Guyanese Hindu Music and Chanting

Because of the emphasis on ritual practice and group participation, simple musical accompaniments play a large part in the Minnesota Hindu Milan Mandir’s religious services. Music in the service takes on a repetitive form that reinforces the beats of the chants. Music at the mandir is directly inherited from ritual practice performed in Mrs. Balroop’s hometown in Guyana. It follows a rough call and response format where the congregation ‘answers’ the lead chanter. The role of lead chanter is passed between Mrs. Balroop and other core members. The music is an interesting mix of classical Indian traditions, Hindu chanting, and South-Caribbean popular music commonly called chutney. This blend of traditions is reflected in the various instrumentation.


Dholak- A double-sided wood drum that provides the rhythmic base for most chanting songs. It is played sitting down, and the drum rests on the floor in front of the player. Normally a steady ostanato is played using ‘tones’ and ‘muffs’ which reinforce the circular nature of the chants. Normally the dholak is either played by a temple youth or Mrs. Balroop herself, and does not require much special training. However, during my visits to the mandir I was immediately allowed to play the dholak because of my interest in ritual music, reinforcing the mandir’s emphasis on practical worship. Some of the recordings featured on this site have myself playing drums. However the wonderful thing about the MHMM is that this is no way makes the service any less “authentic”.

Dhantal: This percussion instrument is made of a long thin metal rod with a loop on one end which is struck by another metal bar. This bar is reminiscent of a horseshoe in shape. Normally the rod is held up by the player, however to let the sound ring out, the player lets go of the bar when it is struck for a short amount of time. Playing this instrument is a balance exercise, and requires a high level of coordination and practice to play the rhythms evenly. Normally short triplet ostanatos are played on the dhantal that is suggestive of the merengue style played in the Dominican Republic.1 The dhantal is usually played by more experienced members of the congregation.

Harmonium: This instrument has a small set of hand powered bellows that force air through a set of free reeds. The result is something similar to an accordion, although markedly easier to learn. The harmonium is played all over the world, but it is especially prevalent in Indian classical ritual music where is it often accompanied by the dholak or tabla. The harmonium is not a staple at MHMM, but rather is a special treat brought by an especially devout member of the Hindu community. I personally heard this instrument only once at the Maghi Prunima Festival.

There are also a number of bells similar to common handbells that are played by all members of the congregation. Sometimes a small tambourine is used to reinforce a steady beat. While music plays a large role in beginning prayers, it is featured most prominently during the concluding aarti ceremony. Here the normal instruments are joined by a large shell horn, usually played by a temple youth, as well as by the ringing of the ceremonial bell at irregular intervals.

Sample Recordings

Satsang Chants:

1.) Satsang Chant 1 (dholak is especially prominent)

2.) Satsang Chant 2

3.) Satsang Chant 3

4.) Satsang Chant 4


5.) Final aarti with shell horn

Maghi Purnima Festival:

6.) Chanting with harmonium


*These audio recordings were taken on various Sunday satsangs between the dates of 1/16/11 – 2/28/11.

  1. Peter Manuel, “Music, Identity, and Images of India in the Indo-Caribbean Diaspora, ” Asian Music 29 (1998): 22.