Tibetan Dungchen: sounding the long call to Buddhism

dungchen of tibet

While music might be among the choiciest of life’s endowments and yet among the most essential ones, the psychology at play behind choral symphonies being almost an elixir to life itself is no less profound. All musical experiences tend to be unique, even when they strive to drive us to that blithe state of existence that what makes life worthwhile or at least bearable. And this serendipitous experience of the existence isn’t always a matter of relaxing in enjoyment, it also holds sometimes a more universal appeal in tending to stem from a uniform basis.

No wonder then that with such a vast mass of acceptance guiding the inroads of music into everyday life in particular and existence in general, it is only natural that music would have deep seated significance even in the spiritual domain. Whether you are concerning yourself with the adages of morality or the beliefs in religion, it is only imperative that there will be music accompanying you in your quest for what you want to achieve out of this soulful association.

The Tibetan Horn, Dungchen

And like any other music that relies on the encompassment of accompanying musical instruments to make more of an impact, even ritual music come with their own unique instruments playing melody to them. One such instrument that is particularly captivating at least in its prominent vision is a Tibetan horn. Called the Dungchen, this prominent presence within the realm of Tibetan ritual music is also a visual wonder. As a musical instrument that extends anywhere from being a little over a feet to some 16 feet in length, the dungchen indeed is one of the most recognisable entities in Tibetan Buddhist culture.

These great brass horns are typically sighted and sounded at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. As an integral part of Tibetan ritual music, the dungchen is heard at temple orchestras as a deep, powerful sound that accompanies some particularly energetic yogic song and as accompaniment to yogic dance. The low but powerful sound emanating from the playing of always a pair of dungchen is attributable to the elongated build of the instrument, that which also makes the blowing of the trumpet and its corresponding sound a difficult mechanism to control.

tibetan dungchen
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Given the enormous size of the dungchen, the sounding of this unique instrument also calls for a special mode of operation. For a solo performance, the performer can be seating or standing in which case the bell end of the dungchen will rest on a special stand. If however, the instrument is sounded in a procession, the bell end is held by an assistant on his shoulder. As the player plays the dungchen by placing the mouthpiece to his lips, three different pitches can be possibly sounded, that which pertains to notations of the indigenous graphic notational system used by Buddhist monastic musicians.


Made from thin sheets of brass, copper and silver, these ornate dungchens are generally constructed as three detachable sections to allow for ease of storage and portability. Often played with smaller horns, drums and double reeds such as the dril-bu (small hand bell), thod-rnga (small rattle drum), rnga (stick-struck double-headed barrel drum), sbug-chal (large cymbals with pronounced domes), dung-dkar (large conch shell trumpets), rkang-gling (short horns made of human bones), and rgya-gling (oboes), the low, deep sound produced by the dungchen has been compared to that of a cow mooing. As the most widely used instrument in Tibetan Buddhist culture, the sounding of the dungchen from monastery rooftops is also a calling for prayer and feast for the public as well as for the deities and guardian spirits.

An end-blown lip-reed aerophone of the natural type, the dungchen originated in Tibet even when its sounding is also a prominent ritualistic feature in the bordering areas of India, Nepal and Bhutan. Chanting of religious texts typically accompany the playing dungchen through performances of the Buddhist monastic dance, known as ’cham. Played by male members of monastic communities, the dungchen has perhaps been around in Tibet since sometime between the 206 B.C.E.–C.E. 907 when Buddhism flourished in the region. Tibet being a part of China then, the dungchen came to be among the instruments sent as gifts by China to impress officials of bordering nations as was the custom of the times.