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Gandharva Veda – About the Musical Instruments and Music of Gandharvas in Ancient Hindu Religion

Gandharva Veda is an upaveda associated the Sama Veda. Here is a look at the meaning  of the term Gandharvas and a note on the musical instruments and music mentioned in the Gandharva Veda.
According to ancient tradition, Gandharvas were semi-divine class of musicians and their music was denoted by the term Gandharva. They sang to the accompaniment of the veena (lute). The saman’s denoted Gandharva as music outside the sphere of vedic music. The word ‘saman’ is explained in Vedic literature as the musical rendering of Veda verse (rk).

Meaning of Term Gandharva

Naradiyasiksha gives the etymology of the word Gandharva as ‘ga’ – stands for geya (song), ‘dha’ for the skilful playing on instruments like veena on which the various dhatus are to be produced by strokes on the strings, and ‘va’ for the percussion instruments like veena and vamsha.

Abhinavagupta gives another etymology – gam vacam dharayati, this vak is in the form of song.

Musical Instruments of Gandharvas

There were two main veenas in Gandharva, viz., chitra (with seven string) and vipanchi (wich nine strings); the two additional strings are meant for the two sadharana notes.

The dhatus were produced in the veena by striking the strings skillfully. The charming combination of notes beautified the melody.

The four tone-patterns given are steady, ascending, descending and mixed.

The flutist was to accompany the melody closely.

The two basic talas were caccapua (eight matras) and cacapua (six matras).

There were three more talas, sapitaputraka or uttara (twelve matras), sampakaveshaka (twelve matras) and Udghatta (six matras).

In the employment of mridanga with three faces, the three specific notes of the scale were tuned to the right, left and upper face of it.

The dardura was the drum with one face.

Tala cymbals indicated the rhythm. 

Bharata Muni on Gandharva Music and Veda

Bharata, in his Natyashastra (3rd century BC), which is also termed as Natyaveda, gives the details of Gandharva. He defines Gandharva as that music in which the stringed instruments like veena and vinpanchi are prominent and are supported by various instruments like vamsha and mrudanga. Its constituents are notes (swara), rhythm (tala) and words (sahitya).

The sacred treatise of music, Gandharva Shastra is its authority.

Bharata states that the yoni (original source) of Gandharva is gana, veena and vamsha.

According to Abhinavagupta (1oth – 11th century AD) commentator on Natyashastra, gana is to be understood as samagana.

Gandharvas of ancient India are understood by some scholars to be a class of people expert in the arts of music and dance. Dattila adds the word avadhana in regard to Gandharva Veda. Avadhana means the proper employment of the notes and tala with intelligence. Avadhana can also mean attentiveness or concentration.

Music of Gandharvas

As there was no employment of swara instrument in saman chanting, it was possible that notes were only approximate. Tala also was not provided. In the Gandharva, the notes Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni were well fixed.

In the Gandharva Veda the melody types treated are eighteen. Seven of them, called Shuddhajatis, had the starting note, after which the jati is name. These had the employment of all the seven notes and its starting note was the dominant note, the note ending the division of the son and the ending not of the song.

There were ten characteristics of jati

  1. graha (the starting one),
  2. the dominant note used often on which the particular manifestation of the amsa (melody depended),
  3. nyasa (the ending note),
  4. apanyasa (the ending note of the division of the song),
  5. tara (the limit of the notes to be used in high register),
  6. the limit of notes to which descent should be made in mandra (lower register),
  7. alpatva (the use of note or notes in large measure),
  8. bahutva (the use of note or notes in large measure)
  9. sadava (hexatomic melody) and
  10. auduva (pentatonic melody).
The first eight characteristics were compulsory to form a jati, while the last two were not so.

The Shuddhajatis became modified due to the change in their form in the case of having seven notes, the starting note, dominant note and the ending note of the division, singly or more.

The ending note remained unchanged. The remaining eleven modified jatis had the mixture of the above ones. To illustrate, the sadaji jati has sa, re, ga, ma, pa dha as amsa, sa as nysa, ga and pa apanyasa. The sadava form has the omission of ni.

The ascent and descent of the seven notes in order is called murcchana. The first murcchana of the sa scale would be sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni. The next one would be ni, sa, re, ga, ma, padha and so the remaining five murcchanas. In the case of the ma scale, the murcchana should be understood similarly.

By dropping one specific note the sadava murcchana would be effected and by dropping two specific notes, the auduva ones would be effected.

In the case of jatis the note ma was not to be dropped for its presence for the distinction between the sa scale and ma scale was necessary.

In the saman scale also ma was necessary as it started the descending scale.

If the word kapla in gandharva kalpa is understood as slightly incomplete in form, it would indicate gramarga (treated by matanga).

Gandharva Veda was employed in the preliminaries of dramatic performances to please gods and repel the negative spirits.

The word sangeeta came into use later, denoting the triple art of vocal music and instrumental music and dance.

The eighteen jatis were formerly spoken by Brahma and hence the jati music was supposed to be very central as well as sacred. It brought merit to the performer and destroyed the effects of any wrong acts incurred by him.

Excerpts and notes taken from – 
Encyclopedia of Hinduism Volume IV published by India Heritage Research Foundation – page 189 - 191
History of Indian Music - S Prajnananda - Ramakrishna Math