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Lesson 1: History and Introduction to the Khol (Mridanga)




One of the most revered, enjoyed, and vintage sounds that represents one of the facets of Indian spirituality and East Indian culture is the mridanga drum. The mridanga drum had its advent nearly five hundred years ago around the mid-1400s when Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu appeared on Earth. It is said that the mridanga is Lord Krsna’s flute incarnated, also an expansion of Lord Balarama, on earth. When Lord Krsna was planning for His avatara as Lord Caitanya, His flute wanted to accompany Him. Lord Krsna said that the flute would not be a practical medium of carrying the spiritual vibrations around. Hence, the mridanga came to existence as a drum that is nice and loud, and easy to play. Since then, Bengali music and Gaudiya Vaisnava kirtans have been blessed with this avatar of the flute of Sri Krsna.


The word mridanga comes from the word “mrit” and “anga” which mean “clay” and “body,” respectively. As one may deduce from the literal definition, the original mridanga was made out of clay. Throughout time, the term “mridanga” has been used to describe any two headed drum. Midanga either refer to this drum or the South Indian drum. Hence, musicians refer to the drum as khol. Khol literally means “open sound.” There have been various devotional songs where the mridanga drum has been properly identified with the word khol. Hence, the words mridanga and khol are interchangeable.





The main type of khol is the original clay khol, which has a body made of terracotta clay. Figure 1.1 is a mridanga drum that has terracotta clay as its body fastened with leather straps connecting two skinned heads. The skins are made goats or cows that have been naturally dead.

Figure 1.1 Clay Khol



Throughout time, other materials such as fiberglass and brass have been used as bodies for khols. Figures 1.2 and 1.3 show the fiberglass and brass khols respectively. With the only difference being the body, their setup is virtually the same. The fiberglass skin model is more popular than the brass model, due to the fiberglass having a more superior sound. The clay, however, will produce the most superior sound of the three.

Figure 1.2 (Fiberglass khol)

Figure 1.3 (Brass khol)




Ever since Srila Prabhupada, founder and acarya of ISKCON, came to the United States to preach the message of Krsna Consciousness, there were a few issues that took place. The first issues were temples receiving mridangas at a very slow rate, due to shipping issues. Also, many temples received mridangas without the presence of Srila Prabhupada. Due to lack of knowledge on caring for it properly, many devotees took a clay drum for an outdoor kirtan, and come back with the drum broken. To accommodate having mridangas sent to new temples and replacing worn out mridangas, Srila Prabhupada requested his disciple, Isan Dasa, to invent a new type of mridanga.


In the late 1960s, Isan Dasa prepared a mridanga that allows mass production. The body is made out of a thicker fiberglass with heads made out of plastic. Unlike the skin models, each head allows an independent tuning mechanism via an Allan key. This allows a quick head change, if any damage were to occur. In addition, they were nice and loud, a fact Srila Prabhupada enjoyed with this model. Finally, the biggest bonus with this new prototype is its durability. Under normal usage, this drum should last almost a lifetime. This invention is known as the Balarama mridanga. Figure 1.4 shows a Balarama mridanga.

Figure 1.4A(Balarama mridanga)



Since the heads are not made of natural skins, they don’t sound as authentic as the original clay khols. However, they do have a pretty decent approximate sound that it works for most kirtans.


As of late 2009, “tilakmridangas were produced. There is no difference between the tilak-less and tilak mridangas as far as sound quality, playing technique, and construction.


From left to right, they are known as Balarama (white), Nityananda/Gopal Krsna (blue), Varaha (red), Caitanya (yellow), and Syamasundara/Jagannatha (black) mridangas.



Figure 1.4B (Examples of tilak mridangas)




Figure 1.5 (Parts of the khol head labeled)


The most important parts of the khol are going to be the heads in which the sounds emanate from when struck. The word for the head of a drum is called a puri. Hence a khol head is a khol puri. There are four important parts of the khol puri that must be discussed. The four parts are gajara, kinar, maidan, and syahi.


The gajara is the outermost rim that is a braid of leather. This is where the tuning straps are woven through. Of the entire puri, the gajara is not played.


The next layer inwards is the kinar or the “rim”. This is the first layer of skin that is playable. Another lesser known function of the kinar is to filter and control sounds. This will allow us to play certain sounds in the future.


The open layer of skin is called the maidan or “mid-field.” This is the section between the kinar and the syahi.


The syahi, also known as the ank or gob, is the black circle in the middle of the puri. This is made of clay, rice pudding, iron fillings, wheat, and an unknown vegetable extract. The syahi allows lowered pitching, sound control, and the unique sound that khols produce. Without this syahi, the drum would sound like a bongo with uncontrolled sounds.


Usually, high quality khols will use red colored syahis on both heads. The dayan head will have a red color as a base followed by the black layer to top it off. The bass will have a red syahi. Carefully done black syahis would work too, although it tends to rub off easily. In addition, they have concentric circles (which is usually not visible after playing). Poor quality syahis will have one layer and will have a range of material for the syahis.




Figure 1.6


The anga is the body of the instrument.


The tasma are the straps that are woven in the traditional models of the khol. These are tuning straps, NOT the straps that you wear around yourself. The tasma will only be found on any skin model. The Balarama drum will not have a tasma, for each had its own tuning mechanism.


The smaller head is known as the dyan. The bigger bass head is known as the baya. Literally, the terms “dayan” and “baya” mean “right” and “left” respectively. If your right hand is stronger (i.e. you write with your right hand), then you should have your dayan to your right side. If your left hand is stronger, then your daya should be with your left hand. Interestingly enough, for left handed players, the smaller head is still referred to as the dayan and the bigger bass head is still known as the baya, even though their literal translations conflict with orientation.




There are three ways where mridangas are positioned with respect to the player. The three are briefly discussed below.


1. Traditional: Sitting down, drum in front sitting on a specialized cushion, such as a tabla cushion. This style is rarely found these days.

Figure 1.7 (Khol sitting on a cushion)


2. Lap: This is the more common sitting position. One sits on the floor with the mridanga on the lap. Have the carrying strap go through your head and around the body till if falls to the ground, or wherever the strap can have its final body contact. If the drum is feeling too close or if it is too far away from you, then you may have to readjust your strap length on the mridanga. If it slightly far, then you can just roll it up towards you.


3. Standing: This is another important position, as many people who play mridanga will play in kirtans. After one has stood up, one should place the mridanga over the head so that the strap contacts the neck. The hand playing the baya goes over the strap, while the hand playing the dayan remains under.


If you are a right handed person, the right hand is under the strap, and the left hand is over the strap.


If you are a left handed person, the left hand is under the strap, and the right hand is over the strap.




Whether it is how much money was spent on the drum, or necessity of a good drum to practice with, or even the spiritual fact that this is the incarnation of Krsna’s flute, any reason will provide enough behoove one to take care of their drum. The skin head mridangas, particularly the clay khol, will undergo a lot of changes due to the fact that natural hides will contract and expand as heat and humidity levels change. In addition, with the clay khol, the clay body is not truly durable. It can break if improperly used, whether it’s the head or the body. Here are four simple rules in order to ensure optimal lifespan of your drum.


1. Do not leave khol in extreme temperatures! Khols react like humans! If you leave it in a cold room or in a very hot room, it’ll feel ill. Leaving it in a cold room can cause the heads to go dull. If you put it in a very hot room filled with moisture, it’ll seep into the heads or break it. I have not seen or heard of any khol repairs in the U.S. Keep this in mind.


2. For all skin-headed khols, get head covers. Heads covers are the best way to prevent weather changes on the skins. Most new khols sold will come with head covers. If you do not have head covers, please visit, and purchase tabla head cushions.


3. For skin-headed khols, do not place the baya face down.  Pressure will cause the head to decrease in pitch and go flat. Plus, it can potentially damage the head. Either let the khol lie down laterally on a well-cushioned surface or purchase head covers and make sure the head cover is the support for the baya and not the ground.


4. Mridanga Sharing – Lastly, through experience, I have seen it happen too many times, and I must make a point about it here. If you have a good mridanga, unless you know someone that can play well and handle it properly, do not share your mridanga blindly. It may sound a bit stingy, but there is a reason for this. In a great number of cases where due to rough (and times, competitive) playing, I have seen busted heads as well as other defects in syahi or even the anga of the drum. Mridangas are drums that take a great deal of time, labor, and resources difficult to acquire, in addition to being expensive. Furthermore, the mridanga is supposed to be a mellow drum that can be used effectively for kirtans. If you want to bang nice and loud, get a Balarama mridanga and do just that. Do not bang excessively on any skin headed models, especially if that skin headed model is not yours.


If you are in a situation where you must tell someone not to use your mridanga, please be kind and tactful when expressing your request.

· VIDEO CLIP Lesson 1: Introduction and History of the Khol

UPDATED: October 30, 2013