Musical instrument | Folk | Himalayan | Ethnic | Need of promotion

Tungna crafted by Agrim Lama | Photo by: Sarin Bajracharya
Tungna crafted by Agrim Lama | Photo by: Sarin Bajracharya

Art & Culture

Sound of Himalayas: Tungna’s ethnomusicology and its waning craft

Tungna is a traditional folk music instrument in need of promotion, institutionalisation, and commercial recognition. Crafting a Tungna takes approximately a month — from carving to setting up the whole instrument. Luthiers who make the lute are few in number as it is difficult to be financially stable in its production, leaving an undeniable necessity for them to incline toward contemporary Western musical instruments.

By Rebika Kunwar |


Tungna — a Himalayan plucked string instrument (lute) — is associated with ethnic groups such as Sherpa, Tamang, Hyolmo, and Tibetan who migrated to Nepal from Tibet a long time ago.

Tungna is more likely carved out of single light wood that absorbs sound — which is considered more convenient.

Woods such as Nepalese Alder (Uttis), Rhododendron, and Schima (Chilaune), easily and locally available in the Himalayan region, are considered more suitable for making the instrument, says Agrim Lama, a 36 years luthier who makes Tamang Tungna, at Tamba Production in Lalitpur.

According to him, Tungna consists of four strings which primarily used to be made up of the guts of sheep and goats. Gut strings are nearly impossible to find these days as they are hard to produce and craftspeople are insufficient. Nylon strings and fishing wire are prominently used as an alternative. The use of these materials causes a difference in tone and warmth in the sound of Tungna, making it sound less authentic.

This Himalayan lute consists of a headstock with the resemblance of various animals either real or mythical, such as a dragon, horse, bird, and garuda — a Hindu demigod who is primarily depicted as a mount of the Hindu god Vishnu (also mentioned in the Buddhist and Jain faiths), etc. A set of two tuning keys of wood or animal bones is present on both sides of the headstock. Similarly, the round and hollow body of the instrument is covered by animal skin (for instance, buffalo skin).

Head of Tungna being crafted

While carving the head of Tungna, according to legends, the eyes of the animal should directly look at the press board — where strings are present. It is believed that the player should hold and play the instrument in a way to make the animal [look] happy, which might [look] angry if otherwise.

Sherpa and Tibetan Tungna, also known as ‘Dramyin’ or ‘Dhamyen’, are almost identical in numerous ways. They are long-necked, have long-length strings with fewer decorative elements, and are more focused on playing. In the Sherpa community, dance is incorporated with Tungna where the dancing steps are choreographed as the tune plays.

On the other hand, the Tamang lute is a bit different given its craftsmanship, size, playing style, tuning system, and appearance. It is short-necked, having short-length strings and a Dragon headstock. 

A design of Lokharchungi or Animals of Lhosar is carved at the back of the lute that signifies 12 different animals, each representing a year, and 12 Lhos — where Lho means new year. Subsequently, it takes 12 [new] years to complete a cycle of Lho. The design can also be interrelated with Chinese year counting or Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan Dramyin produces a low-pitched sound that can be heard on the surface while Tamang Tungna produces high-pitched sounds. The length of the string determines the sound produced by it, where the length is indirectly proportional to the pitch of the sound, i.e. more the length, lower the pitch of the sound, and simultaneously otherwise.

According to Lama, who has studied post-graduate Ethnomusicology — the study of music in its sociocultural contexts — at Kathmandu University, Sherpa and Tibetan ethnic groups have a certain way of passing down their music education. It consists of a number counting system making it more accurate and understandable as certain techniques are allocated in their playing style. Whereas, the Tamang community hands over the knowledge orally, meaning no specific technique or proper set of rules for Tamang lute exist.

To some extent, the practice of acculturation can be noticed while playing Tamang Tungna. The dialogues used are in Tamang dialect but the musical form is not purely analogous to Tamang culture, but a mixture of Himalayan tones and tunes of other communities present. As Sherpa and Tibetan lack this acculturation, their music sounds more authentic and clean.

“Tungna should not be merely seen as a musical instrument used for entertainment,” Lama says, adding: “It holds cultural significance and carries great meaning for the people of certain ethnic groups.”

Along with Damphu, Tungna is mainly played during the celebration of Lhosar. In some other community festivals such as marriage, the lute is specifically played by Tamba — a ritual specialist who plays a significant role during marriage ceremonies in the Tamang community. During the Sangserkyam, which means worshipping the deities before any procession, the harmonious tune of the lute is a must. Similarly, carved at the entrance of the monasteries, a monument of a deity named Sherjogyalbo — known as the God of music — can be seen holding a Tungna.

Tamangs, who have a dense residence in the Rasuwa district, play and make Tungna. Similarly, in Dolakha, Sindhupalchowk, and some other places near Kathmandu, the practice of Tungna subsists.

Tungna is a traditional folk music instrument in need of commercial recognition and institutionalisation of traditional skills. It takes approximately a month to make a Tungna — from carving to setting up the whole instrument. Luthier Lama says when using seasoned wood, the moisture should be kept away so that it becomes easier to carve and work on the wood as per convenience, which can take a heap of time. If it is not carved properly, Tungna tends to lose its significance and meaning.

“Here and now, not much thought is given to folk music and instruments,” he says, adding: “Almost everything [that is] used to make Tungna needs to be imported making the production [of Tungna] expensive in itself. While the craftsmanship, time, and hard work used to make Tungna are often overlooked.”

Luthiers who make Tungna are few in number as it is difficult to be financially stable in its production. Similarly, demand for folk musical instruments is not substantial, leaving an undeniable necessity for them to incline toward contemporary Western musical instruments.

Tungna has its own unique identity intact with its very own cultural and traditional roots and values. But unfortunately, an uncanny comparison between Tungna and Western music instruments such as Guitar prevails, says Lama, who also plays and performs the instrument as an artist.

Tungna is not a Guitar. The elements of Guitar and Tungna are very unlike each other and hold completely different origins and existence.

On their visit to Nepal, many tourists buy Tungna as a souvenir. “Main tourist attraction places sell Tungna but if you know a thing or two about Tungna, you’ll realise they aren’t authentic,” he says, adding, “Low-quality Tungna [that is] charred using smoke and fashioned to look aged is sold inexpensively.”

Such products sound nowhere near to Tungna when played, which sets very false ideas about the instrument who aren’t well aware of it. He laments that such acts not only misrepresent Tungna but also negatively impact the luthiers who craft the instrument professionally and authentically.

The foundation of music and its practice is predominantly occupied by Western music culture, which Tungna players do not remain untouched by, and is quite unintentional.

Parents/guardians and educational institutes prioritise Western music over traditional folk music. They fail to teach their younger generation about their folk music which is linked to and represents their identity and culture. In the textbooks, very little sub-context with inadequate information is provided for these topics which is insufficient to spark curiosity among the younger generation.

However, thanks to democratisation in learning and content creation through the arrival of internet-induced platforms, the youth are intrigued and the adoration they share for folk music seems to be increasing. And with that, the inspiration to showcase traditional folk music on the global stage is building up. However, the restoration of identity will need much more.

Folk music is multi-disciplinary that connects with various aspects of life. Not only Tungna but the production of entire folk music instruments need to be standardised and prospects of folk music should be explored, luthier Lama insists.

Nobody can deny the fact that the influence of Western music is immense and it stands as a direct threat to the existence of folk music. It takes generations for a music style to reach its peak. But folk music that used to exist in raw and pristine form in the past now breathes as banal. Not only Tungna but also other forms of folk music that are associated with our identity need to be promoted, preserved, and restored.

(The article is based on the conversation with Agrim Lama, a 36 years luthier who makes Tamang Tungna and repairs guitars at Tamba Production in Lalitpur. He has a post-graduate in Ethnomusicology, the study of music in its socio-cultural contexts, from Kathmandu University, and plays and performs Tungna.)


Edit by Vivek Baranwal

Rebika Kunwar is an Art & Culture intern at the_farsight.

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