Udukkai: origin, construction and contexts of use

udukkai, hindu temple and indian flag
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Mario Friscia

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Origin and Construction

The udukkai is a small two-headed hourglass drum, traditionally found in the southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.

This percussion instrument, also known as udukku, allows players to modify the tension of a goatskin membrane and, as a result, change the pitch of the sound during the performance.

Having such a characteristic makes the udukkai an example of a highly versatile drum that can serve both rhythmic and melodic purposes.

The body can be made out of clay, jackfruit wood or brass.

Considering its shape, it can be related to other two hourglass drums: damaru, played in North India, and idakka, widespread in Kerala.

Udukkai by Gausanchennai is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

How to play Udukkai

Udukkai is played following a specific set of rules:

the left hand is used to hold the instrument while the right strikes the goatskin membrane of the small hourglass drum.

The instrument is played on one side only.

To vary the tension of the membrane and therefore the pitch of the sound, the udukkai player pulls and releases the cotton rope that goes across the body of the instrument.

Udukkai is commonly played with the bare hand but sometimes the instrument can be stroke with a stick to enchance the power of the sound.

If you want to learn how to play udukkai there are various free resources on Youtube that might be for you.

One is provided by Geethanjali – Learning arts and Music, the other is from Soundmani.

In the Geethanjali’s video you get a broad but highly reliable overview (in English) of the udukkai, while Soundmani offers an actual course (in Tamil) on how to play different rhythmic patterns on the instrument.


Contexts of use: an ethnographic journey through Youtube

Udukkai accompanies village temple festivals and private cerimonies in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and doesn’t fit into the category of classical percussion instruments employed within a Carnatic music concert.

Village performers are used to play it to support the recitation of prayers and the singing of folk songs and poems addressed to the healing goddess Mariyamman as well as to Murugan and Ayyappa.

In the light of its small size, the udukkai is easy to transport and is frequently associated with those kinds of musicians that have the task of providing a sonic background to a traveling ritual such as a procession.

Even though it is born as a folk drum built within villages for devotional purposes, the udukkai can be easily bought online nowadays and this growing demand shows that there is a market that goes far beyond the borders of South Indian village temple ceremonies.


Udukku Kotti Pattu

In Kerala, the udukkai is employed as a percussive accompaniment to the devotional singing that marks the propitiation rituals devoted to the god Ayyappa.

This tradition is so rooted in the temples of Kerala that a specific genre of songs, called Udukku Kotti Pattu, was born and has become a traditional art form.

Here is an example of group singing where the udukkai is used to provide the tempo and coordinate the singers:

As you can see from the next video, most of the time it is the singer himself that plays the udukkai, in a synergy of melody and rhythm.

Let me give you some information about the context first:

a team of young boys from Kerala performs Vadakkununnu Vannavale, a malayalam devotional song performed during Desa Vilakku, a temple festival in honor of Ayyappa.

Have a listen:

Here the hourglass drum becomes the protagonist:

in fact, it’s not treated as a mere tempo reminder but sustains the vocals with a precise and powerful rhythmic pattern, obsessively repeated by the singers throught the performance.

The practice of playing the hourglass drum can be accompanied by dance movements.

Take a look at this video, where a group of male devotees dances and moves in circle while singing a song to Ayyappa:


Udukkai Arul Paadal

Moving from Kerala to the worhship of Mariyamman in Tamil Nadu, we find another ritual application of the udukkai.

I’m referring to the Udukkai Arul Paadal, a genre of devotional singing accompanied by the sound of the small hourglass drum.

In this video we see a woman, Sharmila Devi, that alternates singing with the stroking of her udukkai.

Her ritual performance serves as a trance induction and introduces the wild dance of the Brahmin priest that stood close to her:

It is noteworthy how the singer uses the empty side of the udukkai as a sort of resonator for amplifing the sound of her voice.

In addition to that, we can see how the percussion instrument and its player get involved in ritual procedures managed by members of the Brahmanical caste.

Udukkai performances may take place within temples as well.

Take a look at this other video:

Here the lady is offering a devotional song to the statute of the healing goddess Mariyamman.

Notice how the hourglass drum is played to connect the phrases of the prayer, as a sort of rhythmic bridge, and stays quiet during the actual singing.





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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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