India has a rich tradition of classical music is a very well known fact. At the same time, it is unknown to many that it has such a deep and rich history of folk music and folk instruments. One such musical instrument is Ravanahatha, the predecessor of present day Violin.
Ravanahatha is a string instrument, made up of locally available materials like bamboo, metal pipes and strings, coconut shell, leather, and horse’s hair. It is largely believed fact that Ravanahatha is the precursor for the modern day string instruments like violin. The method of playing a Ravanahatha is quite identical to that of playing a violin. It too includes a bow that is drawn across the strings to create musical vibrations. Furthermore, just like violin, Ravanahatha has a fingerboard which is used to play the octaves.
The structure of a Ravanahatha includes an 80-90cm long bamboo stem, at the end of which half a coconut shell is attached. To make the shell more vibration-proof, it is covered by goat hide. The stem itself is punctured at regular interval to fix the knobs which will later help in fine tuning the music. The exclusive part of the instrument is the Bejara which is a friction reducing powder cake, smoothed hair from horse tail, which makes the sound produced by the instrument unique.
The legend says, Ravan, the 10-headed king of demons was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. He played the veena for the lord and pleased him with his beautiful recitals so much that Shiva started Anandatandav, dance to the music. As the veena recital grew intense, so did the lord’s dance. Suddenly the siras (head) of the veena broke. Without thinking twice, Ravan cut one of his heads and attached it to the veena and continued his performance. And when the veena’s ambhana (sound board) broke, Ravan cut one of his 20 hands and replaced it. The folklore further goes like this. The strings broke next. Ravan plucked out his veins and attached it to the veena. Neither did the music stop nor did the Lord’s dance.
So the instrument he created was called RavanHatha or Ravanhasta, which means the hand of Ravan. It is believed that after the great battle between Hindu deity lord Rama and Ravana, Hanuman had carried this instrument to the western part of India, where its tunes are still enlivening the cultural environment of Rajasthan.
According to another legend, Ravana’s mother Kaikasi, an ardent devotee of Shiva, was eager to go and live in the god’s abode on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. Ravana opposed the plan but to please his mother he promised to bring Mount Kailash itself to Sri Lanka.
As Ravana was lifting the mountain, an angry Shiva trapped his 10 heads and 20 arms. Writhing in pain, Ravana prayed for mercy. When Shiva let him off, Ravana decided to sing his praise and instantly made an accompanying instrument using one of his heads, an arm and some of his hair.
The soulful music emanating from Ravana’s instrument is said to have moved Shiva, who bestowed immortality on him.
It is sad that most of the people are still not familiar with this instrument and its connection with our history and culture.