Also:       nagaswaram      nadhaswaram      nadaswaram      

Title: India: Festival Music of Kerala--Nagaswaram; Murukesha Kamber and Ayyappa Kamber, nagasvaram. Label: JVC. Format: CD. Catalogue#: VICG-5350-2. Track: 1.

Contextual Associations

The nagasvaram is a large double-reed aerophone of southern India. It is the leading instrument in the periya melam, the South Indian Hindu temple ensemble, and its vibrant sound is considered auspicious. The nagaswaram and tavil (a double-headed, barrel-shaped drum) players of the periya melam provide music for both indoor activities at temples (such as daily rituals called puja) as well as for outdoor processions (called urvalam) on festival days. It can also be performed at weddings, in some genres of folk drama, and for ceremonies as commonplace as the opening of a new building. In recent decades it has also become a concert hall instrument (still accompanied by the tavil). The traditional repertoire of the instrument consists primarily of instrumental melodies (called mallari) upon which the musicians elaborate; concert hall performers additionally draw upon vocal compositions (such as devotional songs called kriti) that are part of the Karnatak (classical south Indian music) tradition. Historically, nagasvaram players, always male, were born into a very low, non-Brahmin caste from which temple musicians and dancers were recruited. While this is still the case today, periya melam musicians changed legally their caste name and affiliation in the middle of the 20th century, which has resulted in a higher social position than previously. In addition to being part of the south Indian soundscape, the nagasvaram is also performed in Hindu temples in Sri Lanka and other locales around the world where communities of south Indian Hindus have settled.


The nagasvaram is a three-foot long wooden oboe with a conical bore and cane reed.  It has row of seven equally distanced fingerholes, no thumbhole, and five vent holes on the lower half of the ebony wood body that can be plugged with wax in various combinations to adjust the tuning of the instrument. The conical shape of the bore is more pronounced than the exterior profile of the instrument suggests. It starts out at the reed end with a very small diameter, basically that of the base of the reed itself. At the bell end it has widened to more than an inch before the final dramatic flare. The bell is detachable and made from a different variety of wood than is used for the body. The reed (sevali) is relatively soft and unlike many double reeds elsewhere in the world the cane is not split along its edges. Its base is affixed to a short metal tube wound with thread, which in turn is slipped into a hole at the top end of the instrument’s body. A decorative string is used to hold a spare reed and a bone tool used to make adjustments to the reed.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Nagasvaram players traditionally stand when playing, although in the course of the 20th century as the instrument evolved into the concert setting some players choose to perform seated. The instrument is usually held at about a 45-degree angle to horizontal by both hands. Either hand can be used to cover the top three fingerholes, the other hand the bottom four. The nagasvaram pictured here is tuned approximately to D3 with all fingerholes covered and all vent holes open. Its range is two to two-and-a-half octaves. The player forces an airstream against the tip of the reed, which is inserted into his mouth, while applying various degrees of pressure on the reed surfaces with his lips. Control of these two variables (airstream and lip pressure) shapes both intonation and ornamentation subtleties. Fingering and tonguing techniques further add to the intricacy of the melodies produced on this instrument.


The origin and history of the nagasvaram are not clear. It appears in an 11th century CE temple sculpture, and in written sources from the 14th century onwards. One theory is that it developed from the North Indian sahnai, but not everyone subscribes to this. 

Bibliographic Citations

Flora, Reis. 1984. “Nagasvaram.” NGDMI v.3:741-742.

Reck, David B. 2002. "Musical Instruments: Southern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 350-369.

Sankaran, T., and Matthew Allen. 2002. "The Social Organization of Music and Musicians: Southern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 383-396.

Skelton, William. 1971. “The Nagaswaram and the South Indian Hindu Festival.” Asian Music 2/1: 18-24.

Terada, Yoshitaka. 2008. “Temple Music Traditions in Hindu South India: “Periya Melam” and Its Performance Practice.” Asian Music 39/2: 108-151.

Wade, Bonnie. 1979. Music in India: The Classical Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: South Asia

Nation: India

Formation: Dravidian

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

422.112.2 aerophone--single conical-bore reedpipe with double (or quadruple) reed: the pipe has a reed (usually a flattened stem) of paired lamellae which periodically open and close, controlling the flow of air; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with flaring open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: exposed concussion (multiple) reed

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


37 in. length

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin