Drums through epigraphy

Last update: March 3, 2021

We do not know the names of all the drums in the iconography. Several texts in Old Khmer mention the existence of percussionists, but without specifying whether they strike drums or metal instruments. Curiously, the names of the musicians are brought back to us, but the instrumental terminology escapes us, unless we have not been able to identify them among the many epigraphic enigmas.

We know with confidence the Sanskrit name of the rattle drum - ḍamarin or ḍamaru - but not its Khmer name.


The Sanskrit stele of Vat Prah Einkosei (early 11th c.) mentions several drums' names from the classical Indian literature. 


Original Sanskrit text (Cœdès G. 1952 – K. 263, IC IV, p.124, VIII)

paṭupaṭahasumiśrair lāllarīkaṅsatālaih



bhayam akṛta ripū ṃāṃ yas sadā vādya/saṅghaih


Original French translation by G. Cœdès

“Avec les bruyants tambours, auxquels se mêlent agréablement les sonores cymbales de cuivre, avec les karadi, les timila, les luths, les flûtes, les cloches et les tambourins, avec les purava, les timbales, les bheri, les kāhala et la multitude de conques, il inspirait continuellement la terreur aux ennemis par la multitude de ses instruments de musique.”


English translation

"With the noisy drums in which the copper cymbals are pleasantly intermingled, with the karadi, the timila, the lutes, the flutes, the bells and the drums, the purava, the kettledrums, the bheri, the kāhala and the multitude of conchs, he continually inspired terror to the enemies by the multitude of his musical instruments."


G. Cœdès sees in this text many drums but no trumpets, which seems curious because it is a military instrument of the first plan. Let us analyze these names in the light of dictionaries, other texts and ethnology in order to try to bring them closer to known typologies.

The author of the original Sanskrit text seems to have grouped some instruments by families as defined by the Indian classification. If this is proven, the nature of some instruments remains incompatible with their location inside the text. However, it must be remembered that the Sanskrit editor willingly sacrifices classificatory logic for the benefit of poetics!


The "covered" (as membranophones), avanaddha vādya

paṭaha: the dictionaries remain imprecise as to the nature of this instrument: kettledrum (never represented in the Khmer iconography, but common in India), war drum or simply drum.


The "solids" (as idiophones), ghana vādya

tāla: cymbals.

karadi: it is not certain that it is a drum. The Sanskrit dictionary of Émile Burnouf of 1866 gives as definition: instrument to beat the measure; Action to beat the measure.

timila: if we look at ethnology, it would be a drum in the shape of an hourglass with variable tension. Here, however, the classification seems to give us wrong.


The "tense" (as chordophones), tata vādya

vīṇā: tube or stick zither (in Old Khmer, this term means harp).


The "hollows" (as aerophones), śūsirā vādya

veṇu: transverse flute.


The "solids" (as idiophones), ghana vādya

ghaṇṭā: bell.


The "covered" (as membranophones), avanaddha vādya

mṅdaṅga: very old instrument that some researchers say it was originally made of clay in reference to its name (mrt clay, aṅga body) still spread today throughout South India with a wooden body. It could be a barrel or biconical drum.

purava: not occurring.

paṇava: according to some dictionaries, it would be a small drum or cymbals. M.A. Barth translates it as a timbale.


The "hollows" (as aerophones), śūsirā vādya

bherī: trumpet (or kettledrum), see next chapter.

kāhalā: instrument quoted in the Saṅgīt Ratnākara, an Indian treatise on 13th-century musicology. It is mentioned that its bell is datura flower-shaped. A long contemporary metallic horn bears this name in the Indian states of Orissa and Karnataka.

śaṅkha: conch.


By organizing thus the division of the instruments of the text, thirteen qualifiers appear in three classificatory categories, with the exception of three instruments themselves broken into three groups. This last choice may be dictated by the simple fact that the acoustic nature of these instruments does not predestine them to a martial use.

If this logic were retained, we might conclude that timila would not be the hourglass drum confirmed by ethnology, but rather an idiophone of undetermined nature; That mrdaṅga, purava and paṇava would be drums, bherī, kāhalā of the trumpets. It should be remembered, however, that the poetry of ancient India describes instruments known at the time and in the region where the author of the original text lived. The spatio-temporal shift confronts the Khmer transcriber with a reality that escapes him. As we have already mentioned, the same terminology sometimes means instruments that are spatially and temporally different.


Revised French translation

"Avec les bruyants tambours auxquels se mêlent agréablement les cymbales tāla, les karadi, les timila, les cithares vīṇā, les flûtes veṇu, les cloches ghaṇṭā, les tambours mṅdaṅga, les purava, les paṇava, les trompes bherī et kāhalā et la multitude de conques śaṅkha, il inspirait continuellement la terreur aux ennemis par la multitude de ses instruments."


English translation

"With the noisy drums in which the tāla cymbals intermingle, the karadi, the timila, the vīṇā zithers, the veṇu flutes, the ghaṇṭā bells, the mṅdaṅga drums, the purava, the paṇava, the bherī and kāhalā horns and the multitude of śaṅkha conchs, he continually inspired terror to the enemy by the multitude of his instruments."


The term bherī is several times cited in lapidary inscriptions. The stele of foundation of the Pre Rup temple, about the middle of the 10th century, mentions it. Here is the text and translation of G. Coedes extracted from the "Volume I des Inscriptions du Cambodge":


Original Sanskrit text

dadhvāna bherī ravapūritāśā

yasyoccakair yyā jayaghoṣanāyai

taddhvānamudvīcir ivānukurvvan

daadhvanyate sindbudhavo dhunāpi


Original French translation by G. Cœdès

" ...Son tambour (bherī) qui, remplissant l’espace de son grondement et ayant pour vagues la joie de son bruit, a résonné pour proclamer bien haut sa victoire, résonne encore aujourd’hui, imitant en quelque sorte l’agitation de l’océan. "


English translation

"... Its drum (bherī) which, filling the space of its rumble and having for vague the joy of its sound, resonated to proclaim loudly his victory, still resonates today, imitating somewhat the agitation of the ocean. "


This evocation of a single drum filling the space can only be the result of a large instrument struck with vehemence. In the classical Indian literature, it is sometimes seen as a kettledrum, sometimes as a trumpet. In Nepal, for example, bherī designates a natural cylindrical bore trumpet a with a removable mouthpiece. It is said to announce "Bhairavi, Bhairavi".

huduka or huduga

Khmer names hūdūka and huduga are respectively mentioned in inscriptions K. 356 and K. 659 of the 10th c. A family of contemporary instruments in Southern India bears similar names: udukkâ, udhakka, edakkha, edakka, idakka, idaykka, hudak, udaku, udukku, udukkai, huruk, hurki, hurko. All are hour hourglass drums whose technology and size differ.


The term sgar appears at the end of the 10th century (inscription K. 1167), at the beginning of the 11th century (K. 814) and then in the 14th century (K. 754). The origin's root of this word is found in the names of the great barrel drums of the ethnic groups of the Cambodia, Laos and Vietnamese highlands (sögör, hgör, högor ...); It's also the root od the word skor generically designating drums in modern Khmer. Saveros Pou, in her dictionary, mentions this name as generic, put in parentheses however. We are thinking that in these inscriptions it's the barrel drum so widespread in South-East Asia, especially in the pagodas, as communication tools between men to men or men to and spiritual entities. The three mentions, although four centuries apart, seem to refer to the same type of instrument: a large drum (barrel, cylindrical or conical) with two studded membranes, struck with one or two sticks according to the circumstances.

The stele of Pràsàt Kôk Pô

The stele of Prasat Kôk Pô (K. 814)* mentions the role of this drum, which is extremely rare in inscriptions, since it is either an instrument belonging to a donation list drafted in Old Khmer without justification for its use, or a poetic metaphor in Sanskrit. Given this rarity, it seemed interesting to us to give the complete translation of G. Cœdès alleviated however functional terms and certain proper names useless to the understanding of the subject.

It is a ceremony of demarcation of a land offered to the god in the presence of many authorities:


"K.V Travāṅ Vrāhmaṇa filed a motion concerning the evidence of ownership of this land. Notification was given to the inspector of qualities and faults, and to the assembly, to summon the officials of the royal gardens, concerning the land which they had sold, in order to acquire the precious objects necessary for the royal service. Full powers were given to the inspector of qualities and defects, who charged the superintendent of wages (?) With the execution of the royal ordinance, the head of judicial affairs, the guardian of the court of justice, the superintendent of property Of the gods, the superintendent of the ushers of the third class, and instructed them to delimit this land, to call the notables, the elders, the lords of the four neighboring regions, to witness the demarcation and hand it over to the KV Travāṅ Vrāhmaṇa. The officials of the royal gardens led them to delimit this land in the presence of the notables and the chief officers. In their presence, they planted the boundaries to the East, the West, the South, the North. The royal ordinance prescribing the granting of this land to the K.V. Travāṅ Vrāhmaṇa was notified. K.V. Travāṅ Vrāhmaṇa struck the drum around this earth under the eyes of these notables, gave this land to the god, took it from the earth to make it a land consecrated to the god and gave it the name Kṣetrasaṅkrānta ... "


The use of this drum seems to both formalize the good performance of the act, inform the villagers and notify the god of the donation. This sound information communicated to the deities arriving in a temple and / or after an offering is still done today using internal bells in Hindu temples. The text does not say whether it was a drum carried and played alone by K.V. Travāṅ Vrāhmaṇa or if it was installed on a movable bearing. With regard to iconography and ethnography, these two scenarios are plausible.


* Cœdès G. & Dupont P. - BEFEO XXXVII, p.406-34.

The stele of Kôk Svày Ček

The stela (K. 754)* (1308 CE) is written in pāli. It corresponds to the period of emergence of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia. The term sgar appears in a list of donations for the functioning of the worship given to the Buddha. It mentions villages, rice fields, land, servants assigned to various tasks, domestic animals. Two white conchs (saṅkha sukla) and a half-conch in bronze (arddhasaṅkha saṃrit), conch to blow and / or undulating can also be noted. The list continues with the enumeration of various objects to end with a drum sgar and a tāla chanda. We are here in a new era. There is no reference to dancers, singers or instrumentalists. The Chinese chronicler Chou-Ta-Kouan tells us clearly in his text of 1296, contemporary with this stele: "There are no bells, drums or cymbals (in the Buddhist temples)**. This assertion is perhaps to be interpreted as opposed to the practices still in effect at that time in the Hindu temples where the musical instruments are at the heart of the ritual. It can be assumed that this sgar served the external communication needs of the Buddhist community, bonzes and laymen. If one refers to the pre-eminence of this type of drum still today in all the Buddhist pagodas of Southeast Asia, this assertion is probable.

As for the term tāla chanda, it is not translated by G. Cœdès. Tāla is a term which defines, according to the Sanskrit dictionary of Gerard Huet, the "striking in his hands, beating the measure"; It also refers to the "cymbal" sound object. As for chanda, it is related, according to Gérard Huet, to a "Vedic hymn", a "meter" or to "rhythmic harmony". In the present, tāla chanda could designate a pair of cymbals intended to emphasize rhythmically the scansion of the hymns. The cymbals are the most represented instrument in all the Khmer music iconography, a rhythmic reference par excellence, and continue to be so in contemporary Cambodia.


* Cœdès G. - BEFEO XXXVI p.18-22.

** The original text formally states: "The Buddhas of the towers, on the contrary, are different, and all cast in bronze, there are no bells, drums, cymbals, ex-votos, or canopies. It is difficult to assert that the assertion refers to the interior of the temples or to the towers themselves.

Great stele of Phimeanakas

It was in 1916, during the excavation of the Phimeanakas basement ប្រាសាទភិមានអាកាស (the Royal Palace of King Jayavarman VII), that Henri Marchal exhume a large stele with the Sanskrit inscription K. 485. G. Cœdès gives a revised translation of it by L. Finot in 1942 in the second volume of Inscriptions du Cambodge. It is a poem whose author is none other than Queen Indradevī, second wife of King Jayavarman VII, and younger sister of Jayarājadevī, first wife of the King. It is, for the most part, a panegyric of Jayarājadevī, retracing her biography and recalling her good works. Its composition seems to place it in the last ten years of the twelfth century.

Among the very numerous donations made by Queen Jayarājadevī to the gods and the people are drums made of gold and silver gilt (vermeil). 


LXXXI. At Tathāgata* from the East, she donated a drum made of gold, a banner with a beautiful gold and silver handle, whose brightly colored cloth was made of Chinese silk.

 *Mentioned in the inscription of Preah Khan and possibly corresponding to Banteay Kdei.


LXXXVII. To Bhadreçvara, she gave a gilded silver drum, and she erected the god son of Bhadreçvara, appropriately named Dundhabhi.


LXXXVIII. To the god called Cāmpeçvara, to the Buddha Vimāya* and to the Çiva named Pṛthvadri, to each of them she dedicated a golden silver drum.



In the original Sanskrit text, these three stanzas show the term "Dundabhi" translated by G. Cœdès as "Drum" and which would be an epithet of the god Kṛṣṇa and various other characters. The term dundabhi exists beyond Sanskrit, notably dundubhi in palī and dunduhi in prākṛit. We do not know the organological typology of this drum, but intuition leads us to a cylindrical drum. A cylindrical drum from West Africa (dundun, dundum) seems to have preserved the Sanskrit root, like the tama hourglass drum with the timila root.


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