The Mridangam
Dimensions & Structure






Maintenance and Tools

The Mridangam is the primary percussion instrument of South Indian classical (Carnatic) music and dance.   It is a double-ended drum which is played with both hands.

The body of the drum is usually made from the wood of the Jackfruit tree.  It is a dense wood and the thickness of the body gives the Mridangam a weight of ten to twelve kilos.  A substantial part of your luggage allowance if your are buying in India!

I use Left for the Bass and Right for the treble ends, i.e. from the point of view of a right-handed player, throughout.  I also mostly avoid the Tamil terminology for the parts, but I will give a glossary at the end.  If any excuse is needed for this, I can only say that I am a right-handed Englishman!

Mridangams are made in two basic sizes, known as male and female (the larger is used for accompanying male vocalists and most instruments, the smaller for female vocalists). The sizes and head diameters are as follows:



Left Head

Right Head



24 inches

7 ½  inches

7 ¼ inches

1 to 3


22 inches

6 ½ inches

6 ¼ inches

3 to 5

A Mridangam will be made to play at a specific pitch, but can be tuned  ½ note or so up or down.  It will be precisely tuned to the tonic of the singer or instrument being accompanied.

Both heads of the Mridangam are made of several layers held together by a tight lacing.  The lacing also acts as the point of attachment for the strap which holds both heads to the body.

The playing surface of the left head  is goat skin.  Over this are two or more (depending on the thickness of the available materials) layers of hard buffalo skin.  This is cut to form a ring of about 1 ½ inches around the edge of the head leaving a playing area of only about 4 inches in diameter.  Before playing, a small dob of semolina is applied to the centre of this circle; this dramatically changes the sound of the head when struck from a high,. tinny note to a deep resonant bass note.  A little water can be applied to the skin to adjust its tension and further lower the note as necessary.  Semolina has to removed after use, as it will set very hard if left.  Many players are experimenting with semi-permanent substitutes such as silicon.  Blue Tack can be used for practice.  This very small playing circle makes gumaka very hard to achieve on the Mridangam.

The right head is much more complex in its structure.  Beginning from the inside, i.e. next to the wood, the layers are:

The head so far described will not have very much resonance: one final touch is required.  There are two ways of enhancing the sound, of which the first given here is by far the most common

The two heads are held under tension to the body by a leather strap which passes 16 times back and forth between them.  Synthetic braided rope is often used as an alternative as it holds its tension better and is less subject to climatic influence.