Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Bhutanese man playing a Dranyen (Photo by Sonam Tobgay, NLAB)

Dra-nyen: Bhutanese Traditional Musical Instrument

Bhutan’s rich cultural heritage embraces different traditional musical instruments that have been created and developed over the years and used since the beginning of Bhutan’s origination. Consequently, in tandem the lingm (flute), pi-wang (fiddle), dra-nyen (guitar), and yang-chen (harp) popularly form elements of Bhutanese music among various indigenous instruments.

Literally, dra-nyen means ‘melodious sound’. It’s one of the most sacred musical instruments used for non-religious purposes in Bhutan. Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom is represented by the melodies produced by the dra-nyen. She’s the mother of all the Buddhas of infinite times: past, present, and future. Through this instrument, she offers music of praise to the three bodies of Buddha (trikaya). She also subdues and disciplines evil forces or antagonists for the protection of the institution of Buddhism using its melody. Therefore, the music emanated from this entity is highly sacrosanct and spiritual.

As per oral history, the seven dakinis (celestial beings) from the celestial realm came to earth to take a bath. The youngest of all of them had a dra-nyen which hung upon a tree nearby while she was bathing. While the dra-nyen hung on the tree, a poor orphan boy came across it while collecting firewood. He got a hold of it and played. While the rest of the dakinis flew away after hearing its melody, the youngest one stayed behind as the boy refused to return the instrument. However, after much negotiation they came to an agreement under two conditions: he must keep it away from other human beings always; and he must play this instrument only at midnight.

Accordingly, the boy played the instrument every night at midnight, and the youngest dakini would visit him, leaving before dawn. Due to blessings from the dakini and the dra-nyen, he became wealthier upon each new day, surpassing everyone’s wealth and power.

On the other side of the river bank, there lived a rich family. They were surprised to see the orphan boy become wealthy. The daughters of the family visited the poor boy and succeeded in convincing him that he was their uncle. He spent time with the daughters, however, he followed the words of the dakini by placing his instrument in a safe place while out with them. One day, when he left for an archery match, the daughters discovered the dra-nyen. The dakini appeared when she heard the melody but was disheartened to see someone else having access to the sacred instrument. After encountering this unpleasant surprise, she cut one of the strings and left. Upon the boy’s return, he tried to play, but to his surprise, the dakini didn’t arrive. While looking for the dakini, he noticed that a string was missing. Thereafter, his wealth diminished day by day. Before becoming as poor as he once was, he left for the bathing site and hid himself amidst the flowers.

When the dakinis were about to leave, he came out and caught a hold of the youngest sister. He requested her to fix the string, but she refused for he failed to keep the preconditions which put her life at risk. Yet, as the boy was adamant, she finally agreed. Since then, the instrument became public.

The dra-nyen has seven strings, including a short one. The number of strings represents the seven sisters of dakini. The short string represents the youngest sister (symbolizing the breaking of a promise between her and the orphan boy). The number of the string also determines the base of the finger skills of the one who uses it. Different types of ‘heads’ are used. Most commonly used is the symbolic crocodile head as it is believed that it has the power to ward off evil forces.

The dra-nyen must be handled properly since it is the instrument used for offering melodies to Buddha. One will gain merit if one plays with devotion. If one happens to play without minding those qualities, one will be met with unfortunate incidences as the melody is believed to cause emotional crisis to evil forces. Hence, the impact is felt by the player due to the ‘law of cause and effect.’ If handled and played with respect, it is believed to help gain wealth, glory, and great merit.

Today, besides focusing on the above spiritualistic factors, it is widely used for entertainment purposes on various occasions, be it for praising gods, expressing love, conveying messages, and so on. Hence, the culture of using this instrument thrives well in Bhutan.