Nga (རྔ་) or drums are used widely in Bhutan as musical instruments for religious rituals or for folk music and performances. Drums are fundamental instruments in the set of religious musical kit. It is commonly used to regulate most of the religious chanting either on its own or with the accompaniment of a cymbal and other musical instruments.
The Bhutanese drums have drumhead on the two sides of the wooden body and is usually played using drumsticks.
The main body of the drum is made of wood from toona or red cedar trees. It is carved and treated to form a concave curve and skin of calves are stretched on both sides of the wooden frame. Before the skin is stuck, prayers printed on paper called ngazung (རྔ་གཟུངས་) are pasted on the inner walls of the drum frame in order to consecrate and give power to the drums. The prayers include special mantras, dhāraṇī spells and verses which are believed to enhance the spiritual power of the drum when it is played and the sound is heard by the people.
The most common traditional drums in Bhutan are the drums used for religious rituals so much so that most people think of these drums when the word nga or drum is used. They are roughly one metre in circumference, 12-15cm in thickness and beautifully decorated. There are two types of these ritual drums: one which is curvy bulging edge called burnga (འབུར་རྔ་) or protruding drum and one which has flat frames called lepnga (ལེབ་རྔ་) or flat drums. The protruding drums are often painted in gold and called sernga (གསེར་རྔ་) and used for general Buddhist rituals while the flat ones are painted with black background and skulls figures and called thoenga (ཐོད་རྔ་) or skull drums. They are used in rituals of wrathful Buddhas which require the tantric paraphernalia of skulls, bones, etc. to indicate the esoteric practice in charnel grounds. These ritual drums have a leg or long handle, which is often inserted in a heavy and sturdy drum holder or ngazung (རྔ་བཟུང་) made of wood. The handle and the holders are also sometimes beautifully carved.
The drums are played with a stick made of cane. It is carved in a pear shape and has its upper tip padded with cloth and its handle at the bottom carved to make it easy for holding with the hand. Depending on the nature of the ritual, sometimes a pair of straight drumsticks are used to play the ritual drums. When the drum is played to call the monks and priests back to the ritual after an interval, the two straight drumsticks are normally used. Two straight sticks are also used when the drum accompanies a silnyen (སིལ་སྙན་) cymbal but not a rolmo (རོལ་མོ་) cymbal. The dance drums or chamnga (འཆམ་རྔ་) are also of the same shape but of much smaller size measuring about half a metre in circumference and 5cms in thickness. The dancers hold the drum with their left hand and the semi-pear shaped drumstick with their right. A small scarf is attached to the tip of the drum for decoration.
A longer drum measuring about 30-50cm circumference and about the same length from one drumhead to the other is used for processions. Called bangnga (བང་རྔ་) or procession drum, this type of drum is less refined, has much thicker skin and is played using a short wooden stick. The drums traditionally used by the musicians among the Lhotshampa communities of southern Bhutan are similar to this drum. In some temples, one can also find a ritual drum which is as large as few metres in circumference and fixed to a wooden frame. They are stationed in the temple halls and beaten during rituals with two large sticks. The use of such drums, however, is more common in the Tibetan monasteries than in Bhutan. In some contexts, a drum may be suspended from the ceiling rather than being fixed in a drum holder.
The drums in Bhutanese Buddhist culture symbolize the sound of dharma or Buddha’s teachings. Thus, they are viewed as a sacred object, and deeply valued and respected. Most households would own a pair of ritual drums for use during religious rituals and most temples would have dozens of drums. Some drums are also considered to have been rediscovered as treasures from the earth and others are considered to have supernatural powers.
Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker, worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.