The ravanahatha is believed by the indigenous Sinhalese ethnic majority to have originated among the Hela civilization of Sri Lanka in the time of King Ravana. The bowl is made of a cut coconut shell that is covered with goat hide. A Dandi, made of bamboo, is attached to this shell. The two principle strings are made of steel and horsehair, respectively. The long bow has jingle bells.
Throughout the medieval history of India, the kings were patrons of music; this helped in increased popularity of ravanhatta among royal families. In Rajasthan and Gujarat, it was the first musical instrument to be learned by princes. The Sangit tradition of Rajasthan further helped in popularizing ravanhatta among ladies as well.
According to legend, Ravana was an ardent devotee of the Hindu god Shiva, and served him using the ravanahatha. In the Hindu Ramayana epic, after the war between Rama and Ravana, Hanuman picked up a ravanahatha and returned to North India. In India, the ravanahatha is still played in Rajasthan. From India, the ravanahatha traveled westwards to the Middle East and Europe, where in the 9th century, it came to be called the Ravan strong.
In modern times, the instrument has been revived by Sri Lankan composer and violinist Dinesh Subasinghe and used in several of his compositions, including Rawan Nada and the Buddhist oratorio Karuna Nadee.
Dinesh Subasinghe's ravanahatha has been referred by Michael Ondaatje the Canadian novelist and poet who won the Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient, which was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film. He has described it as history's first violin.
The Netherlands-based author Patrick Jered has recently written a book (Finding the Demon's Fiddle) about his quest to discover the origins of the instrument. The book will be published in Asia towards the end of 2014 by Westland books, followed by publication in Europe and the USA. Jered traces the mythology surrounding the instrument, following the path of Ravana, the Great Demon King of Lanka, through India, via mount Kailash in Tibet, to Trincomalee in Sri Lanka. He concurs with leading musicologist Prof. Joep Bor that the ravanhattha is the oldest extant ancestor of the violin family.
- Fazlur Rahman (15 June 2009). The Music of India. University of Chicago Press. pp. 16–17. ISBN 978-0-226-70286-5.
- The Island (9 March 2008). "Sri Lankan revives Ravana’s musical instrument".
- Balachandran, PK (7 February 2011). "A musical instrument played by Ravana Himself!". New Indian Express. Retrieved 1 May 2013.
- Sir Ondaatje, Christopher (2 June 2013). Lanka’s Ravanahatha is the world’s first violin'. The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka). Retrieved 24 November 2013.
- Media related to Ravanahatha at Wikimedia Commons