswaram finds a part to play too. There are ragas specifically played during the different times of the day for the different rituals that take place (much like the hindustani music where ragas are sometimes classified on the basis of the time of the day when they are played or sung).

The Nadaswaram is considered to be a Rajavadyam (Raja-royal Vadya-instrument) and the instrument’s different parts are supposed to represent different forms of God about which we will see next.

The structure and make of the Nadaswaram

The Indian Instrument Nadaswaram is being made, the picture shows a maker drilling holes

Making of Nadaswaram

The instrument is traditionally made out of the wood of a tree called Aacha although nowadays bamboo, sandalwood,copper brass and ivory are also used. It is considered that the older the wood that is used for making, the better the sound and longevity of the Nadaswaram. In fact, wood from the beams of old houses that were being torn down were used a lot to make the instrument.

The Nadaswaram consists of different parts which represent different forms of God. The bottom part which is called Keezhu Anaichu,is circular and represents Suryadeva or the Sun. The instrument has a long tube like fitting with seven finger holes. These represent the seven mothers[3] of Hindu mythology. The body in itself is supposed to represent Lord Brahma (The creator in Hindu Mythology) while the bore-hole represents Lord Vishnu while the music is the Nada which is embodied by Lord Shiva. The top portion is called the Mel Anaichu (literally Mel in tamil means top and Keezh means bottom and Anaichu is fitting), is where the seevali is fitted. The seevali is the blow piece which is made of dried leaves of plant (Korukku thattai not very sure about this name though) which are generally obtained near river banks.

Playing the Nadaswaram

When learning this instrument like any other instrument, the emphasis is to play songs or ragas to emulate singing. Hence there are various techniques while playing the Nadaswara which include ‘thu-thu karam’, ‘thanna karam’, ‘hum-karam’ akaaram’. This classification is based on the sound that the instrument produces. Generally when lyrics are played, the gradient of the words used in the song is emulated by a combination of the aforementioned techniques so that one can make out the lyrics of the song(if the lyrics are already known to the listener) while listening to the instrument. A similar technique used in carnatic flute also.

A picture of Sri Thiruvengadu Subramaniya Pillai playing the Nadaswaram

Sri Thiruvengadu Subramaniya Pillai, a Stalwart of yesteryear

As mentioned earlier, there are 7 playing holes. The fingering is similar to the flute but the semitones unlike the flute which has the half-fingering (where part of the hole is covered to produce a semitone), are played with breath control. This means that the artist playing the instrument needs excellent breath control to traverse through the notes carefully and correctly.

The toughness of Nadaswaram playing, as a flutist myself, I can understand to some extent. In flute, the volume and force of air required to produce sound is less compared to the Nadaswaram. Also, add on to this the complexity of breath control for producing semitones, it becomes fairly amazing for me to imagine the difficulty of this instrument. And when one has to play a raga like Todi (in this page its structure is mentioned towards the end), whoa!! that will be some work!!! All said and done, the famous stalwart of Nadaswaram, Sri TN Rajarathnam Pillai said in an interview that if one practiced daily, one could play even when 80 years old!! 😀

Fast swara rolls (known as Brigas) and viraladi (viral = fingers, adi = tap) are characteristic features of Nadaswaram playing. As it has a lot to do with breath control, most gamakas(oscillations of swaras in their vicinity and transitional stages between two or more swaras) can be played on the Nadaswaram.

Rakthi ragas are those ragas which are supposed to have very high melodic content. Although the definition and classification of Rakthi ragas has always been a point of contention, Nadaswaram has a special niche for playing such ragas and such playing is also classified as rakthi melam. In such a playing, the raga exposition is prolonged and intense and would also include exercises in various rhythm structures. Such playing has been on the wane today as it demands prolonged and continuous play for which no one seems to have the time!! 😛

Types of Nadaswaram and some Sound samples and clips

In olden days, the Nadaswaram was played at a higher pitch compared to what is being played these days. The standard pitch used these days range from 2-1/2 to 4-1/2 which is from D# to F#. Earlier it used to be in the range of 5-1/2 to 7 (G# to B). The high pitch variety are smaller in length and are called Timri Nadaswaram, while the lower pitch version is called Bari Nadaswaram.

The Timri Nadaswaram sounds like this

Timri Nadaswaram

while the Bari sounds like this.

Bari Nadaswaram

The Nadaswaram is given a percussive accompaniment by an instrument called Tavil. It is a two sided drum with one side played with one hand while the other side is with a stick. In the above sound samples one can hear the tavil accompanying the Nadaswaram.

Mallari is a unique rhythm based composition that is played by the Nadaswaram along with the tavil. It is generally played during the procession of the deity during temple festivals. It is based on the sounds that emanate when Lord shiva performs his celestial dance called the siva tandava. Generally it is played in the raga Gambheeranaatai (S G3 M1 P N3 S’….S’ N3 P M1 G3 S). There are different kinds of Mallari. Though the one played during the procession is the main, others are played during other temple rituals too.

Stalwarts of Nadaswaram

The exponents of this instrument include Thiruvengadu Subramania Pillai, TN Rajarathinam Pillai, Thiruvuzhimizhalai Subramanya Pillai, Karaikurichi Arunachalam among other stalwarts.

To conclude, here is one of my favorite recording of the Sahana raga kriti Evasudha of Sri Thyagaraja, played by Sri Karaikurichi Arunachalam.
ee vasudha



1. The Nadaswaram is extremely popular in folk and cine music. Most of Ilayaraja’s songs based on village themes have this instrument playing an important part. Many films in tamil have also been based on this instrument with the most famous being Thillana Mohanaambal starring Late Sivaji Ganesan.

2. It is similar to the North Indian Instrument, the Shehnai, which is smaller in size, has more holes but is also played during auspicious functions and festivities.

3. For Laughs Mouli in the Famous tamil drama Flight 172 explaining Nadaswaram in English!!! 😀


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Your Comments

3 Comments so far

  1. Rekha says:

    Reg.Seeveili or the reed. About 50 years back
    a famous Nagaswaram Vidwan told me as a child when enquired that the reed used in Nagaswaram is prepared from the treated leaves of THAZA (THAZAMPOO PLANT IN TAMIL or POO KAITHA IN MALYALAM)
    This is mentioned in some other articles also
    as the Thampoo /which itself is the leaf transformation is fibrous and highly flexible
    but strong tensil and does not get decayed easily if treated in oil and Turmeric for a few days!

  2. harikumar says:

    i am a flute player i love this instrument and trying to play but the higher notes are not success i learn to play flute by myself that way trying to learn nadaswaram but its….can anybody explain the technique that higher notes get easy

  3. chinnamanur vijaykarthikeyan says:

    i am a nagaswara artist.very proud to be with the grate’s one of the oldest traditional of every people.

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