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Rabab is an Arabic word used to describe a plucked or strung instrument and references have been found in Arabic texts dating as far back as the 10th century (Sitar and Sarod in the 18th & 19th Century, Allyn Miner, pg. 61). Today, two popularly known types of rabab are the kabuli rabab (as shown here) and the dhrupadi rabab. The kabuli rabab is found primarily in Afghanistan and Kashmir, whereas the dhrupadi rabab is found primarily in the Indian subcontinent.

The dhrupadi rabab, also affectionately named the seni rabab after Mian Tansen (a famous court musician of the Mughal Emperor Akbar), is commonly seen in old miniature paintings of Mardana and other musicians of this era. Though the rabab is mentioned quite frequently in old texts, this Saaj has become rare in India and is now only common in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The Kabuli rabab is the national instrument of Afghanistan used in ancient court music, as well as modern day art and entertainment music.


The "Rabab" is a hollowed-out body of wood with a membrane stretched over the opening. Combinations of gut (or nylon) and metal strings pass over a bridge which rests on a taught membrane. The kabuli rabab has three main strings and a number of sympathetic strings over a hollow neck and a goat-skin resonator, whereas the dhrupadi rabab was known to have between six and sometimes even 12 strings.

It has a very deep body making it a bit awkward to hold. Rababs come in different sizes depending on the region they are found. The Afghan rabab is also found in northern India and Pakistan, probably due to the Afghan rule in those regions in the 15th Century.


The rabab was the precursor to the Indian sarode, which is regarded as one of India's most important instruments. There is also evidence that this instrument may be the progenitor of a number of other Indian instruments. The sarinda and the sarangi are also the ones most commonly attributed to this instrument.

At first it may seem hard to make the connection between a plucked instrument and a bowed instrument, however notice the "waist" in the middle of the rabab. This is an indication that the instrument at some time was played with a bow. All bowed instruments must be narrow at the place where the bow must pass.

Sikhi references

An interesting Sikh reference to the rabab can be found on page 62 in the book Sitar and Sarod in the 18th and 19th Centuries by Dr. Allyn Miner. Here she references a treatise on Indian music called Quanoon-e-Mousiqi by Sadiq Ali Khan (1864 AD), which mentions that the rabab originally had five strings and that Guru Nanak added a sixth string to the rabab on which Bhai Mardana accompanied him. She also mentions that Mardana's rabab was strung with silk rather than gut or metal strings. Many of the older miniature paintings of Bhai Mardana show this six string dhrupadi rabab.

Currently, you may see Guru Gobind Singh's dhrupadi rabab on display at the Gurdwara in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh. In his Foreword for Dhrupadi Rabab, a two-CD album under the World Music Heritage Series by Anad Records, Bhai Baldeep Singh writes that Mardana's own dhrupadi rabab was once on display at the Gurudwara in Patna, however this was sadly destroyed in a fire during the 1984 riots.

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