13 Unique Indian Instruments You Should Know

The continent of India has a diverse musical history going back to ancient times when music was used as a method of prayer. Since those times, a wide and varied musical tradition spread across the continent. In this article, we’ll discuss several different types of instruments from India and the most important facts about them.  


One of the most iconic and recognizable instruments from India is the sitar, a stringed instrument. There are debates over the inventor of this Indian instrument; some historians say it’s Khusrau Khan, while others argue that it’s Amir Khusro. Scholars also believe that the inventor adapted it from an Iranian lute called a setar. 

“Setar” means three-stringed, but the sitar actually has 18 to 21 strings. It has two different sets of strings: 6 or 7 that produce a twangy melody, and the rest are called sympathetic. 

Indian Musical Instrument Sitar Lying On The Wooden Floor Image
Source: Shutterstock

So, how do you play the sitar? You hold it like a guitar, though its neck is much longer and broader. You then pluck the strings, vibrating the other strings, which creates a constant humming sound. 

The sitar is popular worldwide, initially gaining fame in the West through the artist Ravi Shankar and his influence on the music of George Harrison and the Beatles. 


The sarod shares many similarities with the sitar. It’s also a stringed instrument in the lute family and has its origins in the Hindustani music tradition.

Now, here’s the biggest difference: Unlike the sitar or the guitar, the sarod has no frets, making it more challenging to play. 

Konark India February 19: Famous Classical Musician Ustad Amjad
Source: Shutterstock

You will need to use the side of your fingernails or cuticles to slide up and down the strings. You can also hold it similarly to a guitar, but you’ll need to be seated cross-legged instead of standing. 

Like many Indian instruments, the sarod is crafted out of wood and animal skins. The metal panel on the neck is crucial to producing its characteristic smooth, sliding notes. It has 19 strings; 11 are sympathetic strings that vibrate on their own when you play the eight main strings. Sarod players use a thick, carved pick to strum.


If you have heard any upbeat Indian music, whether it’s a song for a celebration like a wedding or a Bollywood dance number, you have probably heard the tabla!

Ethnic Musical Instrument Tabla In The Interior Of The Chill Out

These small hand drums have been used in Indian music and religious rituals since the late 18th century. The left drum and right drum are played differently from each other. Each sound corresponds with a verbal syllable for training and performance. 

Since many Indian hand drums are made of wood or metal with skin stretched over the top, how can you tell whether a pair of hand drums is tabla? 

One way to identify tabla is to check the left and right drums. The left drum, or bayan, is bigger and is usually made of metal these days. It produces a lower bass drum sound. On the other hand, the right or dahina drum is smaller, made of hollow wood, and creates a higher-pitched sound. 

Another way you might identify tabla is knowing they always have tuning paste on the surface of the drum head. This paste, according to an article by Eric Phinney, enables these drums to make truly unique sounds. 


The shehnai is another challenging Indian instrument to play, taking many years to master. Why is it so challenging? This oboe-like wind instrument has not one but four reeds. It has simple, bored finger holes, but a skilled shehnai player can use different finger positions to reach two octaves. 

Black Shehnai Instrument

It looks like a clarinet, but it doesn’t have the metal keys overlaid like a clarinet. 

Fun fact: The shehnai was an important instrument to Indian royalty. Its unique tone was thought of as a lucky thing to hear, and historical royals selected it to be played at court ceremonies. In modern times, it continues to be a crucial part of Indian classical music and is played at weddings and other religious ceremonies. 


For the uninitiated, the sarangi is a curious-looking contraption. It’s a boxy string instrument with a skin-covered resonator. It is usually carved from a single piece of wood and comes with a bow. 

Kraków Poland January 2022. Sarangi (saranga) A 3 String

Like many of the stringed instruments of the Hindustani tradition, it consists of main melody strings and sympathetically vibrating metal strings. The exact string count can vary. Typically, you’ll have three melody strings and up to 37 sympathetic strings. 

The main strings are made of gut, like violin strings. Meanwhile, the sympathetic strings are metallic, like guitar or banjo strings. 

For its sound, it has a similar tone to a violin but has echoing tones thanks to its sympathetic strings that lend a melancholic feeling. 


This flute is one of the simplest instruments to make on this list, but despite its simplicity, it has such a beautiful and soulful sound. 

Traditionally, this side-blown flute is made from bamboo poles and has six or seven holes. It is available in different sizes, and you can find contemporary bansuri made from metal, fiberglass, or ivory. 

Man With Flute Indian Bansuri Close View Image

You can hear this instrument in all kinds of Indian music, from classical to contemporary. It is also significant to Hindus, as it is shown to be the chosen instrument of Lord Krishna, who is often portrayed playing a flute with peacock feathers adorning it. 

Tanpura (Tambura) 

You’ve definitely heard this instrument, whether you know it or not. It’s a large lute with a very long neck and a round base that might remind you of a pumpkin (because that’s what it used to be made from.) 

Sitar Music Instrument Isolated On Clear Background.

It creates a constant harmonic drone with the tambura player plucking four strings in a specific order. Like many of the lute-like instruments on this list, the contemporary tanpura or tambura is made of wood and metal and can have ivory or other adornments inlaid in the wood. You hold this Indian instrument like an upright bass. 

Fun Fact: The spelling “tanpura” is preferred in northern India, while “tambura” is preferred in southern India.

Saraswati Veena

The veena is another kind of lute, but the Saraswati veena is a specific kind. It’s one of the oldest known Indian instruments, with traceable history back to 1500 BCE. 

As you might guess, it gets its name from the Hindu goddess Saraswati, one of the three primary goddesses in the religion. Like Krisha and his bansuri, artists like to show Saraswati playing the veena. 

Brass Veena Saraswathi Veena Indian Instrument

There are four main types of veena played today, including the chitra veena, vichitra veena, and rudra veena. While you might assume they’re all lute-like instruments, the rudra and vichitra veenas are more like zithers. 

Like the other instruments related to lutes on the list, the Saraswati veena is large and is played while seated. It also has main strings and sympathetic strings. 

So what makes it unique? It’s found in the south Indian classical music tradition, unlike several of its northern brethren. The traditional construction method is to carve the main piece of the instrument out of one length of wood from the jackfruit tree.

Some other distinguishing characteristics are a rather large pear-shaped piece, the sarrokai, that rests on the player’s leg and a carved dragon’s head at the end of the neck of the instrument. 


Now it’s time for some more percussion! The mridangam, an ancient drum, is a necessary part of South India’s classical music, which is called Karnatak or Carnatic music. Its name contains the word for clay, but these days, it’s usually carved out of one hollow piece of wood. 

Like the tabla, the mridangam requires a special paste on the drum heads to accomplish its unique tone. Mridangam players have to apply the paste to the bass side of the drum before it is played every time. 

Close Up Of Mridangam Which Is An Indian Percussion Instrument

The right side of the drum, which has three layers of skin, plays a treble (higher-pitched) sound. It has a permanent patch of the paste, unlike the bass side. 

Like the tabla, the mridangam is taught with specific verbal sounds that correspond to sounds the drum makes. According to Duke University, it is portrayed as the preferred instrument of the Hindu god, Shiva. 


This is less a specific instrument than a category of percussion instruments. The word “dhol” is a catch-all term for two-headed hand drums used throughout India. Its name comes from the Sanskrit for “drum.” 

As we’ve discussed in this article, these kinds of drums are made from a diverse array of materials, from clay and wood to fiberglass and plastic. They’re tuned with lacings and dowels. Another distinguishing characteristic of dhol is a larger bass side and a smaller treble side. 

Man Playing Drum (dhol) On Wedding Of His Friend.


You might consider the dholak the northern Indian companion to the mridangam. Like the mridangam, it’s a double-ended drum played with the hands. Its origins are in South Asia, but its influence has spread to many other countries in the Indian diaspora as well. And yes, its name is similar to the dhol category of drum we discussed above. 

It’s a shorter instrument than the mridangam, and each side differs in size. The bigger drum head gets a treatment of paste to enable unique sounds, like the mridangam and tabla. 

Dholak players can create many different sounds with their hands and fingers on the drum heads and rims. It’s hard not to dance when you hear how skilled dholak players’ hands drive the beat. 


The dilruba is one of the younger Indian musical instruments at only about 200 years old. It is used in religious music and classical music in northern India. This bowed string instrument is similar to the sarangi in appearance, is played with a bow, and descends from the taus, which is similar but larger. 

For those of the Sikh religion, it is particularly significant. It was created by the 10th Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, to be more transportable than the taus. 

It is mostly used as an accompanying instrument in its various genres. It can be heard in the Beatles song “Within You, Without You” on the “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” album. It sounds similar to a sitar, and in that particular song, it mirrors back the notes that George Harrison sings in an enchanting back-and-forth. 


At just 300 years old, esraj is another infant in the world of Indian music. It’s a modern-day variation on the dilruba and has many similarities to the sitar as well. 

It’s played the most in North India and Pakistan. It is used regularly in Sikh and Hindustani religious music. 

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