Mathalam (or Madhalam), is a cylindrical shaped instrument revered as the ancestor to the modern day Miruthangam. It has also been mentioned in some of the earliest Sangam (classical) Tamil literatures. In the Purana’s it is said that Lord Shiva taught the Mathalam to Nanthi who plays it to accompany Lord Shiva’s Thandavam dance. For this reason Mathalam is called the Thaiva (Deva) Vadyam literally a divine instrument.

The cylindrical shell range in length from 18 – 25 inches with a diameter of 7 – 10 inches on the left side, the right side is smaller in proportion to the left. The Mathalam, being very much similar in shape to the Miruthangam but larger in diameter, is hollowed out from a single block of Jackfruit wood. The wood is left to season for several years before the drum is constructed. Any of the Pancharatna (5 types) of wood can be also be used for its construction.

Layers of animal skin are moulded and made into Mootu and attached to the two sides of the shell using leather straps. Wooden tuning wedges or pegs are placed under the leather straps so that the Mathalam can be tuned precisely. A smaller variant of the Mathalam called the Madal exist predominantly in the northern regions of India and Nepal.

The larger left face of the instrument consists of goat and buffalo skin and the smaller right face of the instrument consists of goat and cow skin. Both are similar in construction to that of the Miruthangam. However, unlike the Miruthangam Soru (or Saatham) is applied to both the left and right face of the Mathalam. The Soru on the left side is usually larger in diameter and is designed to produce more bass notes whilst the Soru on the right is thicker but smaller in diameter and produces treble notes.

The main difference between the Mathalam and the Miruthangam is that the decibel levels in the Mathalam are incredibly high. The difference in decibel level is due to the texture of the skin used to construct the Thoppi (heads). The decibel level was the reason why the instrument was not preferred as an accompaniment to vocal recitals. The Miruthangam, with addition of few extra layers of skin differing in texture, thereby came into existence and became suited for vocal renditions.

The instrument is either played while sitting, or hung by a cloth strap, called Nadai, from the shoulder of the player similarly as that of the Thavil. It is played in the same manner as the Miruthangam both having identical syllables.

Mathalam still lives in the heart of the people and is predominantly used in folk music and dance. It is the fundamental instrument for Koothu.

References to the Mathalam have been made in many of the Saiva hymns, Panniru Thirumurai, the below are some examples:

மருவமுழ வதிரமழ பாடிமலி மத்தவிழ வார்க்கஅரையார்

பருவமழை பண்கவர்செய் பட்டிசர மேயபடர் புன்சடையினான்

வெருவமத யானையுரி போர்த்துமையை அஞ்சவரு வெள்விடையினான்

உருவமெரி கழல்கள்தொழ உள்ளமுடை யாரையடை யாவினைகளே. 3.73.5

மத்தளி ஒன்றுள தாளம் இரண்டுள

அத்துள்ளே வாழும் அரசனும் அங்குளன்

அத்துள்ளெ வாழும் அரசன் புறப்பட்டால்

மத்தளி மண்ணாய் மயங்கிய வாறே 10.189

விச்சா தரர்இயக்கர் கின்னரர் கிம்புருடர்

அச்சா ரணர்அரக்க ரோடசுரர் - எச்சார்வும்

சல்லரி தாளந் தகுணிதந் தத்தளகம்

கல்லலகு கல்ல வடம்மொந்தை - நல்லிலயத்

தட்டழி சங்கஞ் சலஞ்சலந் தண்ணுமை

கட்டழியாப் பேரி கரதாளம் - கொட்டும்

குடமுழவம் கொக்கரை வீணை குழல்யாழ்

இடமாந் தடாரி படகம் - இடவிய

மத்தளந் துந்துபி வாய்ந்த முருடிவற்றால்

எத்திசை தோறும் எழுந்தியம்ப - ஒத்துடனே

மங்கலம் பாடுவார் வந்திறைஞ்ச மல்லரும்

கிங்கரரும் எங்குங் கிலுகிலுப்பத் 11.300