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Annotated Checklist of Musical Instruments From
Tibet and Nepal
On Display in the NMM's Beede Gallery

Note:  This checklist represents only a portion of the NMM's instruments from this area of the world.

Sacred and Secular in Tibet and Nepal

Before the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet in the seventh century, the Bön people lived according to a societal hierarchy, including chieftains, shamans, tradesmen, and musicians. A belief system based upon the veneration of ancestors and the appeasement of spirits was central to this pre-Buddhist society. Instruments such as the skull drum (damaru) and the thighbone trumpet (rkang dung) played crucial roles in this early religion. In addition, secular folk music abounded. Street musicians were pivotal to the celebration of any festival. Prior to the convergence of Bön and Buddhist traditions, the folk music of Tibet and Nepal developed virtually unimpeded by the stricter customs of the monastic ensemble; i.e., the musical consort used in ceremony within the numerous Buddhist monasteries throughout the region.

In the seventh century, the addition of Buddhism, migrating north from India, to the already lively native Bön traditions of the Tibetan tribes resulted in a complex hybrid rich in folklore and ceremony. The shamanistic customs of the Bön mystics, steeped in ancestor worship and spirit appeasement, combined with the teachings of the Buddha, yielded a multitude of deities and spirits comparable to those of ancient Greece and Rome.


Looking for a map? Link to the Perry-Castaņeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas at Austin for an excellent collection of historic and current worldwide maps. Click here for their selection of maps of Tibet and Nepal.

Go to The Eight Auspicious Symbols As Seen on the Musical Instruments from Tibet and Nepal On Display in the NMM's Beede Gallery



NMM 4927. Hand bell (dril bu), Tibet, 20th century. Two-piece, copper-based alloy construction. Iron clapper. Bells play an integral part in monastic ensembles, sounding either continuously or in short deliberate bursts. Five-pronged handle representing the central axis of the universe and the four cardinal directions. Held in the left hand, "of wisdom," in combination with the sacred scepter. Gift of Neil W. Goeppinger, Boone, Iowa, 1990.


NMM 7451A/B. Cymbals (rol mo), Tibet, ca. 1700. Two bronze cymbals with large central knobs. Handle of blue brocade with gold-thread embroidery attached to cymbal through hole in center of knob. Original, form-fitted wooden case with cloth overlay, painted red. Geometric bronze lotus leaves in repoussé attached to exterior of case. Two small brass rings mounted to edge for securing cymbals while in case. Board of Trustees, 1999.

NMM 2328. Cymbals (rol mo), Tibet, 19th century. Two bronze cymbals with large central knobs. Thin leather handles strung through hole in center of knob. Used to provide structural outline and rhythmic articulation to ritual chant. Played horizontally by striking faces together. Board of Trustees, 1977.

NMM 10069. Finger cymbals (ting shags), Tibet, 20th century. Two spun-silver cymbals with the mantra, Om Mani Padme, in Tibetan characters on the underside of each cymbal. Eight auspicious symbols circle the top of each cymbal, in low relief. Used in personal meditation and offerings. Usually played by gently striking the outer edge of cymbals together, while horizontally positioned. Gift of Western International Music, Greeley, Colorado, 2001.


NMM 1383. Skull drum (damaru), eastern Tibet, mid-19th century. Hourglass-shaped drum constructed of two inverted skull caps, symbolic of the joining of the female and male elements of life. Silver band, ornamented with coral and turquoise stones, connects the two halves. Played by rotating, causing the swinging beater to strike each head. Mantras were often written on the interior of drums such as these. Held in the right hand, the "hand of method," the skull drum is an example of the synthesis of tradition that took place between Bön and Buddhist spirituality. Ringley Fund, 1976.

NMM 3980.  Frame drum (dhyangro), Nepal, early 20th century. Wooden frame drum with goatskin drumheads. Ornately carved wooden handle with sea dragon head (makara) and three scepters of power. Red wax seal attached to base of handle. Employed by faith healers and shaman to invoke the spirits of the heavens. A fetish sealed inside the drum adds variety to each stroke of the long curved cane beater. Board of Trustees, 1986.


NMM 1491. Natural brass horn (dbang dung), Tibet, 19th century. Conically shaped descendent of the thighbone trumpet, always of metal, usually brass, and typically larger. Stylized sea dragon (makara) in brass repoussé on bell. The sea dragon is viewed as a beast of great power and tenacity, symbolic of the cyclic nature of water and of human existence. Ringley Fund, 1976.

NMM 2352. Buffalo horn (ngeku), Nepal, 20th century. Water buffalo horn with applied cuffs and fittings of copper and silver. Coral and turquoise stones embellish the metalwork. Sea dragon (makara) head with ears, nose, mouth, and horns. Traditionally used by members of the Nepali musician caste to entertain aristocratic Buddhists living in Nepal. Survives today in the music of street performers and in local festivals. Ethel Gunderson Fund, 1977.


NMM 2682.  Lute (tungna), Nepal, 19th century. Body carved from single piece of wood. Waisted resonating chamber with goatskin belly. Carved wooden makara finial. Gut strings. Played with small, attached plectrum. One of smallest examples of lutes used by Newari people living in northeastern Nepal. Board of Trustees, 1980.


NMM 2584A/B. Pair of shawms (rgya gling), Tibet, late 19th century. Double-reed woodwind instrument with hardwood body and copper and brass bell and mouthpiece fittings. Blue and red colored glass embellishments. Acts as primary melodic voice in monastic ensemble playing. Removable pirouette facilitates the technique of circular breathing, which allows musicians to play extended passages. Board of Trustees, 1979.

Trumpets:  Conch Shell

NMM 1370A/B. Pair of conch shell trumpets (rag gshog-ma), Tibet, area of Reting Monastery, not far from Lhasa, mid-19th century. Left-turning conch shell. Brass construction with copper trim. Applied turquoise and coral embellishments. Braided cloth includes delicate white sacred scarf (khata), symbolic of purity and charity. Green and red silk pieces symbolic of the sense of touch. Played in pairs, contributing to the drone. Ringley Fund, 1976.

NMM 7199. Conch shell trumpet (rag gshog-ma), Tibet, 20th century. Right-turning shell, itself one of the eight auspicious symbols, with attached brass wing and elongated posterior rod. Repoussé on wing depicts a sea dragon (makara) and the eight auspicious symbols. Brass wing lengthens the cavity, producing a lower pitch, as well as serves a decorative function. Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection, 1999.

NMM 7204. Conch shell trumpet (dung dkar), Tibet, 20th century. Exposed shell with silver medallion of the Two Fishes, one of the eight auspicious symbols. Red coral mounted at center of medallion. Mouthpiece formed by removing tip of the spire. Natural spiral of shell creates channel for air to pass. Coral and conch shells are highly prized items of trade in Tibet, as they represent the far-removed exoticism of the ocean. Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection, 1999.

Trumpets:  Telescoping

NMM 2333-2334. Pair of telescoping trumpets (zangs dung), Tibet, 19th/early 20th century. Collapsible copper bodies facilitate transport. Applied brass fittings in finely detailed repoussé depicting the eight auspicious, or sacred, symbols, in addition to seven different Buddha scenes, showing the stages of enlightenment. Played in pairs, usually serving as a drone element in monastic ensembles, with occasional florid melodic passages. Ringley Fund, 1977.

NMM 10056-10057. Pair of telescoping trumpets (zangs dung), Tibet, 20th century. Ornamented with red coral and turquoise stones, with repoussé brass cuffs and bell garland. Smaller trumpets like these are found in ensemble playing, while larger ones (12 to 15 feet) are used in processions, carried on the shoulders of other monks, or on rooftops to alert the villagers and spirits alike of upcoming feast days. Gift of Western International Music, Greeley, Colorado, 2001.

NMM 7319. Telescoping trumpet (rkang gling), Tibet, late 18th/early 19th century. Two-section, collapsible horn with stylized sea dragon (makara) bell opening. Constructed entirely of silver, with interwoven foliage design. Very narrow passage at mouthpiece, along with unusual telescoping configuration and attention to detail, suggests that this instrument was a presentation piece for a dignitary or, perhaps, for placement in the hands of a temple deity. Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection, 1999.

Trumpets: Thighbone

NMM 1482. Thighbone trumpet (rkang dung), Tibet, 19th century. Bone with pieced leather bell cuff. Ball joint of femur has been removed and the end smoothed. Marrow canals of bone form natural air passage. Employed by shaman of the Bön tradition for rituals and feast day observances; usually held in the left hand, "of wisdom." Board of Trustees, 1976.

NMM 7038. Thighbone trumpet (rkang dung), Tibet, 19th century. Bone wrapped in brass wire, finished with repoussé brass work on the mouthpiece and bell. Encased bell prominently features a sea dragon (makara). Single white coral mounted on bell cuff. Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection, 1999.

NMM 7178. Thighbone trumpet (rkang gling), Tibet, 19th century. Slightly curved copper body with brass fittings. Irregular bell opening in form of stylized sea dragon (makara), brass embellishments on edge of mouth. Metal trumpets like this allow for greater articulation and volume in ensemble playing. Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection, 1999.

NMM 7198. Thighbone trumpet (rkang dung), Tibet, 19th century. Bare bone with simple metal wrapping. Ball joint removed, forming the mouthpiece; the knee-joint, slightly altered, acts as a double-bell. Its characteristic simplicity mirrors the life of the clerics who play it. Usually paired with the skull drum (damaru). Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection, 1999.

NMM 1375. Thighbone trumpet (rkang gling), eastern Tibet, mid-19th century. Brass body with hollow, perforated knob. Silver flame ornamentation on mouthpiece, knob, and bell. Thighbone trumpets constructed of metal produce a more audible, piercing sound than those of bone, allowing them to be heard above the characteristic drone in the monastic ensemble. Ringley Fund, 1976.

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Most recent update: December 12, 2016

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