Sarangi, the Heart of Traditional Nepali Folk Music

Traditional Folk Instrument of Nepal, the Sarangi
Traditional Folk Instrument of Nepal, the Sarangi

Standing on street corners amidst clamorous horns and revving engines in Kathmandu and Pokhara, young musicians play sarangis, a traditional handmade wooden Nepali folk instrument that resembles a small fiddle. Although the sarangi is today used by many, it was traditionally played only by people of Gandarva, or Gaine caste, as they are commonly known. The most famous of sarangi musicians, Jhalakman Gandarva, in 1962 produced the song, “Amale Sodlin, Khoi, Chhora Bhanlin (My Mother Will Ask Where Her Boy Is),” a narrative folk song about a Gurkha soldier’s final words of remembrance to his family as he lies dying of a wound to his head in World War II. Jhalakman is the first singer to record Gaine song and bring the voice of his indigenous people to the masses.

Today, Gaine caste members like brothers-in-law Sandu Kancha Gandarva and Bukun Gandarva are are working to preserve the culture of the sarangi. Hailing from Tanahun, the two were born and raised in a family where the sarangi was a way of life. Sanu Kancha, who is a founding member of the Gandarva Culture and Art Organization, left his village at the age of 12 and came to Kathmandu to seek his fortune. He made and played sarangi on the streets in those early days, selling the instruments to tourists for three and four times what it cost to make them. Fifteen years ago, Bukun came to Kathmandu to begin working with his brother-in-law ; today he performs nightly at Bhojan Griha Restaurant in Thamel, the backpacker area of the city, and gives sarangi lessons during the day.

Although Bukun has recorded two albums with other folk artists and toured Asia and Europe, the brothers-in-law are worried about the future. During the annual Sarangi Day Celebration this past October, Sanu Kancha ws interviewed by the Kathmandu Times about the fate of his beloved sarangi:

“The younger generation is no longer interested in learning their ancestral craft. I wanted to teach my two sons what has been in our family for generations but not one of them showed any interest in learning. It’s difficult to imagine how many will play this instrument 50 years from now. We, the older generation, will be dead and I wonder how many Gandarvas who actually play the sarangi will be around.”

If the number of wandering musicians are any indication, the sarnagi will be around for many years. Tourists can hardly walk down a street without these modern day minstrels trying to sell one of their instruments. Occasionally, however, these youngsters will oblige with an impromptu concert, such as the duo in the short video below, which was shot on the streets of Pokhara. They make different notes by touching the upper strings with the fingers of the left hand while drawing the bow across the strings at the junction between the two cavities.

Modern sarangis are still hand-carved from a very light local wood known as Khiro. The body is carved into a hollow frame with two openings, the lower of which is covered with dried sheep-skin. Originally, the four strings were made of sheep intestine but these days steel or nylon are generally used, just as nylon has replaced the horsehair tail traditionally used for the bow string. The strings are supported by two bridges on the sarangi’s fretless neck and tuned by Kunti (tuner). With this attention to detail and commitment to maintain the historical design, few souvenirs are more representative of the Nepali culture than a sarangi.

Considering a future visit to Nepal? You’ll want to check out my Essential Travel Guide for Pokhara, Nepal, which is updated regularly.

31 thoughts on “Sarangi, the Heart of Traditional Nepali Folk Music”

  1. Its amazing article to read about Gandharba of Nepal . I my self a Gandharba of Nepal and we are working form last five year to preserve and protect the Gandharba tradition of Music and folk lore , we have done few auditorium Program of Gandhraba musician from all of the Nepal , this year we want to do international Sarangi day in Kathmandu on February 2014. If any sarangi lover and ideas to get funds or sponsor our event please fell free to contact us : we can submit the detail plan if needed ….

    Contact detail : Mr.Suresh Gandhrba
    email : [email protected]
    mob: 00977-9803260733

  2. I love sarangi and its music very much. I want to learn to play sarangi. My house is near pokhara, where must i contact for other advice to learn to play sarangi.

    • Hi Ram: I suggest talking to the men who walk up and down Lakeside Marg, trying to sell the sarangi. Maybe they can help you.

  3. Our guide gave us a sarangi when we left Nepal on 1st June! We have yet to try really playing it. One of my boys just did some simple songs on it, that’s all and has been too busy to try more. I think we’d need to change the strings and the bowhair for better quality, but I have yet to study into that too. *oops*. ;P

  4. Awesome blog, Barbara. Probably a random question, but any idea where would be a good place to get a good quality sarangi in Kathmandu?

    • Hi John: Yes! There is a music store several doors down from the Kathmandu Madhuban Guest House, located a half-block from the Chhetrapati traffic circle and the folks at Madhuban told me they make great instruments.

  5. It is an interesting topic.nepalese version makes different sound than Indian sarangi. It has such a beautiful wailing sound. See mountain music project Nepal and Appalachia music in YouTube. Project by Appalachia musician who went to nepal to learn more about this instrument. Wow I was surprised by this instrument . Great culture and beautiful country.

  6. I also heard this strange instrumenet being played in Kathmandu though I didn’t know anything of it. Many Asian countries appear to have some kind of simple stringed instrument – I wonder if they all come from the same origins or were separately developed.

    • There is a connection, Mark. I believe that the Sarangi may have originated
      in India (it looks quite a bit different from the Nepali version but has the
      same name) and then the instrument was adapted for use in Nepal. It may have
      other connections around Asia as well, although I am not aware of other
      similar instruments. Maybe some of my other readers know??

  7. Happy New Year, Barbara.
    Thanks for this interesting piece on the sarangi. I have not heard of it before, so I’ve learned something new. Keep up the great blogging. Where will your travels take you to next?

    • Hi Jason: I’m off to Thailand soon, then probably Cambodia & Laos.I’m
      seriously in need of sunshine and warm temps!

  8. When are you going to be taking lessons?!! You can bring it back to America! I don’t ever recall hearing a sarangi played when I was in Nepal…or maybe I just wasn’t aware that was what it was!

    • Ha! I’m having trouble enough trying to learn Nepali, and I’m pretty good
      with languages. Musical talent? Not so much. Think I’ll give Sarangi lessons
      a pass!

  9. Barbara, you never cease to amaze me. And I always learn something when I stop by your blog. I love that you filmed the musicians, so your fans could hear the lovely sound of the Sarangi.

    Thanks for the vicarious journey. Happy New Year!

    • I am so glad you like it Darrelyn. I was tempted t buy one and try to learn,
      but I move around so much that I have to stay light, so I just settled for
      memorializing it on video. Happy New Year to you, too!

  10. Hi Barbara,
    Very interesting to know about this tradition in Nepal. Sarangi, in the past century, has achieved the distinction as being a classical music instrument. Prior to that it was mostly used as an accompanying instrument for vocalists and dancers. Sarangi can get quite complex actually, upto 40 strings, and its distinctive sound can be compared to that of a violin since its the same principle. I tried playing it few times… 😀

    • How interesting Anil! I also learned that there is a sarangi in India,
      although it is square and is used in classical Indian music.

  11. I spent a few weeks in Kathmandu in 2006 and I don’t remember seeing anyone playing sarangis.

    I guess I’d better go back and see what I missed out on. Nepal is one of my favourite places in the world.

    • Hi Eatlaughlove: Perhaps it’s a recent phenomenon, but they’re all over the
      streets these days, especially in the Thamel area of Kathmandu. I certainly
      echo your sentiments, Nepal is officially my favorite place in the world as

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  13. It is often the influence of tourism that encourages traditional arts and music to be revived. I always stop and listen to any street performers we come across because they offer a unique observation on local culture, and if they have CD recordings for sale I buy. My collection of traditional music I’ve picked up on our travels is quite extensive. And it’s the main reason I still carry a video camera, to record these performances.


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