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The ancient veena is an early Indian arched harp, not to be confused with the modern Indian veena which is a type of lute. The instrument is attested on a gold coin of the Gupta Empire from the mid-300s CE.


Generic meaning of veenaEdit

The Sanskrit word veena (वीणा vīṇā) which is attested already in the Rigveda has designated in the course of Indian history a variety of instruments of various types, as it is a generic term for all kinds of string instruments, just as the Tamil word yazh (யாழ் yaaḻ). In the last centuries and today the instruments designated under the designation veena of which there are several kinds, have tended to be mostly instruments of the lute or cithar type, and recently the word was even applied to modified Western guitars. But the early veenas could be plucked string instruments of any type.

Early Gupta vinaEdit

One of early veenas used in India from early times, until the Gupta period and later (this is probably the instrument referred to as veenaa in a chapter of the Nāṭyaśāstra dealing with instrumental music)[1] was an instrument of the type of the harp and more precisely of the arched harp. It was played with the strings being kept parallel to the body of the player, with both hands plucking the strings, as shown on Samudragupta's gold coins[2] It is not possible to tell exactly the number of strings of the instrument on the coin, but descriptions in early literary sources of an ancient instrument called the saptatantree veenaa (7-string veenaa) seem to coincide generally with the type of instrument represented on the coin. In the Nāṭyaśāstra this 7-string veena (played with the fingers, as opposed to the 9-string vipanchi played with a plectrum) is called a citra [3].

The depiction of king Samudragupta holding such an instrument on his gold coins testifies of the popularity of the instrument, and also of the interest in music and the arts of a king who was also one of the greatest military conquerors in Indian history.[4]


From India this type of instrument was introduced at an early period[when?] into Burma[5] where, while instruments of this type have disappeared from India itself, it is still played, generally with 15 strings, under the name of saung (known in the West also as the Burmese harp).[6][7][8]


  1. ^ Nāṭyaśāstra, XXVIII, 4-5 (the veena is also used and described in other shlokas which follow 4-5 in chapter XXVIII)
  2. ^ "The Coin Galleries: Gupta: Samudragupta".
  3. ^ Nāṭyaśāstra, XXIX, 120
  4. ^ "The fact that the king wanted to publicize an image of himself as a musician is remarkable and a window into the value system of the Gupta state" Coin India site Catalog and description of the gold coins minted during Samudragupta's reign (Web page)
  5. ^ Judith Becker, The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma, The Galpin Society Journal, vol. 20, pp. 17–23
  6. ^ Śrīrāma Goyala (1 August 1992). Reappraising Gupta History: For S.R. Goyal. Aditya Prakashan. p. 237. ISBN 978-81-85179-78-0. - ...yazh resembles this old vina... however it is the Burmese harp which seems to have been handed down in almost unchanged form since ancient times
  7. ^ According to the site Harp History a similar instrument is played in Thailand. A photograph of the Thai harp is shown on that site.
  8. ^ Ank van Campen, Iconography: Pictures Existing instruments on the Harp History site (Web page)


  • Judith Becker, The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma, The Galpin Society Journal, vol. 20, pp. 17–23
  • Terry E. Miller and Sean Williams. The Garland handbook of Southeast Asian music. Routledge, 2008. ISBN 0-415-96075-4
  • Muriel C. Williamson The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes, Northern Illinois University Center For Southeast Asian Studies, 2000
  • Arthur Llewellyn Basham, The Wonder That Was India, Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan, 2008, 696 pp.
  • The Natyasastra (Vol. 2): A treatise on Hindu dramaturgy and histrionics (Chapters 28-36) (translated by Manomohan Ghosh), 1961, Calcutta, Asiatic Society of Bengal (Biblioteca Indica); reprint: Chaukhamba Surbharati Prakashan, 2016, Varanasi