The Ancient Yazh: Was It A Digital Instrument?

The Ancient Yazh: Was It A Digital Instrument?

While classifying the musical instruments into digital and analog types, K.Thyagarajan (Chellammal Natarajan Endowment Lecture, Music Academy, December 1992) drew the conclusion that the ancient yazh was essentially the same as the Western harp, implying that the yazh could not have been handled like the violin or the gottuvadyam and that it had no frets as the onesseen in the present day veena. Consequently, it is said that the production of gamaka-s was not possible in the ancient yazh. The inability of Tiruneelakantha Yazhpanar (Yazhpanar) to reproduce the vocally rendered Yazhmuri Pathigam of Tirugnanasambandar (Sambandar) on his yazh is said to be due to this deficiency of the yazh and it is claimed that Sambandarlaid the foundation for Carnatic music as it is today by incorporating gamaka-s into it.

Although such a new classification as attempted by Thyagarajan may eventually contribute to the development and better understanding of music, the inferences such as the implied fretless structure of the ancient yazh, the paucity of gamaka-s in the instrumental music in ancient times, and Sambandar being the inventor of gamaka as a musical phenomenon are questionable.Tins should be a matter of great concern for all music lovers because such ideas may take us farther from the truth insofar as the ancient grammar of Tamil music is concerned. Available evidence from ancient Tamil literary works prove beyond doubt:


In Tamil literary works, ancient and relatively recent, the term yazh has been used to mean the swara (the sound of musicalnotes), the music (pann or raga), as well as the instrument. The music came to be known as yazh because it is composed of swara-s and the instrument too came to be known as yazh because it was capable of producing swara-s.

Swara-s have also been referred to as 'narambu' in several literary works in Tamil language. Generally this term refers to theanimal gut used as the string in the musical instruments. A narambu tied at two ends with adequate tension emitted a certain frequency of sound, when plucked, generally considered corresponding to the adhara shadja, as in the veena; hence the term narambu for swara. When frets were fixed at different points across the string on the fretboard of an instrument, a swara was produced at each of these points, with the result the frets were also called narambu.

Varaguna Pandian (Panar Kai Vazhi, 1950) has shown that Vipulanandar's description of yazh [Yazh Nool, 1947) had nothing in common with the structural description of the components as well as the form of ancient yazh-s as detailed in Patthu Pattu and a few other Tamil works. On the contrary, he has shown that the ancient senkottu yazh should have looked very much like thepresent day veena in its overall appearance and in the structural details of its components.

Detailed description of various components of yazh-s is given in Patthu Pattu and a few other literary works in Tamil. escription of six main components of senkottu yazh, including the thanthirikaram (the frets) and the thivavu (the leather strips used to tie the frets on the dandi), makes it clear that the ancient yazh had frets on them. However, the use of the term thanthirikaram in Silappadikaram (Chapter 13, lines 106-108) in conjunction with the term senkottu yazh, actually referring to the order of musical notes and not to the instrument, has been misconstrued to suggest that only senkottu yazh had frets and other yazh-s did not have them. This has also led several scholars to believe that every term suffixed with the term yazh referred to a type of yazh instrument. On this basis, several yazh-s such as paeri yazh, seeri yazh, sagoda yazh and makara yazh were considered to have existed in ancient times and their forms were visualized more out of magnified imagination than on the basis of specific description in the literature.

Most of the verses in Tamil literary works that deal with the description of yazh finally give the detail of the order or sequence of swara arrangement found in the instrument. The prefix used with the term yazh happens to be an adjective actually describing the musical quality or the music type produced in the instrument and does not refer to the instrument type. However, as the term yazh has been presumed to refer to the instrument alone, each adjective used as prefix has been mistaken as referring to a specific type of instrument.

The Frets

Patthu Pattu, a literary work of the Sangam period, has given complete details of the frets, their appearance, position, arrangement in the yazh and their function. The frets have gone under at least seven different names, such as: thanthirikaram, thanthirikai, nun-kole, kole, pannarambu (pala + narambu); viralular narambu, and thivavu. These apart, the names given to the string (thanthi) have also been used in different places to refer to the frets. Unless the contextual meaning of these terms in relation to the other structures of the yazh and in relation to the form and function of the structure described is understood, it is difficult to find out which structure is referred to by the particular term used.

In the Silappadikaram it is indicated that various raga-s were played in three octaves on the yazh instruments with different orders of swara arrangement (Chapter 8, lines 30-42; Chapter 13, lines 106-112). It should be clear that it would not have been possible to render raga-s in three sthayi-s in instruments without frets. Therefore it is highly unlikely that yazh was devoid of frets at any time, especially as the advantages of frets had been realised even during the period of the Silappadikaram and most probably much earlier.


A critical study of Vipulananda's Yazh Nool and the Panar Kai Vazhi of Varaguna Pandian would show that paeri yazh and seeri yazh were called senkottu yazh and sagoda yazh, respectively, during later periods. From the sequence of swara-s arrived, it is possible to understand that when senkottu yazh was used to produce madhyamagrama raga-s it was called makara yazh, because the panchama of the shadjagrama order of swara-s (senkottu yazh) forms the key note (shadja) of the madhyamagrama order of swara (sagoda yazh) with happens to get positioned in the 'meru' of the yazh; hence the name ma-kara yazh given to the instrument.

Patthu Pattu (Malaipadu Kadam, lines 21-23) categorically states that nothing other than sa and pa could be placed in the meru or could be used as the key note to produce any music. Only two yazh-s, one with the frets arranged to produce sa-ri-ga-ma- pa-dha-ni and the other to produce pa-dha-ni-sa-ri-ga- ma existed in the ancient times and these were given different names in different periods mainly based on the swara arrangements they had in them. For all practical purposes, this should be con/sidered as a single yazh instrument because, from Adiyarkku Nallar's quotation, it is possible to understand that the fretboard was designed in such a way that the same frets could be rearranged and tied to produce any sequence of .swara-s as required in one and the same instrument. Makara yazh is an improvement over senkottu yazh in which sagoda yazh (madhyamagrama) raga-s could be played without altering the original fret arrangement. This could be achieved in the present-day veena— the most advanced of all the innovations in yazh in which the frets are immovably fixed. The presentday veena is an equivalent of senkottu yazh when shadjagrama raga-s are played on it and an equivalent of makara yazh when madhyamagrama (sagoda yazh) raga-s are played by considering pa as sa.


Silappadikaram has described 1.1 main types of gamaka-s produced during the rendition of 'nira alatthi' (raga alapana). These gamaka-s are the same as the 11 gamaka-s out of the 15 described in Sarangadeva's Sangeeta Ratnakara. The remaining four gamaka-s, being the ones that occur in four different groups of raga-s, are described under characterising factors in raga classification and not described under gamaka-s in general. It is astonishing to know that ancient Tamils had gone several steps ahead to distinguish 51 varieties of gamaka-s under these 11 types. Similarly, it is of great interest and significance to note that Sangeeta Ratnakara describes 32 varieties of gamaka-s under the 15 types.

The Yazhmuri Episode

The episode described in Periapuranam involving Yazhpanar, Sambandar and the Yazhmuri Pathigam was a drama enacted by these two great musicians with mutual consent, to demonstrate to the people the unique and special attributes of vocal music and the limitations of the instrument. The ultimate idea conveyed was that the instrument can produce only the musical sounds and cannot pronounce the letters or words (iyal— including the indicative letters given to the swara-s) which are associated with the music (isai). This idea was conveyed through a grammatical feature now known as bhashangam which is described as muri in the grammar of Tamil music.

Bhashangam is of three types: bhashangam, vibhashangam and andarabhashangam. Normally only one of these types may occur in a raga. The greatness of yazhmuri pann is that all the three types of bhashangam, as well as suddasthana prayoga, are incorporated in it. (Bhashangam refers to the utterance of an indicative swara letter while the swara sound produced is that of another swara. Yazhpanar was not able to play it on his yazh because producing the sound of the swara letter uttered by Sambandar would lead to production of apaswara, whereas it is possible to combine a swara sound with the indicative swara letter of another swara in vocal music without making it sound like an apaswara. This precisely is muri which means "to leave one's position" according to the Tamil Lexicon). At the end of the enactment of the drama, Sambandar advised the gathering, not Yazhpanar for obvious reasons, to follow the sound while playing the instrument because speech is a special attribute of humans and not of instruments. The words of Sambandar were "Vandavarey paadi vaasippeer" which, in the context, means "play as it sounds" and not "to the extent possible" as Thyagarajan has stated.

Among the contemporary raga-s only Athana displays all the three types of bhashanga. Every swara sound in Athana is pronounced in combination with a different indicative swara letter in addition to suddhasthana swara prayoga.Athana, a prakritic transformation of the term asthana, means "that which is not in its position" which in turn is the exact meaning of the term muri (V.S. Gomathisankara Iyer, Yazhmuri Pann, 1977).

The term muri is explained as a phenomenon wherein the iyal (indicative swara letter) and isai (the swara sound) get transposed, which is possible only in the vocal rendition and not in the instrumental rendition. That is why the music of Sambandar could not be contained in Yazhpanar's instrument.

As the Pathigam was rendered innovatively by incorporating all the three types of yazh muri, the bhashanga, the raga itself came to be known as Yazhmuri Pann, which is Athana.

The evidence given in the text so far confirms that the ancient yazh had frets and gamaka was a well-known phenomenon of music in ancient times. What cannot be produced in a fretted instrument is not isai of which gamaka is a feature or component but the iyal. Therefore the ancient yazh in all probability was not a digital instrument.