Damaru, The Drum of Shiva

Damaru, the Drum of Shiva

by Jayaram V

Years ago when I was a child, one day a Shiva Bairagi suddenly appeared in front of our house. He was probably a wandering ascetic who moved from place to place and stayed in desolate places during the night. Standing in front of our house, he made loud noises with his damaru and shouted to see whether there was anyone inside. When I went out, I saw a strange looking man, with long tufts of hair, unkempt beard, and a worn out black dress. His face and body were covered with ash, and he had bloodshot eyes. He was holding a damaru in his hands and shaking it violently, as he looked at me.

When I stood in front him at the door, he demanded that I should bring him a handful of uncooked rice for the sake of Shiva. I sincerely brought it from the kitchen with my palms and gave it to him, since he looked dangerous and I did not want him to curse us. He thanked me and put the rice in his bag. Then he took a few grains of rice into his palm, showed it to me and closed it, uttering some mantras. When he opened it for me, I saw a few grains of wheat in his palm instead of rice.

 Looking at my awestruck face he told me that he was able to do it because of the grace of Shiva. He also told me that if he wanted he could have made them into gold instead of wheat. Then he demanded that I should go back and get him some money so that he could pray for me and ask Shiva to help me. I went back, brought a few coins and gave to him, wondering why he needed the money when he could change things into gold. Pleased with my response, he gave me a dried flower, silently uttered a few mantras, and went away playing the damaru and making a loud noise.

That was my strong impression of the damaru in the hands of a fierce looking Shaiva Tantrik. Almost every Hindu is familiar with the damaru, becasue it is such a constant part of Shiva's images and the descriptions of Shiva. A damaru, or damru, is a small drum, which is shaped like an hourglass. It is popularly known as the drum of Shiva and associated with his images and iconography.

Because it is an important part of his paraphernalia, Shiva is also called Damarudhari, the bearer of the damaru. Traditionally, it is used by the Kapalikas, which is an ancient sect of Shaivism, and some Tantik Sadhus and Babas, who worship Shiva. They use it to announce their visit or their presence, or to attract attention, when they make rounds in the streets, seeking alms. Damaru is also used in Tibetan Buddhism in ritual worship and chanting.

Closely associated with the word damaru are dama and damar. Dama means a despised caste, and damar, means a riot or tumult, or a fearful situation caused by noise and commotion. Damaru was probably derived from the sounds it produces, or the commotion it causes in the minds of the common people when they see the weird looking Kapalikas creating loud noises with it, wearing skulls, and creating tumult in the streets.

Each damaru typically consists of two hallow, conical shaped drums, made of wood or a human skull, or bones. Their edges are covered by a tight, leather skin. A leather chord is fastened to the middle of the drum with two beads hanging at both ends, which act as the strikers. When the drum is moved or shaken with hands, the beads strike the skin-covered drum heads and create a rhythmic noise, which sounds like dum dum dum dum. The rhythmic sounds coming from the drum heads closely resemble the sounds created by the traditional drums when they are used in the classical Indian music.

Damaru has a lot of significance in Hinduism and in Sanskrit language. According to tradition, Panini, the great Sanskrit Grammarian composed the Maheshwara Sutras and created the basic rules of Sanskrit Grammar, after he saw Shiva in a vision dancing in front of him and listened to the sounds he made with his damaru.

Shiva is believed to be the progenitor of all sounds, languages, music, and vibrations in creation. The damaru symbolizes his connection with them. The two triangles in the damaru represent the Purusha and Prakrithi, and their union, which results in creation (srushti), movement (chaitanyam), speech (vac), and sounds (shabda). When they are separated, everything comes to a standstill, and the mind lapses into total silence.

Damaru also symbolizes Jiva, the embodied soul, who is helplessly caught in the play of Shiva and moves according to his will and force. He is active as long as Shiva moves his hands, but goes into rest when he is withdrawn. The two triangles in the damaru represent the mind and the body, while the chord represents the twin states of birth and death, to which it is bound. Just as the being is bound to the cycle of births and deaths, the damaru is bound to the chord.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Translate the Page