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How many ragas are there?

Ragas are the melodic framework used in Indian classical music. They provide the rules for how the notes and melodies can be constructed and performed. Ragas are complex, with each one having its own unique set of qualities and characteristics. So how many ragas exist in total? The answer is not straightforward, as ragas have been developing and evolving for thousands of years. There is no definitive list or number when it comes to ragas. However, estimates typically range from hundreds to thousands.

The Origins and Evolution of Ragas

The origins of ragas can be traced back over two thousand years ago to the Samaveda, one of the four Vedas containing sacred Hindu texts. In the Samaveda, melodies called samagana were considered part of ritual performances. Over the centuries, these melodies grew into a sophisticated system of ragas. By the 13th century CE, under the Turko-Persian Islamic rule, documentation and more formalization of ragas began. The ragas continued evolving with the patronage of Mughal emperors like Akbar in the 16th century. Some of the most renowned musicologists like Sharngadeva, Ramamatya and Venkatamakhin further expanded raga theory and practice.

New ragas kept emerging as composers experimented with the notes, movements, and characteristics. The advent of new instruments provided more possibilities. The Hindustani ragas from northern India and the Carnatic ragas from southern India also diverged as distinct styles. Today, the raga tradition remains an integral part of both Hindustani classical music and Carnatic classical music.

Categorization of Ragas

Ragas are first categorized based on the number of notes they use. For instance:

  • Sampurna (complete) – uses all 7 notes
  • Shadava (6) – uses 6 notes
  • Audava (5) – uses 5 notes
  • Varja (4) – uses 4 notes

The second categorization is based on the time of the day/night or season assigned to the raga:

  • Morning ragas
  • Afternoon ragas
  • Evening ragas
  • Late night ragas
  • Seasonal ragas like ragas for the monsoon season or spring season

The third categorization is the Thaat system in Hindustani classical music. Thaats are parent scales, with ragas classified into ten main thaats like:

  • Bilaval
  • Khamaj
  • Kafi
  • Asavari
  • Bhairavi
  • Bhairav
  • Purvi
  • Marva
  • Todi
  • Kalyan

There can be overlap across these categorization systems. For example, raga Bhimpalasi is a morning raga that uses 6 notes and belongs to the Kafi thaat.

Estimates of the Number of Ragas

Given the thousands of years of evolution and richness of the raga system, estimates on the total number of ragas vary significantly. In his treatise Sangita Ratnakara, Sharngadeva mentions 264 ragas. In the early 17th century, Pundarika Vitthala’s Raga Manjari refers to over 300 ragas. In Sangita Sara, Tulaja includes descriptions of more than 700 ragas. Modern estimates extend even higher:

  • Musicologist Meera Rajaram Pangekar estimated around 1500 ragas
  • Ethnomusicologist Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy assessed over 2000 ragas
  • Other estimates mention 3000 to 4000 ragas
  • Some estimates even mention up to 10000 ragas

However, many consider these high-end estimates as inflated. Not all of these are distinctly identifiable ragas. Many are minor derivatives of more well-known ragas. In addition, multiple ragas can share the same scale. Differences arise from the ascending/descending order of notes, phrases and melodic movements that are emphasized, and the mood/time of day associations.

The Most Important Ragas

While theoretical estimates may count thousands of ragas, in practice, only a core group of ragas get performed regularly and remain familiar to audiences. These are considered the most fundamental and significant ragas.

In Hindustani classical music, some of the key ragas include:

Raga Thaat Notes used
Yaman Kalyan Kalyan Sampurna
Bhairav Bhairav Sampurna
Bihag Bilaval Sampurna
Malkauns Bhairav Audava
Darbari Kanhada Asavari Sampurna

In Carnatic classical music, some of the most popular ragas are:

Raga Melakarta raga Notes used
Todi Shubhapantuvarali Sampurna
Kalyani Mechakalyani Sampurna
Sankarabharanam Sankarabharanam Sampurna
Bhairavi Natabhairavi Sampurna
Hamsadhwani Dheerasankarabharanam Sampurna

While there are thousands of ragas, musicians and listeners are mainly familiar with these core, most performed ragas. The more obscure ragas are rarely heard or taught. However, over time, some of these underutilized ragas can gain more popularity.

Melas versus Ragas in Carnatic Music

In Carnatic music, an important distinction needs to be made between melams/melas and ragas. Melams refer to the 72 basic scales from which ragas are derived. These 72 melams contain the permutations of notes within an octave.

The 72 melams are further grouped into two categories:

  • 12 chakras – contain the ragas/scales that according to legend were revealed to Purandara Dasa in a dream
  • 60 melams – discovered later by Venkatamakhin

Some of the chakra ragas are Ratnangi, Triputa, Kalyani, and Harikambhoji. Examples of non-chakra melams are Gavambodhi, Jhalavarali, and Navaneetam.

Melams are more abstract scale forms. Ragas incorporate the melodic structure of the melams but have their own distinct personality with phrases, prayogas, and mood associations. A single melam can yield many ragas. For instance, the melam Hanumatodi has yielded ragas like Todi, Jayantasri, Sumukam, and Gangeyabhushani. Melams are the raga ingredients, while ragas are the melodic recipes.

So the number of melams/melas in Carnatic music is fixed at 72. The raga count is open-ended, ranging in the hundreds based on how many are derived from the melams.

Ragamalika – Garland of Ragas

Some musical presentations in Indian classical music feature a ragamalika, which means a “garland of ragas”. In ragamalika, different ragas are played sequentially in a single rendition. The switch from one raga to another can demonstrate the musician’s skill and creativity. Ragamalika provides aesthetic variety within a performance. For vocal concerts, different ragas are set to their own sahitya (lyrics). In instrumental music, the change in ragas is brought out through the melodic phrasing and improvisations. Various traditional and innovative ragas can be incorporated into a ragamalika presentation.

Raga Classification – An Evolving Process

In summary, estimating the total number of ragas is complicated by the constant evolution in Hindustani and Carnatic music. Ragas have emerged through:

  • New compositions being created within existing ragas
  • Innovative renderings bringing out new facets in known ragas
  • Known ragas falling into disuse
  • Rare ragas regaining popularity
  • Musicians exploring and identifying new combinations of notes and melodic phrases
  • Folk melodies being incorporated into the classical system

While the core, most performed ragas remain largely constant, the boundaries of the raga system keep expanding. The classification is an ongoing, dynamic process. Over the past millennia, the number of distinctly identified ragas emerging from the basic scales has grown substantially, leading to estimates ranging from hundreds to thousands.


In summary:

  • Ragas originated over 2000 years ago from sacred Hindu texts called the Vedas
  • Ragas are melodic frameworks that define the notes, movements, phrases and moods in Indian classical music
  • Estimates on the total number of ragas range from a few hundreds to thousands
  • Categorization is based on number of notes, time/season association and parent scales
  • A core group of a few hundred ragas are performed regularly
  • Obscure ragas exist but are rarely heard or taught
  • The Carnatic melams provide the scales from which ragas are derived
  • Ragas keep evolving, so their classification remains an open, ongoing process

The richness of the ragas comes not just from their sheer number but from the nuances and emotions they encapsulate. Their long tradition ensures that the most meaningful ragas remain at the heart of India’s cherished musical heritage.