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A Raga (IAST: rāga), Raag or Ragam, literally means "coloring, tingeing, dyeing". The term also refers to a concept close to melodic mode in Indian classical music. Raga is a remarkable and central feature of classical Indian music tradition, but has no direct translation to concepts in the classical European music tradition. Each raga is an array of melodic structures with musical motifs, considered in the Indian tradition to have the ability to "color the mind" and affect the emotions of the audience.


A raga consists of at least five notes, and each raga provides the musician with a musical framework. The specific notes within a raga can be reordered and improvised by the musician, but a specific raga is either ascending or descending. Each raga has an emotional significance and symbolic associations such as with season, time and mood. The raga is considered a means in Indian musical tradition to evoke certain feelings in an audience. Hundreds of raga are recognized in the classical Indian tradition, of which about 30 are common. Each raga, state Dorothea E. Hast and others, has its "own unique melodic personality".

There are two main classical Indian music traditions, North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic), and the concept of raga is shared by both. Raga are also found in Sikh traditions such as in Guru Granth Sahib, the primary scripture of Sikhism. Similarly it is a part of the qawwali tradition found in Sufi Islamic communities of South Asia. Some popular Indian film songs and ghazals use rāgas in their compositions.


The Sanskrit word raga (Sanskrit: राग) has Indo-European roots, as *reg- which connotes "to dye". It is found in Greek, Persian, Khwarezmian and other languages, in variants such as "raxt", "rang", "rakt" and others. The words "red" and "rado" are also related.


Rāga (Sanskrit: राग), states Monier Monier-Williams, means "the act of colouring or dyeing", or simply a "colour, hue, tint, dye". The term also connotes an emotional state referring to a "feeling, affection, desire, interest, joy or delight", particularly related to passion, love, or sympathy for a subject or something. In the context of ancient Indian music, the term refers to a harmonious note, melody, formula, building block of music available to a musician to construct a state of experience in the audience.

The word appears in the ancient Principal Upanishads of Hinduism, as well as the Bhagavad Gita. For example, verse 3.5 of the Maitri Upanishad and verse 2.2.9 of the Mundaka Upanishad contain the word raga. The Mundaka Upanishad uses it in its discussion of soul (Atman-Brahman) and matter (Prakriti), with the sense that the soul does not "color, dye, stain, tint" the matter. The Maitri Upanishad uses the term in the sense of "passion, inner quality, psychological state". The term raga is also found in ancient texts of Buddhism where it connotes "passion, sensuality, lust, desire" for pleasurable experiences as one of three impurities of a character. Alternatively, raga is used in Buddhist texts in the sense of "color, dye, hue".

The term raga in the modern connotation of a melodic format occurs in the Brihaddeshi by Matanga dated ca. 8th century, or possibly 9th century. The Brihaddeshi describes raga as "a combination of tones which, with beautiful illuminating graces, pleases the people in general".

According to Emmie Te Nijenhuis, a professor in Indian musicology, the Dattilam section of Brihaddeshi has survived into the modern times, but the details of ancient music scholars mentioned in the extant text suggest a more established tradition by the time this text was composed. The same essential idea and prototypical framework is found in ancient Hindu texts, such as the Naradiyasiksa and the classic Sanskrit work Natya Shastra by Bharata Muni, whose chronology has been estimated to sometime between 500 BCE and 500 CE, probably between 200 BCE and 200 CE.

Bharata describes a series of empirical experiments he did with Vina, then compared what he heard, noting the relationship of fifth intervals as a function of intentionally induced change to the instrument's tuning. Bharata states that certain combination of notes are pleasant, certain not so. His methods of experimenting with the instrument triggered further work by ancient Indian scholars, leading to the development of successive permutations, as well as theories of musical note inter-relationships, interlocking scales and how this makes the listener feel. Bharata discusses Bhairava, Kaushika, Hindola, Dipaka, SrI-raga, and Megha. Bharata states that these have the ability to trigger a certain affection and the ability to "color the emotional state" in the audience. His encyclopedic Natyashastra links his studies on music to the performance arts, and it has been influential in Indian performance arts tradition.

The other ancient text, Naradiyasiksa dated to be from the 1st century BCE, discusses secular and religious music, compares the respective musical notes. This is earliest known text that reverentially names each musical note to be a deity, describing it in terms of varna (colors) and other motifs such as parts of fingers, an approach that is conceptually similar to the 12th century Guidonian hand in European music. The study that mathematically arranges rhythms and modes (raga) has been called prastara.(Khan 1996, p. 89, Quote: "(...) the Sanskrit word prastara, which means mathematical arrangement of rhythms and modes. In the Indian system of music there are about the 500 modes and 300 different rhythms which are used in everyday music. The modes are called Ragas.")

In the ancient texts of Hinduism, the term for the technical mode part of Raga was Jati. Later, Jati evolved to mean quantitative class of scales, while Raga evolved to become a more sophisticated concept that included the experience of the audience. A figurative sense of the word as 'passion, love, desire, delight' is also found in the Mahabharata. The specialized sense of 'loveliness, beauty,' especially of voice or song, emerges in Classical Sanskrit, used by Kalidasa and in the Panchatantra.

History and significance

The classical Indian music has ancient roots, and it primarily developed due to the reverence for arts, for both spiritual (moksha) and entertainment (kama) purposes in Hinduism. Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, discouraged music aimed at entertainment, but encouraged chanting of sacred hymns. The various canonical Tipitaka texts of Buddhism, for example, state Dasha-shila or ten precepts for those following the Buddhist spiritual path. Among these, is the precept recommending "abstain from dancing, singing, music and worldly spectacles". Buddhism does not forbid music or dance to a Buddhist layperson, but its emphasis has been on chants, not on musical raga.

Raga, along with performance arts such as dance and music, has been historically integral to Hinduism, with some Hindus believing that music is itself a spiritual pursuit and a means to moksha (liberation). Ragas, in the Hindu tradition, are believed to have a natural existence. Artists don't invent them, they only discover them. Music appeals to human beings, according to Hinduism, because they are hidden harmonies of the ultimate creation. Some of its ancient texts such as the Sama Veda (~1000 BCE) are structured entirely to melodic themes, it is sections of Rigveda set to music. The ragas were envisioned by the Hindus as manifestation of the divine, a musical note treated as god or goddess with complex personality.

During the Bhakti movement of Hinduism, dated to about the middle of 1st millennium CE, raga became an integral part of a musical pursuit of spirituality. Bhajan and Kirtan were composed and performed by the early South India pioneers. A Bhajan has a free form devotional composition based on melodic ragas. A Kirtan is a more structured team performance, typically with a call and response musical structure, similar to an intimate conversation. It includes two or more musical instruments, and incorporates various ragas such as those associated with Hindu gods Shiva (Bhairava) or Krishna (Hindola).

The early 13th century Sanskrit text Sangitaratnakara, by Sarngadeva patronized by King Sighana of the Yadava dynasty in Maharashtra, mentions and discusses 253 ragas. This is one of the most complete historic treatises on the structure, technique and reasoning behind ragas that has survived.

The tradition of incorporating raga into spiritual music is also found in Jainism, and in Sikhism, an Indian religion founded by Guru Nanak in northwest Indian subcontinent. In the Sikh scripture, the sections are attached to a raga and is sung according to the rules of that raga. According to Pashaura Singh – a professor of Sikh and Punjabi Studies, the raga and tala of ancient Indian traditions were carefully selected and integrated by the Sikh Gurus into their hymns. They also picked from the "standard instruments used in Hindu musical traditions" for singing kirtans in Sikhism.

During the Islamic rule period of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in and after the 15th century, the mystical Islamic tradition of Sufism developed devotional songs and music called qawwali. It incorporated elements of raga and tala.


A raga is sometimes explained as melodic rule set that a musician works with, but according to Dorottya Fabian and others, this is now generally accepted among music scholars to be an explanation that is too simplistic. According to them, a raga of the ancient Indian tradition is best described as "a non-constructible set in music", just like non-constructible set in language for human communication, in a manner described by Frederik Kortlandt and George van Driem.

The attempt to appreciate, understand and explain raga among European scholars started in the early colonial period. In 1784, Jones translated it as "mode" of European music tradition, but Willard corrected him in 1834 with the statement that a Raga is both mode and tune. In 1933, states José Luiz Martinez – a professor of Music, Stern refined this explanation to "the raga is more fixed than mode, less fixed than the melody, beyond the mode and short of melody, and richer both than a given mode or a given melody; it is mode with added multiple specialities".

A raga is a central concept of Indian music, predominant in its expression, yet the concept has no direct Western translation. According to Walter Kaufmann, though a remarkable and prominent feature of Indian music, a definition of raga cannot be offered in one or two sentences. Raga is a fusion of technical and ideational ideas found in music, and may be roughly described as a musical entity that includes note intonation, relative duration and order, in a manner similar to how words flexibly form phrases to create an atmosphere of expression. In some cases, certain rules are considered obligatory, in others optional. The raga allows flexibility, where the artist may rely on simple expression, or may add ornamentations yet express the same essential message but evoke a different intensity of mood.

A raga has a given set of notes, on a scale, ordered in melodies with musical motifs. A musician playing a raga, states Bruno Nettl, may traditionally use just these notes, but is free to emphasize or improvise certain degrees of the scale. The Indian tradition suggests a certain sequencing of how the musician moves from note to note for each raga, in order for the performance to create a rasa (mood, atmosphere, essence, inner feeling) that is unique to each raga. A raga can be written on a scale. Theoretically, thousands of raga are possible given 5 or more notes, but in practical use, the classical Indian tradition has refined and typically relies on several hundred. For most artists, their basic perfected repertoire has some forty to fifty ragas. Raga in Indian classic music is intimately related to tala or guidance about "division of time", with each unit called a matra (beat, and duration between beats).

A raga is not a tune, because the same raga can yield infinite number of tunes. A raga is not a scale, because many ragas can be based on the same scale. A raga, state Bruno Nettl and other music scholars, is a concept similar to mode, something between the domains of tune and scale, and it is best conceptualized as a "unique array of melodic features, mapped to and organized for a unique aesthetic sentiment in the listener". The goal of a raga and its artist is to create rasa (essence, feeling, atmosphere) with music, as classical Indian dance does with performance arts. In the Indian tradition, classical dances are performed with music set to various ragas.

Joep Bor of the Rotterdam Conservatory of Music defined Raga as "tonal framework for composition and improvisation." Nazir Jairazbhoy, chairman of UCLA's department of ethnomusicology, characterized ragas as separated by scale, line of ascent and descent, transilience, emphasized notes and register, and intonation and ornaments.

Rāga-Rāgini system

Rāginī (Devanagari: रागिनी) is a term for the "feminine" counterpart of a "masculine" rāga. These are envisioned to parallel the god-goddess themes in Hinduism, and described variously by different medieval Indian music scholars. For example, the Sangita-darpana text of 15th-century Damodara Misra proposes six raga with thirty ragini, creating a system of thirty six, a system that became popular in Rajasthan. In the north Himalayan regions such as Himachal Pradesh, the music scholars such as 16th century Mesakarna expanded this system to include eight descendants to each raga, thereby creating a system of eight four. After the 16th-century, the system expanded still further.

Raag Bhairav associated with Shiva is deemed a morning raga. In Sangita-darpana, the Bhairava raga is associated with the following raginis: Bhairavi, Punyaki, Bilawali, Aslekhi, Bangli. In Meskarna system, the masculine and feminine musical notes are combined to produce putra ragas called Harakh, Pancham, Disakh, Bangal, Madhu, Madhava, Lalit, Bilawa.

Ragas and their symbolism

The North Indian ragas system are also called Hindustani, while the South Indian system is commonly referred to as Carnatic. The North Indian system suggests particular time of a day or a season, in the belief that human state of psyche and mind are affected by seasons and by daily biological cycles and nature's rhythms. The South India system is closer to the text, and places less emphasis on time or season.

The symbolic role of classical Indian music through raga has been both aesthetic indulgence and the spiritual purifying of one's mind (yoga). The former is encouraged in Kama literature (such as Kamasutra), while the latter appears in Yoga literature with concepts such as "Nada-Brahman" (metaphysical Brahman of sound). Hindola raga, for example, is considered a manifestation of Kama (god of love), typically through Krishna. Hindola is also linked to the festival of dola, which is more commonly known as "spring festival of colors" or Holi. This idea of aesthetic symbolism has also been expressed in Hindu temple reliefs and carvings, as well as painting collections such as the Ragamala.

In ancient and medieval Indian literature, the raga are described as manifestation and symbolism for gods and goddesses. Music is discussed as equivalent to the ritual yajna sacrifice, with pentatonic and hexatonic notes such as "ni-dha-pa-ma-ga-ri" as Agnistoma, "ri-ni-dha-pa-ma-ga as Asvamedha, and so on.

In the Middle Ages, music scholars of India began associating each raga with seasons. The 11th century Nanyadeva, for example, recommends that Hindola raga is best in spring, Pancama in summer, Sadjagrama and Takka during the monsoons, Bhinnasadja (Bhairava) is best in early winter, and Kaisika in late winter. In the 13th century, Sarngadeva went further and associated raga with rhythms of each day and night. He associated pure and simple ragas to early morning, mixed and more complex ragas to late morning, skillful ragas to noon, love-themed and passionate ragas to evening, and universal ragas to night.

Raga and mathematics

According to Cris Forster, mathematical studies on systematizing and analyzing South Indian raga began in the 16th century. Computational studies of ragas is an active area of musicology.


Although notes are an important part of rāga practice, they alone do not make the rāga. A rāga is more than a scale, and many rāgas share the same scale. The underlying scale may have four, five, six or seven tones, called swaras (sometimes spelled as svaras). The svara concept is found in the ancient Natya Shastra in Chapter 28. It calls the unit of tonal measurement or audible unit as Śruti, with verse 28.21 introducing the musical scale as follows,

These seven degrees are shared by both major raga system, that is the North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic). The solfege (sargam) is learnt in abbreviated form: sa, ri (Carnatic) or re (Hindustani), ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, sa. Of these, the first that is "sa", and the fifth that is "pa", are considered anchors that are unalterable, while the remaining have flavors that differs between the two major systems.

The music theory in the Natyashastra, states Maurice Winternitz, centers around three themes – sound, rhythm and prosody applied to musical texts. The text asserts that the octave has 22 srutis or microintervals of musical tones or 1200 cents. This is very close to the ancient Greek system, states Emmie Te Nijenhuis, with the difference that each sruti computes to 54.5 cents, while the Greek enharmonic quartertone system computes to 55 cents. The text discusses gramas (scales) and murchanas (modes), mentioning three scales of seven modes (21 total), some of which are the same as the Greek modes. However, the Gandhara-grama is just mentioned in Natyashastra, while its discussion largely focuses on two scales, fourteen modes and eight four tanas (notes). The text also discusses which scales are best for different forms of performance arts.

These musical elements are organized into scales (mela), and the South Indian system of raga works with 72 scales, as first discussed by Caturdandi prakashika. They are divided into two groups, purvanga and uttaranga, depending on the nature of the lower tetrachord. The anga itself has six cycles (cakra), where the purvanga or lower tetrachord is anchored, while there are six permutations of uttaranga suggested to the artist. After this system was developed, the Indian classical music scholars have developed additional ragas for all the scales. The North Indian style is closer to the Western diatonic modes, and built upon the foundation developed by Bhatkhande using ten Thaat: kalyan, bilaval, khamaj, kafi, asavari, bhairavi, bhairav, purvi, marva and todi. Some ragas are common to both systems and have same names, such as kalyan performed by either is recognizably the same. Some ragas are common to both systems but have different names, such as malkos of Hindustani system is recognizably the same as hindolam of Carnatic system. However, some ragas are named the same in the two systems, but they are different, such as todi.

Rāgas that have four swaras are called surtara (सुरतर) rāgas; those with five swaras are called audava (औडव) rāgas; those with six, shaadava (षाडव); and with seven, sampurna (संपूर्ण, Sanskrit for 'complete'). The number of swaras may differ in the ascending and descending like rāga Bhimpalasi which has five notes in the ascending and seven notes in descending or Khamaj with six notes in the ascending and seven in the descending. Rāgas differ in their way how to ascend or descend. Those that do not follow the strict ascending or descending order of swaras are called vakra (वक्र) ('crooked') rāgas.

The mood of the rāga depends mainly on the way the notes are approached and intoned and their dominance as well as their duration rather than on the used notes. For example, Darbari Kanada and Jaunpuri share the same notes but are entirely different in their renderings.

Carnatic rāga

In Carnatic music, the principal rāgas is called Melakartha, which literally means "lord of the scale". It is also called Asraya raga meaning "shelter giving raga", or Janaka raga meaning "father raga".

A Thaata in the South Indian tradition are groups of derivative rāgas, which are called Janya rāgas meaning "begotten ragas" or Asrita ragas meaning "sheltered ragas". However, these terms are approximate and interim phrases during learning, as the relationships between the two layers are neither fixed nor has unique parent-child relationship.

Janaka rāgas are grouped together using a scheme called Katapayadi sutra and are organised as Melakarta rāgas. A Melakarta rāga is one which has all seven notes in both the ārōhanam (ascending scale) and avarōhanam (descending scale). Some Melakarta rāgas are Harikambhoji, Kalyani, Kharaharapriya, Mayamalavagowla, Sankarabharanam and Todi. Janya rāgas are derived from the Janaka rāgas using a combination of the swarams (usually a subset of swarams) from the parent rāga. Some janya rāgas are Abheri, Abhogi, Bhairavi, Hindolam, Mohanam and Kambhoji.

Raga schools and training

The raga and classical Indian music has been transmitted through Guru-Shisya parampara (teacher-student tradition) through an oral tradition and practice. Some are known as gharana (houses), and their performances are staged to rural and urban public through sabhas (music organizations). Each Guru tradition has freely improvised over time, and differences in the rendering of each rāga is discernible. In the Indian musical schooling tradition, the small group of students lived near or with the teacher, the teacher treated them as family members providing food and boarding, and a student learnt raga and other aspects of music thereby continuing the musical knowledge of his guru. The tradition survives in parts of India, and many musicians can trace their guru lineage.

Persian Rāk

The music concept of Rāk in Persian is probably a pronunciation of Raga. According to Hormoz Farhat, it is unclear how this term came to Persia, it has no meaning in modern Persian language, and the concept of raga is unknown in Persia.


Raga Wikipedia