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Gandharva ( Sanskrit गन्घर्व gandharva m .; Pali gandhabbā ) is in the early writings of the Indian Vedas a lower spirit being endowed with magical abilities, later a demigod ( upa-deva ) who knows and reveals the secrets of heaven and divine truth. In the individual text collections, the Gandharvas have different abilities with which they were handed down in Hindu mythology. They are regarded as personifications of sunlight or have the task of preparing and protecting soma , the drink of the gods, as subservient spirits . According to the Buddhist tradition, they are among the gods ( devas ). In the classical epics written in Sanskrit , Gandharvas (other plural Gandharvas ) appear in larger groups together with their female companions, the Apsaras , as musicians and singers.

Dancing apsara (left) and Gandharva musicians (right). Indian influenced Cham style , Tra Kieu, Central Vietnam, 10th century

In theory and practical guidance, Gandharva also describes ancient Indian ritual music, which was specially created to please the heavenly gods. The (semi-mythical) scholar Bharata Muni was the first to describe the strictly defined music, including dance and drama, in detail in the work Natyashastra , created around the turn of the ages . This ancient Indian music theory Gandharva Veda contains many of the foundations of classical Indian music that are still valid today .

Origin and appearance

The number of Gandharvas is given in the Atharvaveda at one point with 6333, the Mahabharata calls "seven times 6000 Gandharvas". In early and later scriptures they are very fond of women and have magical power over them. The Apsaras appear in a group with the Gandharvas as their consorts or playmates.

Gandharvas are familiar with medicine, control the god potion Soma and help to form the starry night sky. In the vicinity of the Vedic god Indra , the Lord of Heaven, the Gandharvas entertain the gods with music during the festivities. The gods are surrounded in their assembly hall by thousands of Gandharvas and Apsaras who sing, play instruments, dance and perform auspicious rituals. The abode of the gods is the holy mountain Kailasa , the summit of which is enveloped in the sound of heavenly music and fragrant scents.

According to the Atharvaveda, the world is divided into four areas, to which the four Vedas correspond in the list: 1) The earth consists of oceans, mountains and seven islands. 2) Gandharvas, Apsaras, and other lesser deities called Yakshas populate the sky . 3) All gods reside in heaven, including the Vasus, Rudras (entourage of Rudra ) and Adityas . 4) The principle of Brahman dwells in the other, highest space . According to Yajurveda, the Gandharvas knew the great secrets, i.e. the dwelling places of the gods and the world order.

There are various sources of information about where the Gandharvas came from and who their leader is. In Vishnu purana they are once descendants of Brahma ; they were born when they absorbed the divine melody and speech ( gam dhayantah ). Elsewhere they are presented as the sons of a heavenly sage ( Rishi ) named Kashyapa and his consort Arishta. In the Harivamsa Muni, another of Kashyapa's wives, is named as her mother, and they are also said to have come out of Brahma's nose there. The singer Citraratha, son of the Muni, is the leader of the heavenly musicians who live with the Apsaras in beautifully landscaped cities. According to the Padmapurana, there are 60 million Gandharvas that can be traced back to Vach, the daughter of Daksha, another woman from Kashyapa.

Possibly Narada , the inventor of the vina . Miniature from the beginning of the 19th century

In the pre-epic texts, Gandharvas are hardly connected to music and, like the Apsaras, are rarely mentioned. In a hymn of Atharvaveda, music sounds from the trees after Apsaras had previously been below. In the same passage a Gandharva is mentioned dancing between Apsaras.

Their real fame begins with the Mahabharata. A Gandharva king is called Visvavasu, he is the son of Danu and is said to have played vina so beautifully at a sacrificial ceremony that everyone in the audience believed he was playing for him alone. Visvavasu's son Citrasena accompanied Arjuna when he was in the Khandava forest and taught him to dance, sing and play the harp.

The mythical sage Narada , the son of Brahma and inventor of the oldest stringed instrument vina, is their leader. Narada acts as a messenger of the gods and is nicknamed Deva-Gandharva ("divine Gandharva") or Gandharva- Raja ("King of the Gandharvas").

One of the most famous heavenly musicians is the pancasikha, usually depicted with a bow harp , which occurs only in the Buddhist , but not in the Hindu tradition. Pancasikha is one of Indra's companions, two Jatakas describe how Pancasikha, Indra and Matali (Indra's charioteer) are reborn together into a family. According to the most famous story, Indra once wanted to visit Buddha . Indra hoped that Buddha would extend his life in heaven, which was coming to an end, but doubted whether he would receive him, since Buddha did not know him. So Pancasikha should hurry ahead to wake the Buddha out of his meditation with soft music and prepare for the visit. Pancasikha offered hymns of praise to the Buddha, as well as love songs addressed to an apsara. A stone relief of the 2nd / 3rd century. Century AD from Nagarjunakonda (island in Nagarjuna reservoir in Andhra Pradesh) shows how many similar images this scene. Indra, who can be recognized by a tall, cylindrical headgear, stands on the right, next to him Pancasikha is playing the harp. Six heavenly figures (possibly Bodhisattvas ) have joined the two visitors and Buddha , the three seated in front cover their ears.

On a Gandhara relief on the stupa of Sikri (northwest of Taxila ) from the 2nd century AD, Pancasikha announces Indra's visit to Buddha, who has withdrawn to meditation in a cave. To the left below the seated Buddha, the smaller Pancasikha moves into the four strings of his harp with far reaching hand movements. Indra is even smaller and pushed into the background at the left edge of the picture. Perhaps Indra is still a long way off when pancasikha was already playing before Buddha.

In Vishnupurana there is the story of the battle of the Gandharvas with the snake gods ( Nagas ), whose underground kingdom they plundered. The Naga heads then turned to Vishnu for assistance. Vishnu promised to intervene in the form of King Purukutsa (also a poet of Vedic mantras ). The Nagas married her daughter Narmada (river Narmada in central India) with Purukutsa who tracked the Gandharvas and destroyed.

Horse-headed Tumburu, leading musician-singer of the Gandharvas with a vina. Gouache around 1820, probably from Tamil Nadu

The Gandharvas are hybrid creatures like the snake-shaped Nagas or the Kinnaras with bird legs who also make music (their female counterparts are the Kinnaris ). The Kinnaras are good-natured, helpful mythical creatures, they always appear in pairs (for example when they bathe together in the river) and are excellent musicians. On festive occasions they entertain together with Gandharvas and Apsaras. One such festival took place when the palace of King Yudhishthira, one of the five Pandavas of the Mahabharata, was inaugurated and everyone, including the invited Rishis, sang heavenly songs under the direction of Tumburu . Tumburu is the son of Rishi Kashyapa and his wife Pradha, he is considered the best musician among the Gandharvas. According to another story, he is equated with Viradha, a man-eating demon ( Rakshasa ) who came back to life as the beautiful Gandharva after his cruel death. In retrospect it turned out that the dwarf-shaped god Kubera had condemned him to an existence as Rakshasa, from which he was freed by Rama .

In Hindu literature, the kinnaras sometimes have horse legs like the Gandharvas, to which they are occasionally included, but only because they too are hybrids and make music. In either case, the two heavenly beings are related to horses ( vajin ). Both can be portrayed with the human face with a horse's abdomen. Many Gandharvas, especially those who drift on the wind (wind god Vayu ), have a horse's head. Accordingly, the ancestral mother of the horses is called Gandharvi, just as Kadru gave birth to snakes ( nagas ) and Rohini gave birth to cows. The connection between Gandharvas and horses is emphasized in several places in the Mahabharata. The Gandharvas have furiously galloping horses there, which can change their color at will. The Gandharva Tumburu gives Yudhishthira 100 horses, which he will later lose when playing dice. Arjuna also receives horses from the singer Citraratha.

A connection between the Sanskrit word gandharva and the Greek kentauros , the centaur , a hybrid creature of Greek mythology with a human upper body and horse's lower body, has been discussed since the 19th century . Apart from the etymology , which is judged differently to this day, there are similarities in the appearance and behavior of the two mythical creatures. They also ride the storm wind, stalk women and are endowed with magical abilities. For the early Indo-European steppe peoples, horses were hunting prey and totem animals, even before they were domesticated as riding and pack animals.

In earlier writings, affection for women sometimes made the Gandharvas look threatening and negative. In a verse of Atharvaveda they appear hairy like monkeys and dogs, but transform into beautiful figures to seduce women. They are hairy in other texts as well: In the Mahabharata, a dancing Gandharva carries a tuft of hair at one point, at another point Arjuna is dragging a Gandharva, whom he has defeated in battle, with him by the hair.

In the Mahabharata, the armament of the Gandharvas is described on the occasion of several battles, several times they are mentioned as archers. Citraratha, whom Arjuna has defeated in battle, shares his magical abilities ( cakshusi vidya ) with Arjuna , which allow him to see into all three worlds and thus to defeat people in battle. It is possible that these skills also referred to gun knowledge.

The sex of the Amritas is derived from a Gandharva and an Apsara. According to the Samaveda, the death god Yama and his twin sister Yami are descended from these . Yama crossed the sea and later became the first mortal human. Yami followed him to beget offspring with him. However, it is not clear whether it was in the spirit of this myth to hold a Gandharva responsible in a straight line for the origin of the human race on earth.

Ancient Indian music theory

Swirls of the ocean of
milk . On the left Suras, ( Devas , "gods"), on the right Asuras ("demons") pull the serpentine Vasuki and whisk the mountain Mandara in the middle. Up in the mountain, Gandharvas making music sit between green trees. Gouache around 1820

According to the Mahabharata, ancient Indian music was divided into the three social areas 1) music of the gods, the strictly regulated, heavenly music deva gandharva, 2) music of the kings, their court and the brahmins, desa gita , and 3) the music of all ethnic groups outside the caste hierarchy. The first two music categories were only allowed to be performed by selected and trained musicians, as this music, according to the Vedic classification of the three life goals ( trivarga ) in kama (pleasure), artha (material striving, political action) and dharma (religious obligation) , belongs to the area of dharma was assigned.

In Natyashastra, the word gandharva for music is derived from the heavenly musicians of Gandharva. The Gandharva-Veda, the collection of theoretical treatises on music, is considered one of the four basic sciences that are derived from the Vedas and are summarized as Upa-Veda . The other three are Ayurveda (healing art), Dhanurveda (art of war) and, according to different sources, Sthpatayaveda (also Vastuveda , architecture) or Arthashastra (statecraft).

Text sources

Natyashastra , a treatise on the performing arts , is traced back to the Indian sage Bharata Muni, who is said to have lived around the turn of the ages or before . It is the most comprehensive and revered work on Gandharva music. Bharata describes gandharva as the strictly determined music desired by the gods, and its performance was therefore considered an act of sacrifice for the gods. This music is produced by string instruments (generally vina ) and accompanied by various other instruments. The Gandharva repertoire, as it is described in detail in the Natyashastra, includes ritual acts (theater), instrumental music, text ( pada ), dance and facial expressions. An essential part of the ancient Indian as well as today's classical (dance) theater is the prelude Purvaranga, which consists of several precisely defined parts and in which the master of ceremonies sutradhara greets the audience. Bharatas Natyashastra describes how the four dancers have to come on stage in Purvaranga, their costumes, their dance style, the facial play, how they are made up, as well as the type and mood ( svara ) of the musical instruments. The strict gandharva style of Purvaranga is followed by a second, less established style called gana .

A little later than the Natyashastra, between the 1st and 5th centuries AD, the sage Dattila compiled the musicological work Dattilam from earlier texts . The third source on Gandharva music is an important commentary on Natyashastra written by the Kashmiri scholar and musician Abhinavagupta in the early 11th century. The first (three-volume) English translation of the extensive work Abhinavabharati has been available since 2006. Sarngadeva summarized the entire musical tradition in the 13th century in the Sangitaratnakara .

All works span a period of a good 1000 years and a musical tradition that seems so firmly established in Natyashastra that it must have been compiled centuries before. This is confirmed by Bharata himself, who mentions in verse 525 that the music theory was previously described by "Narada", he consequently only reproduces the recognized theories. It remains unclear who Bharata means. He could have been referring to the legendary sage Narada , whose work is called Naradya Shiksha in connection with Gandharva music and Samaveda, or to Narada as one of the heavenly Gandharvas. In the latter case, Bharata would have placed himself in a sacred lineage.


The structural basis of Gandharva music was the comprehensive, rhythmic time unit tala , to which the pitch ( svara ) and the text ( pada ) were subordinate. The Gandharva-Veda music theory, which emerged from the Samkhya philosophy, includes the classifications of the seven svaras (notes), two gramas (original scales), from which seven murchanas (modes) emerged, and 18 jatis (basic melodic forms). From this, today's terms such as sruti (microtones), gamaka (ornamentation), raga (melodic structure), tala (rhythmic structure) or prabhanda (composition) developed in Bharatas Gharana (tradition ). Outstanding among the forms that have passed into today's music is upohana , the free rhythmic introduction to the song with meaningless syllables. It corresponds to today's South Indian improvisation form alapana (the North Indian opening is called alap ). Prastara ("to spread out") was called a special musical sequence to end a piece. This is roughly equivalent to vistara today .

The strict Gandharva music of Purvaranga consists of seven gitakas (compositional forms, song genres), which are also called saptarupas ("seven forms") and are part of the overall concept of tala . The formal characteristics of the gitakas include briefly : rhythm patterns ( pattern , talavidhi ); verses based on the musical structure ( slokas ); body gestures following the music; Stress on the final syllable; repeated syllable sequences in the form of a palindrome ( uttara tala ); Speed ​​increases in the ratio 1: 2: 4; Repetitions of text and melody at double speed as a method for transitions ( upavartana ); vocal introduction ( upohana ); melodic development through interchangeability, repetition and condensation ( prastara ). The first three gitakas are called Madraka, Aparantaka and Ullopyaka. What they have in common is that they can be performed in single, double and quadruple tenses, each with different subdividing time intervals ( matras ). The other gitakas are Ullopyaka, Rovindaka, Prakari, Uttara and Ovenaka . The latter is the most complex form of gitakas with a multitude of structural elements and changes in tempos.

From the sources, the rhythmic structures as well as the sequence and pitch of the notes ( svara ) of gandharva can be measured, but sufficient knowledge about the connection between the two is lacking, so that despite all practical attempts at reconstruction, it is only possible to vaguely assess how the music actually sounded may have. Today's South Indian music is more strongly attached to the old Indian rhythm tradition than the North Indian. As an exception, the north Indian rhythm structure Tintal, which is most popular today, with 16 beats (divided into 4 × 4 equal sections) is directly related to a corresponding ancient Indian rhythm, whose 16 beats were divided into 4 padabhagas . In Indian music history there has been a constant development, but nowhere a revolutionary leap.

Music making practice

“Nareda. The God of Music “
Typical misrepresentation: Narada played with a bow harp, but not with a stick zither. Engraving from 1800

The connection between musical rhythm and body movements is essential for ancient Indian music-making. Every drum beat is preceded by a corresponding gesture. The rhythmic structures established in the tala have developed from the ritual hand movements accompanying the hymns ( Samhita ). Abhinavagupta already saw the origin of the rhythm in the fixed gestures, which may have played a role in the performance of the Samaveda hymns, but whose former meaning was lost when it was translated into musical form. The music has retained silent gestures that indicate the beginning, while certain sequences of notes mark the end. Silent gestures include avapa (curved fingers with palm up), nishkrama (palm with fingers extended down), vikshepa (hand bent to the right), and pravesha (curved fingers with palm down). The names can be found in certain song forms ( dhruvas ) of today's Indian dances .

The oldest illustrations show the string instrument vina in the form of bow harps on Buddhist cult buildings ( stupas ) from the 2nd century BC. Older written documents for bow harps come from the Brahmanas before the middle of the 1st millennium BC. BC, an instrument is described there with seven strings and other properties that are similar to today's Burmese national instrument saung gauk . Another type of vina was a long-necked lute as found in the art of Gandhara and on the stupas of Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda in the 1st through 3rd centuries AD. The later developed stick zithers with calabashes , as they are known today as rudra vina , no longer belong to Gandharva music.

The orchestra used for the Purvaranga was small and, in addition to string instruments, consisted of flutes and percussion instruments, including drums , clay pots (such as ghatam ) and small bronze cymbals for the acoustic transmission of hand movements. Men and women sang together.


Derived from the ideal idea of ​​a Gandharva and an Apsara as a radiant couple practiced in the fine arts, gandharva (or gandharvavivaha ) means one of the five traditional forms of marriage: the love marriage agreed only between the young man and the young woman without the one otherwise required in India Parental consent and without the usual rituals.

In the Mahabharata, the term “city of the Gandharvas” ( gandharva nagaram ) is a metaphor for an optical illusion or illusion that can be seen in the sky or above the water.


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Web links

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  8. Walter Kaufmann, 1981, p. 142
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  19. Sutradhara, Indian Theater Character. Indian Net Zone
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  23. SAK Durga, 1992, p. 151
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  25. Lewis Rowell, 1988, pp. 143f, 157-183
  26. Lewis Rowell, 1988, pp. 183, 186
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