Damru or damaru is the most common hour-glass drum played in India and adjoining nations like Tibet and Nepal. A traditional damru is either made up of wood or human skulls; with the usual height around 6 inches, weighing approximately 250-330 gm. The most unique feature of a damru is a resonator which brings the sound magic from within. The resonator is anywhere from 4-10 inches in length and 3-8 inches in diameter.The highest quality resonator is made up of brass but these days metal or wood resonators are also much in use. There are two drumheads on each side of the resonator which are laced together with a cord. Near the centre of the lacing are two loosely knotted cords. The knots on each end strikes both the heads to produce a rattling sound. This is affected by rotating the drum rapidly in alternate directions. The pitch is bent by squeezing the lacing.

The damru is the most popular amongst the family of hour-glass drums. Although other representatives (e.g., udaku, hurduk, idakka, etc) can also be found in use, they are very rare.

The damru is in stark contrast to the abundance of forms that are found carved on temple walls. Instead, the damru is almost apparently identical to the dhad. The dhad is played by striking the hands onto the drums rather than the knotted chords. The dhad is very popular in the Sikh bardic tradition.

The original manufacturing process of damru is preserved in a book named “Mindrolling Handbook of Vajrayana Implements.” However the modern day damru in India and Nepal are essentially made up of cheaper quality of woods, painted skins and with no mantras inscribed within.

Uses of Damru

The damru has been associated with both Buddhism and Hinduism since long. It is strongly associated with Lord Shiva and the Sadhus in Hindu religion, while in Buddhism, the damru is used for a different ritual ceremony. It is used by monks in Buddhist monastery. Damru is used ceremoniously during certain temple rituals and is the musical instrument of Lord Shiva. Shiva is generally depicted holding a damru, which essentially is the rhythm of all creative manifestation.

In Tantric Buddhist ritual in Tibet and Nepal, the damru instructs and reminds us of impermanence as the sound summons forth the female deity called Dakini, and celebrates the triumph of virtue over misery, that is achieved by practicing secret arts of the ‘Unexcelled Yoga Tantras’ or ‘Highest Yoga Tantras’. The damru is a ritual drum played by tantrics while performing puja. Again the Chöd practice–the Dhod teachings handed down by Machig Labdron and practiced by Tibetan yogis – also use damru. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition its usage amongst the Vajra Masters, monks, nuns and dakinis is very specific.

In Hinduism

The damru is well known throughout the Indian subcontinent and bears a special significance in Indian culture and traditions. It is strongly associated with Lord Shiva and the Sadhus (wandering Hindu religious saints).

As mentioned in the Shiva Sutra, when Lord Shiva performed the cosmic dance of ‘Tandava’, the pious sound coming from the drumbeats of his damru gave birth to the Sanskrit language. Here, it is popularly known as a power drum, and when played tends to bring spiritual energy.

An added symbolic interpretation of the sound of the damru suggests that the drum beat is akin to the rhythm of the heartbeat. A different version also suggests that the sound of damru symbolizes the words of the Vedas.

Naga Sadhus and other saints worshipping Shiva carry a damru along with them. They produce the sound during worship and also while seeking alms. The portable size of this musical instrument has also made it a favorite amongst the itinerant folk musicians.

Lord Shiva and Damru

Lord Shiva is depicted as holding a small drum shaped hourglass which is typically recognized as a damru. Shiva holding damru is most popular in the Nataraja form. Sometimes he is shown in a dancing posture holding the damru. This may be different from the form of Nataraja.  In some images the damru is tied to the Trishul or trident. The sound from damru symbolizes the sound that originates in creation and perpetuation of the universe.

Shiva devotees believe that beating of the damru by Shiva produced the very first sound (nada). This first sound was created from nothingness. Shiva began his dance of creation to the rhythm of the damru. From his dance, the world came into being.

There is a symbolic meaning behind the sandglass figure of the damru. The first half of the damru symbolizes the male procreation organ i.e. the Lingam while the second half symbolizes the female procreation organ i.e. the Yoni. Thus, the middle-point of the damru – where the Lingam meets the Yoni – is indicative of the creation of this universe. Again, the destruction takes place when both separate from each other. Legend has it that Shiva passed on the knowledge of the sound of damru to his son, Lord Ganesha, who is hailed as a pakawaj player. He then added more sounds and produced music.

In Tibetan Buddhism

In Tibetan Buddhism the damru is used in a ritual manner particularly with the trance oriented sadhana of the Chöd. In the Chinese language, damru is called Chang te’u.

The espousal of damru in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition originated from the ancient Indian tantric practice and has been in existence in this Himalayan nation since 8th Century A.D. At present this tantric ritual – Vajrayana –no longer exists in India, but is still in practice in many Tibetan pockets.

Tantric damru ritual gradually faded out in the Indian subcontinent because the skull damru, required for such practices, was manufactured illegally and imported from Nepal and adjoining areas during the 1960s.

The Skull Damru

The skull damru is made from a male and female skull bone or calvarium. The two skulls are attached from the head area after cutting them till the forehead, just before the ears. The mantras are accurately etched in gold inside the male and female skulls.

As part of the procedures, the skin of a skull is buried with elements like copper, mineral salts and other required herbs for two complete weeks. After the skin has acquired a desirable blue/green spotted look, it is stretched to the maximum level and stuck on the two sides of the damru.

Depending on the requirement, a collar made up of cloth, or copper, or silver metal is attached at both sides of the beaters. The knit covers are symbolic to eyeballs. Finally, the skulls are specifically chosen from a reliable source so as to bear the most fruitful results.

The ChödDamru

Tibetan female saint, Machik Labdron, initiated the practice of Chöd, pronounced Chö, in the 10th century. The ritual is well established as a popular Western Buddhist practice and as a school solely devoted to this spiritual technique, with many followers. This is the essence of the Vajrayana philosophy and principles. The inner meditations and visualizations form the basis of the Chöd ritual. Hence the damru is played tardily accompanied with the melodies and chants of the ritual.

Traditionally the Chöd drum is made of acacia and a range of other non-toxic and non-thorny woods. Made as a one-piece, double-sided bell shaped, its size varies from 8 to 10 inches in diameter. They are normally available in three specific kind of acacia i.e. marpo or common red, nakpo or black, serpo or rare yellow. There is an option for the belt in Chöd Damru as it can be made of leather or brocades. Inside each drum interior, there are various configurations of gold.

How is Damru Played?

Damru is a single-handedly played instrument. The leather chords are tied around the waist of the instrument and towards the end of leather cords the strikers are fastened appropriately. In place of the strikers, leather knots or any crochet material can also be used as drum-hitters. A beautiful sound is produced when the strikers are beaten repeatedly on the drumheads with a twisting wrist movement.

Playing damru is indeed an art, especially when played in larger assemblies. When it is played in the assemblies, the instrument must move in unison with the umdze, the chant master. As he makes an outward or inward stroke, the chorus must follow. The technique of snapping and stopping the damru, at once by all in the group is a real art. Damru playing in various rituals is accompanied by ringing bells and vajras in unison. Here the role of umdze is quite essential and is the centre of attraction as bells and vajra play in tune with the umdze. The whole group thus creates a pious ambience with their perfect musical unison and harmony.

Damru in ‘Vajrayana’ practice

Vajrayana ritual uses damru for pronouncing various accents and punctuation needed while performing this practice. This practice is performed by holding and constantly playing damru and bell with the right and the left hand respectively.

It is an important instrument for a solo practitioner. Or else, in case of larger congregation, only the commanding Rinpoches and chant master, Umdez, use them, in concert with the long horns (radung), short horns (jalung), large cymbals (silnyne and rolmo) and large temple drums (nga).

During a nyungnei, a twenty-four hour fast that is a Mahayana sutra or Tara practice belonging to the category of Kriyayoga is practiced. It is to be noted that skull damrus, skull tools, inner-mantra tools or thigh bone trumpet horns should specifically not be present in or around the temple vicinity. Besides, these tools should not be available either to vajra master or other practitioners during the ceremony. Last but not least, eating sattvic food and avoiding liquor also form important ritual during the ‘Vajrayana’ practice.