By Swami Harshananda
Ḍamaru literally means ‘a small drum’.
Pictures and images of Śiva (one of the major forms of God) show him as holding the triśula (trident) and the ḍamaru (a small drum) in his hands. In the images of Śiva, especially the dancing ones like Naṭarāja, the ḍamaru is held in the upper right hand.
The ḍamaru is a folk or tribal percussion instrument. It is used in the rural parts of India, mostly by folk-dancers and priests of the tāntrik tradition. It is a sort of small kettle-drum made of two inverted bowls of wood or clay. The open ends are covered with parchment or thin leather. Strings with beads at their ends are attached to the slender middle portion.
When the drum is rhythmically shaken by hand, a pleasant rattling sound is produced as the beads strike the membrane on the open ends.
According to some Puranic accounts, Śiva at the request of the gods in heaven is said to have danced with power and grace. It is a rare combination of dance form. He danced using the ḍamaru and sounding it fourteen times. Each time, the sound that emerged, formed a specific pattern, giving rise to the fourteen basic aphorisms of Sanskrit grammar (called Māheśvara- sutras, like ‘a-i-uṇ,’ ‘ṛ-lṛk’ and so on).
Consequently the symbolical meaning of the ḍamaru in Śiva’s hand is sound or alphabets or grammar or language. It may also represent the ākāśa or the ether principle, the first of the five basic elements in the process of creation of the world.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore