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The mridangam is an ancient percussion instrument that is an essential part of the South Indian Carnatic music troupe. Its origin can be traced back to at least 2000 years. This is a two-headed drum that is frequently used by Hindustani classical musicians from the north too. It is also called by other names such as tannumai, mrdanga, and pakhawaj. The other percussion instruments used along with the mridangam are the kanjira, the ghatam, and the morsing. When used for Hindustani music ensembles, it is accompanied by the ghatam, tabla, and the kanjira. The earlier versions of the mridangam were made of hardened clay and thus this word comes from the Sanskrit word mrt meaning earth or clay and anga meaning limb.
As per ancient Hindu mythology and as depicted in paintings and sculpture, the mridangam was the favourite instrument of deities such as Ganesha and Nandi. It is believed that when Nandi played the mridangam during the Tandav dance of Lord Shiva, the rhythm produced rang across the three worlds. This musical instrument is also said to reproduce the sound of Indra moving through the heavens on his elephant. This is the reason it is referred to as the deva vaadyam or the Divine instrument. Mridangam is very popular in Newa or Newar music, which is the traditional music made popular by the Newars in Nepal.
The mridangam is reputed to have caused the development of the tala or rhythm system. Legend also has it that the tabla was made by splitting the mridangam in half. Percussion instruments such as the mridangam were mostly used to accompany lead players and vocalists but it is now possible to observe artists holding one instrument shows too. The mridangam holds a special place in Tamil culture where it is called the tannumai. It was used along with tudi, murasu, and parai to sound the war call during the Sangam period as it was believed that the holy sound would protect the king and drive away the enemies. Mridangam also was a part of the musical ensemble used for the performance of antarakottu or dance drama that was the precursor of the now famous Bharathanatyam.
The mridangam has a really smooth tone and is capable of producing great harmony on the drum heads, with one being bass and the other treble. The side that produces the lower bass sound is called the eda bhaaga or thoppi and the side that produces the higher treble sound is called the bala bhaaga or valanthalai. Although originally made from hardened clay, it later began to be made from different kinds of wood to increase its durability. Today the wood of the jackfruit tree is used for its construction. The body of the mridangam is hollow and each end is covered with goatskin that is secured to the body with leather straps. Playing the mridangam like all musical instruments gives a student discipline and focus. Time management and creativity are other skills that are by-products of learning to master the mridangam.