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Title: Anthology of World Music: The Music of Tibetan Buddhism—Hand-bell (drilbu) and hand-drum (damaru) played simultaneously by a single monk; Monk of the Entchi Monastery (Nyingmapa Sect), Gangtok, Sikkim, India. Label: Rounder Select. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CD 5129, Disc 1. Track: 6.

Contextual Associations

The thod-rnga (‘skull drum’) is a double-head membranophone. It is a Buddhist ritual pellet drum originating in Tibet but now also used in countries to which refugees from the Chinese subjugation of Tibet came to settle, including Nepal, Bhutan, and India. It is a specific form of a more widespread drum type called damaru. What sets the thod-rnga apart from other South Asian damaru drums is the material from which the shell is made--the crowns of two human skulls, preferably one male and the other female, both of whom died a violent death (Dick and Helffer, p. 539). Often pictured in Tibetan Buddhist art as an attribute of fierce protective deities, perhaps the numerous metal mask-like decorations imbedded in resin around the rims of the thod-rnga pictured here also represent such deities (see detail photo). This drum, often played in conjunction with a bell (dril-bu) or bone trumpet (rkang-gling), is used as a ritual implement by monks while chanting and meditating upon Tantric Buddhist religious texts (audio #1).


The roughly hourglass-shape of the thod-rnga shell is achieved by joining together the apexes of two skull crowns with a short tubular throat around which the decorated cloth handle is tied. The rims of the crowns must be smoothened in order to accept the animal skin membranes (one of them painted green), which are attached to the shell with glue and further reinforced with resin. Two strings with fabric balls at their end are attached to the waist of the shell so that when fully extended the balls will reach the middle of both drumheads.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer holds on to the trailing end of decorated cloth strap that is tied around the throat of the drum shell in his or her clenched fist so that the bottom edge of the drum rims press against the hand. In some iconographic sources, it appears the thumb and/or index finger of the holding hand can be extended to contact the throat of the shell. Rapidly rotating the wrist also rotates the drum, which in turn propels the balls on the ends of the strings against the drumheads. As long as this rotating motion continues a rapid series of articulations takes place producing a rattle-like effect; this sort of drum is often referred to as a rattle drum.  


It can be speculated that the thod-rnga is based on earlier forms of damaru drums associated with the worship of the Hindu god Shiva. It is believed that an 11th century CE female Buddhist aesthetic, Machik Labdron, is the founder of the meditation tradition in which the drum is used to this day (Chupchik, pp. 115-116).

Bibliographic Citations

Chupchik, Jeffrey W. 2013. “The Tibetan gCod Damaru--A Reprise: Symbolism, Function, and Difference in a Tibetan Adept’s Interpretative Community.” Asian Music 44/1: 113-139.

Dick, Alastair, and Mireille Helffer. 1984. “Damaru [damru, dambaru].” NGDMI v.1: 539.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: South Asia

Nation: China (Tibetan Autonomous Region), Nepal, India, Bhutan

Formation: Tibetan

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

212.241 membranophone--individual hourglass-shaped rattle drum (the drum is shaken; percussion is by impact of pendant or enclosed pellets, or similar objects)

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - hourglass

Number and function of membranes: two, both for sounding

Membrane design: unframed

Membrane attachment: unframed membrane glued to shell

Membrane tension control: none, tension set at time of manufacture

Sounding for membranophone: striking indirectly with pellet beaters

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


4.7 in. length of head at widest point

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin

Entry Author

Roger Vetter