The tambura's history in the Indian subcontinent streaches back to at least the 6th century and possiblily back to antiquity. it may be that the instrument is indiginous the Indian itself; Indian music has always been associated with devotion towards Hindu gods, and there exist depictions of the goodess Saraswarti playing the veena,a similar, earlier instrument considered to be . The veena is also mentioned in the Rigveda, the first of the four Vedas (Hindu holy writings), with has been dated to at least 1100 BCE. This part of Indian history is sketchy, but what is definitely known is that the drone was being used in the 6th century. Another influence on the tambura was the tanbur, a long-necked lute found in Persia (now Iran) which was introduced to India by the Muslims. The word "tanpura" itself comes from the words tana "musical phrase" and pura "complete".
The tambura;s first use within Indian chamber music is quite recent, dating back to about the 15th century. Its popularity remained strong as Indian entered its modern classical period around the 17th century; the word itself only entered Indian parlace around 1600. Today. the tambura remains one of if not the most recognisable drone instruments in recent years. However, the tambura's popularity is waning due to the newfound popularity of Western instruments within Indian yotuh culture. A recent innovation is the "electronic tambura"; a small synthesizer, shaped as a white box, which is used as a drone. This is far easier to tune and carry about than a regular tambura, but some musicians have expressed grave doubts about the authencity of the sound quality of an electronic tambura.
(Pictures from http://i.ebayimg.com/24/!B9PnLfgEGk~$(KGrHqQOKpYEy+jCy!rEBM5O7kcVKQ~~_35.JPG?set_id=8800005007 and http://www.buckinghammusic.com/veena/veena.html. Top: Saraswati, Hindu goddess of music, playing a veenu, one of the predecessors to the modern tambura. Bottom: A typical electronic tambura.
The construction of the tambura is quite varied. Generally, larger tamburas are called "male" and smaller ones are called "female". The actual construction of the tambura itself depends on region. Perhaps the best known variety is the Miraj tanpura played by Hindu, North Indian musicians. It is 3-5 foot in length and has a non-tapering neck, pear shaped face and a gourd resonator (recently, wood has become used for resonators although this remains a rareified practice). The Southern or Tanjor tambura, conversely, has a tapered neck and a falt face, although the lengths are very similar. Tanjor resonators are made from wood. Finally, there is the 2-3 foot long tamburi which is all wood and fairly shallow. Despite its sub-par sound it is often used by travelling folk musicians due to its small size and hardy material.
The tambura is famous for its rich and detailed sound, known as jivari, which is achieved through careful tuning and the use of cotton under the strings. The sound is a drone and thus very slow and repetitive. It is a quite "immersive" sound. I like the sound although it can get grating after a while. You can see an example of Northern Indian tampura playing here:
(Picture from http://kksongs.org/image_files/instruments/tambura.jpg.) A tanjor tambura; notice the flat face in front of the resonator.
You play the tambura by plucking the strings, which are like those of the sitar (Indian guitar) only without frets. The bridge is essential, as it helps provide the characteristic "buzzing" noise of the drone. After tuning, you use thread at the bottom of the tambura to increase resounance. You can then pluck from highest to low. The strings of a tambura are made of wire or occasionally steel. There are almost always either four or five of them.
Similar instruments to the tambura include the Iranian tamur, the Turkish yakli tambur and even the tamburica which is played as far as Central Europe. The many different long-necked lutes are due to the influence of the Persian tamur, which spread to numerous other countries.
(Image from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d3/Prim_tambura.png.) A Eastern European tamburica.