Music has always been the eternal factor for cultural development in Nepal. Especially in the rural mid-hilly or upper hilly areas of Nepal folk music and its importance is felt the most.
Panche Baja is a collection of five traditional musical instruments that are played together and the set has played a major role in the enhancement of Nepali music since the time unknown. Especially played at many life rites rituals like Janti (a wedding procession) and other religious occasions. A small band of people forms a musical band each specialized in one instrument.
Panche Baja comprises Tyamko (Kettle Drum), Damaha (a Bigger Kettle Drum), Sahanai/Narshinga/Karnal (Tubular Wind Instrument), Jhyali (a pair of cymbals), and Dholaki (a two-headed hand-drum). These five instruments represent the Panchatatwa (five elements) that have been referred to in the Vedas – earth, water, wind, fire, and sky respectively. Each one is unique and different from the others.
History of Panche Baja
Looking back at history there is no exact date to describe the origination of Panche Baja in Nepal. It is believed that the Rajputs from India who migrated to Nepal in the 14th century brought the music along with them. The set of instruments is similar to the musical band of the Sultanate court of Muslim invaders of India.
Later the Nepal musicians belonging to Damai, the tailor caste working for the Royals in Hilly areas added Sahanai and Damaha with other musical instruments and then named it as Panche Baaja giving them a religious value of Vedas five important elements. Miss Carol Tingey, the author of “Heartbeat of Nepal: The Pancai Baja”, has mentioned similar facts in her book about the instruments.
Musical Instruments of Panche Baja
Tyamko (A Kettle Drum)
Tyamko is a Kettle drum played with a pair of sticks. This instrument represents the earth element mentioned in Vedas because the beat produced echoes the sound of a person walking. It is about six inches in diameter and the top part is made by stretching buffalo hide over the bamboo dome (upside down) and secured with buffalo hide ropes.
Tyamko is tied around the waist of the player and continuously played with a pair of sticks.
Damaha (A Kettle Drum)
Damaha is a bigger form of Tyamko but played with one stick only. It represents the water element in the Vedas because its bowl-like bamboo vessel contains water inside it and the sound produced is similar to the sound of water dispersed in a closed vessel.
Twice the size of Tyamko, Damaha is also made of buffalo hide and bamboo. This 14 cm diameter big drum suspends from the neck or crossbody of the musician.
Sahanai, Karnal, and Narsingh (Tubular Wind Instument)
These three pipe-like wind instruments are collectively categorized as one in the Panche Baja Family. They represent the sky element which means sound, the sound in a vacuum with no physical presence of any other factors. The sound can also make people fall asleep. All three instruments are tubular-curve-shaped structures.
Sahanai is made up of quadruple reed woodwind, with four reeds bound together over one another. The reeds are put on top of the metal tube, and the lower end of the tube leads into the wooden Sahanai body. The wooden body has simple fingerholes, no mechanism, and ends into a metal sound funnel. The mechanism for building Karnal and Narshingha is also the same but they produce different sounds than Sahanai and are curvy in structure.
Jhyali (A Pair of Cymbals)
Jhyali, also known as Jhurma or Jhyamta represents the fire element of the Vedas. It is played by rubbing the plates with the right hand rising and left-hand descending at the time when they clash, similar to grinding of two stones to produce fire in the ancient times. Hence it is compared with the fire element. It is a pair of bronze cymbals that needs to be clashing with each other to produce the sound of music.
Dholaki (A Two Headed Hand Drum)
Dholaki, the last of Panche Baja is the two-headed hand drum. It represents the wind element of Vedas where the wind shows the hollow space of both drums hitting the space to create music.
Dholaki is made up of unique things, the main materials used to make a Dholaki are cotton, metal, steel, goatskin, buffalo skin, rosewood, and mango wood. It is held in the neck with a strap and played with a stick on one side and with a hand on the other.
When is Panche Baja Played?
In ancient times people used Panche Baja during the announcement of good things in the royal families. Gradually a community of musicians was formed by the Royals to play Panche Baaja during the marriage and other special occasions. Damai community is the traditional musicians of Panche Baaja. The name “Damai” was given from the music instrument “Damaha”, as they played it for special occasions.
During the marriage ceremony, the groom’s side hires a group of musicians to play Panche Baja. They play a variety of melodies while making their way to bride’s house followed by groom fellow in a procession called Janti. Various folk tunes are also played throughout the marriage ceremony.
Besides marriage ceremony, Panche Baja is played in many other auspicious social occasions such as Bratabhandaha (sacred thread-wearing ceremony), Anna Prashan (rice feeding ceremony), Nwaran (baby-naming ceremony), and so on.
Naumati Baja is a comprehensive form of Panche Baja. When two more Sahanais and Damahas are added to the existing Panche Baja they total up to nine musical instruments called “Naumati Baja”. These nine instruments represent Navagraha, the nine planets in the solar system. Those nine planets represent nine heavenly bodies that influence human life on Earth according to Hindu astrology.
Naumati Baja is played especially on grander occasions. The melodies of Panche Baaja or Naumati Baaja vary according to geographical variations. Naumati or Panche Baja is also played in Darjeeling and Sikkim of India where Nepalese dominantly reside.
The Panche Baaja can be further expanded by adding Nagara (a Conical Drum played with two sticks), Naagbeli or Naagphani Baja (Snake shape trumpet), Bheri (a Two-faced Metal Drum), Shikhar (a Deep U-shaped Trumpet), Kahal (a Wind Instrument) and many other musical instruments depending upon the geographical variations.
Naumati Baja is played from Mechi in the East all the way to Mahakali the West end of Nepal, so typically throughout Nepal. Also, the tunes, folk songs, beats, and melodies have been passed from one to the next Damai generations in order to keep the music culture alive.
Panche Baja Gaining Popularity Back
The late 2000s was the time when the Band Baja, the brass band comprising of Western Musical Instruments, encroached on the Panche Baja system in Nepal and the traditional instruments were on the verge of extinction. But as the time passed people started to relearn their cultural heritages, traditions and music too. That is when Nepalese gradually revereted to Panche and Naumati Baja.
These folk musical instruments are showcased at multiple occasions and places to educate Nepalese and foreigners equally about ancient traditions. So, that the ouths are encouraged and they learn to play these traditional musical instruments too.
- Heartbeat of Nepal: The Pancai Baja by Carol Tinge
- Featured Photo: Men blowing trumpets called Narshing Baja by Satish Pokhrel