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The Musical Bridge – Indus Valley: Saintly Music – Sufis & Sikhs

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Sikh Gurdwara

The Indian subcontinent has a diverse range of musical styles, instruments, and genres. The different cultural, lingual, and religious influences shape how music in different areas of the region sound. For this edition of The Musical Bridge, we will explore the music of the Indus Valley – the music of the Sufis and Sikhs. The featured image is of a Sikh Gurdwara or Lord’s Door (Temple) in India. In a future post, we will explore Classical Indian music, including Hindustani (Northern Indian) and Carnatic (Southern Indian) musical styles and various folk instruments, such as that of the Punjab region.

The area known as the Indus Valley Civilizations exists in today’s Southern Pakistan and Northwestern India. This region is largely populated Muslims and Sikhs. The Islamic mystical tradition, known as Sufism, influenced the historic music traditions of this region. There are also many elements that the music of this region has in common with Classical Indian music. This article,, beautifully demonstrates the relationship between these two different religious groups.

Two Examples of Indus Valley Genres

Sufi - Mystical Islam

Qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional music popular in South Asia. This musical tradition has roots from over 700 years ago. The word “qawwali” means “utterance of the prophet.” Sufi Sain Amir Khusro Dehlavi is said to have fused together musical traditions from Persia, Arabia, Turkey, and India in the late 13thcentury to create the music still practiced today.

Qawwali music was originally performed at shrines to Sufi saints and was part of a mehfil-e samaor gathering that was held on the anniversary of the particular saint’s death. Although it is a popular genre today, it is still reglious in nature.

A qawwal is a person who performs Qawwali music. A Qawwali ensemble, called a Qawwali Party consists of eight or nine musicians (traditionally men,) including a lead singers, one or two additional singers, one or two harmoniums (see below,) and percussion.

Vocalists are a central part of Qawwali music, and the poetry is spiritual in its meaning, even when the lyrics may sometimes seem secular. Sufi singing is a means of spreading the central Sufi ideas of unity and harmony. The major themes of Qawwali music are love, devotion, and the longing. Songs are sung very loudly and with force. Singers often push their chest voices into a higher range than Western singers do. The result gives them a more strained timbre or tonecolor than is usually acceptable in the West.

This video offers a glimpse of a Qawwal Party performing today.

The Rich Sikh Musical Tradition

Shabad Kirtan is Sikh devotional music, which features singing the text of the Guru Granth Sahib, the central book of the Sikh religion. It began in the late 16th century by Bhai Mardana, an early follower of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak. Mardana used the rubab (see below) to create musical expressions of mystical poetry.

This video shows an example of a Shabad Kirtan.

Examples of Instruments of the Indus Valley

The Benju is an instrument whose strings are plucked by plectrums using a keyboard that is adapted from a typewriter. It is a member of the zither family. It is said to have originated in Japan.

The Dhol is a double-sided barrel drums that is played across the Indian Subcontinent. It was first invented in the 1500s and many variations exist. The Qawwali version of the Dhol is smaller, while the Punjabi version is large and bulky to produced loud, full bass

The Rubab (also called a robab or rabab) is a type of fretted lute that originated in Afghanistan. It dates back to at least the seventh century C.E. Many Sufi poets cite the rubab in their poems, and it is the first instrument used in Sikhism. It is carved out of a single piece of trunk of a mulberry with a membrane (animal skin) covering the sound chamber. This is like the body of the guitar. It has three melodic strings, two or three drone strings, and up to 15 sympathetic strings. Traditionally, it had strings that were made form goat intestines, but today they are often nylon.

The Yaktaro (also called an iktar or ektara) was originally a string instrument plated by wandering bards and minstrels and played by itinerant fakirs (Muslim or Hindi religious hermits who live solely on donations.) It is made of a hollowed gourd and bamboo stick. It is plucked with one finger or sometimes bowed. While yaktaromeans “one-string,” modern versions may have two strings.

The Borrindo is a Pakistani wind instrument. It is made of clay and is regarded as the most ancient musical instrument of the Indus Valley. In the West, it is known as an “ocarina.” It is an easy instrument to play, making it popular with youth. It has a large hole where the player blows air in the instrument and three other holes that are fingered to create pitches.

The Surando is a large, bowed string instrument that is often used to accompany singing, but has is played as a solo instrument as well. Its sound emanates from the many resonating strings that stretch across the skin covered lower portion of the body, while they upper portion remains open as a sound chamber.

The portable harmonium is a small, portable organ. It was first developed in the West but became popular in India and Pakistan in the 1800s where Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus have all embraced it. The player operated the instrument by using one hand to pump a bellow that forces air across a series of reeds that create the pitches, and the other hand is use to play the notes and chords.

Hindustani and Western Instruments are also played in the Indus Valley. Today’s Qawwali music, as well as modern Shabad recordings, incorporate a lot of musical fusion. For example, Tablas or Indian drums and Sitars or Indian lutes, or even electric guitars and electronic keyboards may be included today.


Saints and Singers: Sufi Music in the Indus Valley

By Peter Pannke

Peter’s travelogue takes readers across the Indus Valley and introduces accomplished musicians, unique musical instruments, and rich poetic heritage. The book contains beautiful photographs by Horst A. Freidrichs and a two-CDs with musical examples.

Music Cultures of the Pacific, the Near East, and Asia

By William P. Malm

This book is one volume in the comprehensive Prentice Hall History of Music Series that gives a brief overview of the music of Indian Subcontient and shows how it emerged as a blend of various musical influences.

The Sacred Music of the Sikhs

Stream to examples of sacred Sikh music on this page.

Beginners Guide to Qawwali Music

This page features a lot of videos that demonstrate Qawwali music today.



To discuss more about music and computers, the future of music, the relationship between visual art and music, and whatever other arts related topics are on your mind, reach out to us! Feel free to comment or email Where in the world should we head to next? Comment or email with your ideas.


Janae Jean has an extensive background in new media and music education. Janae is actively researching using electronically generated sounds for emotional and physical healing. Her other professional blog,, has more about her personal journey with music, her other creative projects, and wellness-related articles.


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