Tuesday, 27 June 2017


Resonance Music

Striking a significant note

Semmakalam, the gong at temples 


The humble gong, is part of the culture of several countries

Kanchi is our favourite destination, where we visit Maha Periyava’s Brindavan frequently and also the Kamakshi Amman Temple. At the Kanchi Math, during the Chandramouliswara and Tripurasundari puja we heard the sound of a gong. A spherical object hung on the wall produced the resonant sound when struck with a stick. Enquiries revealed that it was the semakkalam.
This instrument is special and accompanies the Math’s heads, wherever they go. It is mandatory to play the instrument every yaamam, which is written on a piece of paper and placed close to the gong. The pattern is something like this — at 8 a.m. it is struck eight times; after a pause, it is struck again to show that it is the first yaamam.

Made of bronze

Semakkalam, categorised under Struck Idiophones, is made of venkalam — bronze. The player holds the cord attached to the semakalam with the left hand and uses a stick to strike it with the right. (Sometimes, instead of holding it, the instrument is hung on the wall) The stick is of calotropis plant. This instrument is known as Soman Kalam or Somangalam since the round shape resembles Soman — the other name for Chandran or the Moon.
During the nights of the Dhanur or Margazhi month, to ward off evil, the Thootiyampatti Naicker community (known as the Dasars in Tamil Nadu) would visit different houses, singing Pasurams and songs about gods to the accompaniment of the semakkalam, conch and thappattai.
The conch represents Vishnu and, according to a saying, the semakkalam, Siva. It is an important part of the Dasar Attam performed by the Dasar community in Madurai, Tirunelveli, Tiruchi and in some Mariamman festivals still.
At the Srirangam temple, the semangalam (another name for semakkalam) is played whenever veeravandi is played. Though it is used mostly at Vaishnavite shrines, semakkalam is also heard at the Siva temples during processions.
There is a similar instrument known as the Semantron that is used to announce the services in the Greek monasteries. Semantron was introduced in Russia at the end of the 10th century and was known as Bilo.Gongs are similar to the semakkalam, and are apart of Chinese, Indonesian and Malay cultures.
In Buddhism, the gong is also important and is sounded first, followed by the drum in the morning and vice versa in the evening. It is used to announce waking and bed time for the monks.
The writers are well-known Carnatic musicians.


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