Asian Music and Dance

Music of the Temple

A new three-part series explores sacred music of the temple, street and stage introduced by Jahnavi Harrison, a musician, dancer and kirtan practitioner.

Every culture has its own practice of using sound to uplift the soul and praise the divine. The rich musical traditions of India are no exception. At any given time across the entire South Asian subcontinent, bells ring at home altars, conches sound within Hindu shrines, and from countless mosques, the fluid call to prayer emanates.

These places of worship are rich hubs providing a space within which sacred music is ever present and relevant. The music is deeply connected with ritual and the daily schedule of worship. Traditionally, these places house or maintain musicians who perform both music with lyrics – bhajan, kirtan and other sung prayers – as well as purely instrumental music for the pleasure of the deity. 

A good example of this is the temple of Sri Nathji at Nathdwara, Rajasthan. There the haveli (residence) of the deity is considered to be his royal court, where for centuries musicians have performed for his pleasure daily. The style of bhajan performed here is called haveli sangeet, and is closely related to dhrupad, another important sacred music form. 


Bhajans (songs written in praise of the divine) also form a link between the sacred space and the outside world. After pilgrims come to the temple and hear the songs, they remember and repeat them, creating sacred spaces within their daily lives and popularising them amongst others. In this way centuries-old compositions are still taught and sung today. In the South Indian Hindu tradition, bhajans by revered saint-composers like Thyagaraja and Purandaradasa are looked upon as divinely potent as well as lyrically and musically close to perfection. 


Another form of sacred music within the temple setting is kirtan – the repetition of the names of God set to music. Kirtan is normally performed in a call and response format, where the leader sings one mantra or round of names, followed by the response of all of the participating worshippers. Kirtan can be accompanied by any instruments but within the temple setting it is most commonly accompanied by harmonium, percussion and other supporting instruments that give participants a chance to join in. This is a key practice for both Sikhs and Hindus. Here are two examples of kirtan. The first comes from the Golden temple, here accompanied by harmonium and tabla. The second comes from a temple in West Bengal, India. This style of kirtan, as practised by Gaudiya Vaishnavas is typical in this region. You will hear the distinctive sound of the clay-bodied mridanga drum. 

Symbolism in Sound

Beyond the compositions themselves, many instruments used within the setting of the temple have deep symbolism. This features as an element in the equally meaningful temple rituals.

The Conch (Shanka)

This seashell is blown as a ceremonial trumpet every day in worship and sacred celebration. It symbolises the primordial syllable – aum, said to be the first sound ever heard by the great creator demigod Bramha, as he sat in the empty darkness before creation.The conch shell is carried by Lord Vishnu, and the powerful, pervasive sound announces his supreme victory over evil – for this reason, the sound is considered to be auspicious, clearing away negative thoughts from the minds of the worshippers, and creating a sanctified atmosphere. 


These basic instruments of different sizes and metals are used in almost every form of sacred music throughout the world. An ancient Sanskrit mantra used when preparing articles of worship for the deity states: 

O beautiful bell so dear to Sri Krishna, the God of gods, you embody the sweet sound of all music. Without you there is no auspiciousness for anyone. 


This lute-like stringed instrument dates back thousands of years and has a rich history that intertwines with the performance of sacred music. One ancient form of vina, the audambari, was plucked by the wives of brahmanas as they chanted Vedic mantras during ritual yagnas (fire sacrifices). The Hindu goddess of learning and the arts, Saraswati is traditionally depicted playing a vina, and the great sage Narada, who is said to eternally roam throughout the universe singing the glories of God, is never seen without it. The vina is often played throughout the day in the temple, for the pleasure of the presiding deity particularly in the Southern Indian tradition. 


These two wind instruments, from the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions respectively, belong to a family of instruments known as mangala vadya (auspicious instruments) as their sound is said to purify the atmosphere just like the conch. They are often played in temple ceremonies and outdoor processions, as well as being an inseparable part of celebrations where the sacred and profane meet, such as weddings and seasonal festivals.


Rhythm is to melody as the spine is to the body, and within temple music drums are almost always present. In North India, generally tabla or pakhawaj will be used, whereas further south the mridangam and tavil are more prominent. Whichever type of drum is played, the rhythm is symbolically tied to the heartbeat that gives life. In Hinduism, Lord Shiva plays his hand-held damaru during his dance of destruction. In the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, the clay mridangam drum is said to be an incarnation of the flute of Lord Krishna, meant to always accompany the singing of his glories.

Just as the division between sacred and secular life is blurred, the music of the temple inevitably finds its way into more commonplace settings. In the next issue, we will explore ‘Sacred Music in the Street’, exploring the vibrant musical traditions which routinely touch the everyday environment.of Lord Krishna, meant to always accompany the singing of his glories.



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