Gurbani Raags

The Indian Classical Music has three built in pillars called elements of music, they are:

  • Raga
  • Mood
  • Expression

A. Raga:

Raag, in the Sanskrit dictionary, is defined as "the act of coloring or dyeing" (the mind in this context) and "any feeling or passion especially love, affection, sympathy, vehement desire, interest, joy, or delight". In music, these descriptions apply to the impressions of melodic sounds on both the artist(s) and listener(s). A raag consists of required and optional rules governing the melodic movements of notes within a performance.

Indian classical music is based on raga system, which has continuously evolved over the millenniums, from pre Aryan period until today. The music and ragas also have their roots in the Hindu mythology e.g., Shiv's tandav dance, and Narad's and Saraswati's playing of divine musical instruments are legendary evidences of the existence of music in the world of gods.

The definition and meaning of raga has changed many a times over the long period of history and mythology. The root word for the term 'Raga' is the Sanskrit word 'Ranja' meaning to please, to colour or to tinge. The meaning of the raga revolves around three basic elements:

  • colour
  • passion, and
  • melody.

The melodic performer utilizes a raag as the foundation for improvisation. A recital explores a raag in an non-metered form and/or within the confines of a cyclical rhythmic structure, using intricate ornamentation of notes. First the raag is introduced with a note or group of notes, and then the improvisation progresses to a more melodically and rhythmically complex form.

The manner in which raags originate is a fascinating subject. Many raags are polished forms of a family of regional folk melodies while others have been created through the imagination of musicians. Some of the latter are raags with their own distinct characteristics whereas other creations are a combination of one or more existing raags. The names of some established raags have changed with time and the characteristics/ definitions of raags also are not as rigid as claimed in theory.

History of ragas:

  • Bharata is considered to be the earliest authority on Indian Music. In his work 'Natya Shastra' written in the third century A.D.. he has explained the meaning of ragas but has not given any coherent definition of the word. Later works of this period were produced by Kayshap and Matanga
  • Pandit Somnath's work titled 'Rag - Vobodh' was produced in the medieval period. He said that a raga was an arrangement of sounds, consisting of musical notes, which possess Varna. Varna here means manner and order in which Svaras (notes) are applied.
  • The modern writers have given the following definitions of a raga:

i. Fox Strangeway defines a raga as: "An arbitrary series of notes characterised as far as possible as individuals, by proximity to or remoteness from the note which marks the general level of melody, by a special order in which they are usually reinforced by a drone". 1
Music of Hindustan, Oxford University, 1914, pp. 107

ii. Herbert A. Popley defines a raga as: "Different series of notes within the octave, which form each other by the prominence of certain fixed notes and by the sequence of particular notes". 2

B .Mood

Mood is the frame of mind or state of feelings. It is the comprehensive term for any state of mind in which one emotion or desire or a set of them is ascendant.

C. Expression

It is primarily an act or process of representation. It deals with the role of expression in a musical performance, the means of expression and the factors responsible for expression while presenting any raga.


The literal meaning of the word Ragmala is: a chain/necklace (mala) of ragas i.e., a list of ragas. This list differs according to the author and the music school it is based upon. Thus there exists a number of such lists in the music text books.

The Ragamala listed in Guru Granth Sahib belongs to Hanumant school of music. According to Bhai Vir Singh, a Sikh scholar, the ragamala included in Guru Granth Sahib was prepared by Guru Nanak Dev and it contains a list of popular ragas of that period of time. This ragamala must not be read as an index of ragas of Guru Granth Sahib, for it is only a list of popular ragas sung at the time period of Sikh Gurus. Moreover there are ragas mentioned in the Ragamala which are not included in Guru Granth Sahib, and there are ragas used in Guru Granth Sahib which are not mentioned in the Ragamala. In fact the Ragamala included in Guru Granth Sahib is no way related to the ragas used by the Sikh Gurus to compose their hymns. It is just an independent list of ragas based on Hanumant School of music.

It is also important to note that unlike various Schools of Music, there is no mention of raginis (consort of ragas) or their sons in Guru Granth Sahib. There is a mention of 37 ragas. Thirty one ragas refer to 31 chapters in the musical section of Guru Granth Sahib (pages 14 - 1353), and six other ragas mentioned therein have been mixed with the 31 major names used in Guru Granth Sahib.

The following ragas names, which are used as chapter headings, have been used by the Sikh Gurus to compose their hymns:

Other six raga names mentioned/used in Guru Granth Sahib are:

    • Asawari*
    • Lalit*
    • Hindol*
    • Vibas
    • Kafi
    • Bhopali

The ragas marked with asterix (*) sign mentioned above are listed in Guru Granth Sahib's ragamala, which has a mention of a total of 64 raga names, including 6 major ragas, 30 raginis and 48 sons of ragas. Thus out of a total of 64 ragas mentioned in the ragamala, the Sikh Gurus have used only 20 (17 major names, and 3 other raga names) ragas and have used 17 (14 major names and 3 other names) other ragas which are not mentioned in the Guru Granth Sahib's ragamala.

Specialist Terminology to understand musical terms used in the following pages.

1. Thaat- The tune of seven ascending and descending notes is called 'Thath oio' ,

  • A Thaat must have seven notes out of the twelve notes [Seven Shuddha, Four komal (Re, Ga, Dha , Ni), one teevra (Ma) ], placed in an ascending order. Both the forms of the notes can be used.
  • Thaat has only an Aaroha.
  • Thaats are not sung but the raags produced from the Thaats are sung.
  • Thaats are named after the popular raag of that Thaat. For example Bhairavi is a popular raag and the thaat of the raag Bhairavi is named after the raag.

The music books record ten basic thaats:

2. Arohi - The ascending scale (sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa) .This is the pattern of notes in which a Raag ascends the scale.
3. Avrohi - The descending scale (sa ni dha pa ma ga re sa) This is the pattern of notes in which a Raag decends the scale.
4. Vadi- The most popular note ,This is a note which is strongly emphasised within a particular Raag.
5. Samvadi- The second most popular note,This is a note which is emphasised within a particular Raag, but not as much as the Vadi.
6. Aurav- A raga of five notes
7. Khaurav- A raga of six notes
8. Sampooran- A raga of seven notes
9. Aurav-Khaurav- Where arohi has five notes, but avrohi has six notes.
10. Khaurav-Aurav- Where arohi has six notes, but avrohi has five notes.
11. Aurav-Sampooran- Where arohi has five notes, but avrohi has seven notes
12. Khaurav-Sampooran- Where arohi has six notes, but avrohi has seven notes.
13. Sampooran-Aurav- Where arohi has seven notes, but avrohi has five notes.
14. Sampooran-Khaurav- Where arohi has seven notes, but avrohi has six notes.
15. Saptaks - This refers to three divisions of a harmonium

    • Mandar - first (top) part of seven notes
    • Middle - central part of seven notes
    • Tar - last part of seven notes.

16. The notes can be soft (komal) or sharp (teever)

Musical terms regarding a presentation of a raag in vocal style

1.Sthayee : The first part of the composition. Mainly develops in the the lower and the middle octave.
2.Antaraa : Second part of the composition. Develops in the middle or higher note.
3.Mukhadaa : The first line of the composition.

Common Themes of Shabads placed under Raags of Guru Granth Sahib

    1. Soohi - Being away from home. The soul being away from the House of Lord and the joy of meeting the true husband.
    2. Bilaaval - beautification of soul, happiness.
    3. Gaund - Separation, union, surprise.
    4. Sri - Maya and detachment
    5. Maajh - yearning to merge with Lord, giving up of negative values.
    6. Gauri - Principles, serious, thoughtfulness, composed
    7. Aasa - Hope
    8. Gujri - Prayer (Pooja)
    9. Devgandhari - Merging with spouse, self - realization
    10. Bihaagra - Yearning due to separation of soul and happiness due to meeting the Lord.
    11. Sorath - Merits of God
    12. Dhanasari - Mixed theme
    13. Jaitsree - Stability
    14. Todi - Maya, separation
    15. Bairagi - motivation to sing praises of Lord
    16. Tilang - many words from the vocabulary of Islamic origins are used, sadness, beautification.
    17. Raamkali - to give up the life of a wandering Jogi.
    18. Nat Narayan - Joy of meeting the Lord
    19. Maali Gaura - Happiness
    20. Maaru - Bravery
    21. Tukhari - Separation and union with Lord
    22. Kedara - Love
    23. Bhairav - Man's state of hell
    24. Basant - Happiness
    25. Sarang - Thirst to meet God
    26. Malaar - State of separated and united soul
    27. Jaijawanti - Vairaag (Detachment)
    28. Kalyaan - Bhakti (Prayer) Ras
    29. Vadhans - Vairaag (Detachment)
    30. Parbhati - Bhakti (Prayer)
    31. Kaanra - Bhakti (Prayer)

Feelings communicated by the music of Raags

    1. Soohi - joy and separation
    2. Bilaaval - happiness
    3. Gaund - strangeness, surprise, beauty
    4. Sri - satisfaction and balance
    5. Maajh - loss, beautification
    6. Gauri - seriousness
    7. Aasa - making effort
    8. Gujri - satisfaction, softness of heart, sadness
    9. Devgandhari - no specific feeling but the Raag has a softness
    10. Bihaagra - beautification
    11. Sorath - motivation
    12. Dhanasari - inspiration, motivation
    13. Jaitsree - softness, satisfaction, sadness
    14. Todi - this being a flexible Raag it is apt for communicating many feelings
    15. Bhairaagi - sadness, (Gurus have, however, used it for the message of Bhakti)
    16. Tilang - this is a favourite Raag of Muslims. It denotes feeling of beautification and yearning.
    17. Raamkali - calmness
    18. Nat Narayan - happiness
    19. Maali Gaura - happiness
    20. Maaru - giving up of cowardice
    21. Tukhari - beautification
    22. Kedara - love and beautification
    23. Bhairav - seriousness, brings stability of mind
    24. Basant - happiness
    25. Sarang - sadness
    26. Malaar - separation
    27. Jaijawanti - viraag
    28. Kalyaan - Bhakti Ras
    29. Vadhans - vairaag, loss (that is why Alahniya is sung in this Raag when someone passes away)
    30. Parbhati - Bhakti and seriousness
    31. Kaanra - Bhakti and seriousness

Excerpts taken from:
Guru Granth Sahib: An Advance Study
Dr Sukhbir Singh Kapoor
and other sources