Gaine sarangi

Contextual Associations

The sarangi is a bowed bowl-lute chordophone of Nepal. It is played exclusively by Nepali men of the low-status Gaine caste, wandering minstrel-beggars for whom the sarangi is a marker of identity. Up until the mid-twentieth century Gaines functioned as ‘singing newspapers,’ their songs providing for their audiences stories, myths, and daily news that is now delivered through mass media. Their repertoires are large and the songs they perform today fall into two general categories: songs and styles influenced by Indian and Western popular music heard through the mass media; and songs sung in the old folk ragas (modal scale structures). Although tourists are their primary audience today, during harvest time they walk house to house in rural villages exchanging their songs for food. In interactions with tourists, Gaines have found that they can earn extra income through the sale of decorative souvenir sarangis.


A diminutive 4-string bowed lute constructed from a single block of soft, unfinished wood. The resonator portion of the instrument consists of two sections: the top one is left open; the smaller bottom one is covered with goatskin nailed to the body and functions as the instrument’s soundboard. A tunnel running beneath the waist-like middle section of the resonator connects the two chambers. The backside of the resonator is rounded (see first detail image). Above the resonator is a short fingerboard without frets and above it a substantial pegbox and an oval-shaped decorative scroll. Each of the four strings (tar) is made from metal wire and runs from a tuning peg to a common endpin at the base of the resonator. A notched nut at the top of the fingerboard and a V-shaped notched bridge that rests at an oblique angle on the goatskin soundtable near the base of the instrument articulate the vibrating length of the strings and separate the strings from one another (see second detail image). This instrument in missing its bow, which would be made from a slightly arched stick, nearly the length of the instrument, with horsehair stretched from end-to-end. A few small brass pellet bells are often tied to one end and/or the middle of the bow.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Gaine musicians often perform while standing. They hold the instrument vertically, bow the strings just above the bridge with the right hand, and stop the strings against the fingerboard with the fingers of the left hand. The fingerboard being as short as it is allows the performer to play only in first position. The middle two strings are tuned in unison to the tonic scale degree (sur). The top string is tuned a fifth above the tonic and the bottom string a fourth below. Since the sarangi player accompanies his own singing, he chooses a frequency for the tonic that compliments his vocal range. All other pitches are produced relative to this pitch and, since the fingerboard is not fretted, intervallic relationships between notes of a scale are determined by where the performer stops the strings against the fingerboard. The particular song being performed dictates the scale to be used. The musician uses the sarangi to follow in unison or heterophonically the song he his singing, occasionally decorating the tune with melismas and improvising interludes between verses of the song. The instrument possesses a narrow dynamic range.


This instrument is more closely related to the sarinda, a form of short-neck bowed lute found throughout Southern Asia, than it is to the more well-known North Indian sarangi. How and when the sarangi became the property of Gaine musicians in Nepal is not entirely clear. It might have been brought to Nepal centuries ago when Gaines migrated from the Rajastan region of Northwest India and settled in the Gandhaki region of Nepal, but this can only be speculated. The low-caste status of Gaines in Nepal has not favored the chronicling of their cultural history.

Bibliographic Citations

Baily, John, and Alastair Dick. 1984. “Sarinda, “ NGDMI v.3: 297-298.

Ballinger, Thomas O., and Purna Harsha Bajracharya. 1960. “Nepalese Musical Instruments,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 16/4: 398-416.

Bech, Terence. 1975. “Nepal, the Gaine Caste of Beggar-Musicians,” The World of Music 17/1: 28-35.

Helffer, Mireille. 1984. “Sarangi; 3. The Nepalese sarangi," NGDMI v.3: 296.

Hoerburger, Felix. 1970. “Folk Music in the Caste System of Nepal,” Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 2: 142-147.

Moisalo, Pirkko. 2000. “Nepal,” GEWM v.5: 696-708.

Ward, Jeremy. n.d. “sarinda,” entry in The Roderic C. Knight Musical Instrument Collection. URL:

Yuji, Baba. n.d. “Nepal,” booklet essay accompanying the JVC Video Anthology of World Music and Dance v.15 track 15-8 “Gaine song with sarangi.”


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: South Asia

Nation: Nepal

Formation: Gaine

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.321 chordophone--necked bowl lute: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - integral

Resonator design, chordophone: bowl with membrane soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: bowing (direct)

Pitches per string course: one and multiple (by pressure stopping against fretless fingerboard)

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
string - wire

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Gaelyn Hutchinson