--> Skip to main content

Yazh Music Instrument – Yal Musical Instrument In Ancient India

Yazh or Yal is one of the most ancient musical instruments in ancient India. Yal is a string music instrument and was mainly used in ancient Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.. It was used as a primary instrument and also as an accompaniment to vocal music. When the fretted vina emerged, yal slowly receded into the background.

Vina denotes stringed instruments in general in Sanskrit, and yal is its Tamil equivalent.

In Silappadikaram, the chapter Arangetra Kathai mentions the rules to be followed while playing yal.

Musicians who played yal were known as yalpanar and the place where they lived came be known as Yalpanam.

Yal and Prehistoric creature Yali

 Since the tip of dandi or the stem of this instrument was carved into the head of the weird animal yali (vyala in Sanskrit), it was named yali or yal or yazhi. The headpiece of yal at the tip of dandi is retained even now as the headpiece in vina.

The figure of pre-historic yali, a weird creature, is seen in the temple sculptures. In the temples of Thirumeyyam (near Pudukkottai), Amaravati and Khajuraho, sculptures of the instrument yal are seen. Some scholars even hold that yali and yal are related and the yali precedes yal. 

Yazh Music Instrument

 Pathar, kodu, yappu, tilavu, undhi, narambu, porvai, thol and ani are the main parts of Yazh.

Yal was plucked by tuning to a particular scale. Other scales were played on it by the shift of the tonic note or by re-tuning the particular strings. Thus yal may be said to be the precursor of the later eka raga mela vina.

Yal had many limitations. Only straight notes could be played and gamakas or quarter notes could not be played on this instrument. Further, it took a long time to tune the instrument. Thus the fretted vina emerged, free of the above limitations, enabling any raga to be played with ease and without loss of time involved in tuning. With the emergence of the concept of adhara sadja, the playing of the new scales by the shift of the tonic note became an anachronism and a thing of the past. 

Yal Musical Instrument In Ancient Texts

 During the time of Manikkavacakar, vina and yal were both used commonly. This is evident from the reference to ‘innisai vinaiyar yalinar orupal’ in “Tirupali elucci” of Thiruvempavai.

Another Shaiva apostle, Appar (7th century AD), also refers to vina in his hymn Masil Vinaiym.

Thiruneelakandar Yalpanar provided the yal accompaniment to the sacred hymns of Thirugnanasambandar.

In the later period, Vipulananthar wrote Yalnul as a commentary on the twenty fiver verses of Arangetra Kathai. The second chapter of Yalnul, titled Yalupiyal, lists the varieties of yal, citing quotations from Sangam literature. Particularly, Villyal was recreated by Vipulananthar. This chapter also gives details of other varieties lie periyal, siriyal, makarayal, sagodayal, and senkoriyal.

Makaravina, Naradavina and Muhavina as mentioned in Sanskrit texts, correspond to Mahayali, Naradayal and adi kalattu periyal, respectively in Tamil. 

16 types of Yal

  1. Adiyal – A 1000 stringed yal used for chasing away animals and demons in forests.
  2. Naradaperiyal – a 100 stringed yal, in the shape of a triangle, had strings that produced Mandra, Madhya and Tara Sthayi (3-octave ranges).
  3. Adi Kalattu Periya – A 100-stringed instrument.
  4. Periyal – A 21-stringed instrument.
  5. Siriyal – A stringed instrument with seven or nine strings. It is stated that the instrumentalist playing periyal was known as Panar and that his wife played siriyal.
  6. Makara Yal – A 17-stringed instrument.
  7. Sakoda Yal – A 16-stringed instrument.
  8. Sengoti Yal – A 7-stringed instrument, corresponding to the present day vina with four main strings and three strings for tala.
  9. Tumuru Yal – A 9-stringed instrument.
  10. Kichaka Yal – A 100-stringed yal
  11. Maruthuva Yal – Also called deva yal, this was a single stringed instrument capable of presenting 62 types of notes.
  12. Kurinji Yal, Palai Yal, Maruda Yal and Mullai Yal – These correspond to the four regions of ancient Tamil landscape.
  13. Vallaki Yal – It is said that Brihaspati (Guru Navagraha) used to play on this type of yal.
  14. Killai Yal – This instrument had a face like that of a parrot.
  15. Vill Yal – It has the shape of a bow (vill) with sixteen strings on either side.
  16. Mayil Yal – It is shaped like a peacock with 32 strings.
Source - 
  • Musical Instruments Of India - Their History And Development (2000) written by Chaitanya Deva - Munshiram Manoharlal Publications New Delhi
  • Encyclopedia of Hinduism Volume XI page 596 - 97