All over the world, archaeologists list simple idiophones as the first prehistoric musical instruments. This includes rattles, scrapers, and bone flutes. The Neolithic strata contain slit drums, flutes (with holes), shell trumpets, and musical bows. The Palaeolithic strata yield basket rattles, xylophones, and flutes, friction sticks.

These early instruments, at least the instruments that survived, often resemble tools that early society utilized. In India, the doddu rajan, found among the Savaras, resembles a fire-producing implement (a tool to create heat by friction). This type of scraper, also found as the kokara among the Palayans of Kerala perhaps became the Palayans' scraper, and used in the music of exorcism.

Seals of the Mohenjodaro Indus valley civilization contain depictions of men playing long cylindrical drums hung around their necks played horizontally. These drums are most similar to the kharrang of Assam and with the dhole of the Reddis of Andra Pradesh.

Other drums inscribed on the seals include an hourglass shaped drum like the hudukka, castanets and cymbals. Some arched harps found in their hieroglyphics and unearthed clay whistles demonstrate they developed a tonal system, but no literature exists which we can translate in order to learn about that system.

The classical or post-classical period featured drums with complex designs, like the puskara, bhanda, panava, and mrdanga. The ancient dhundubhi became a prototype for these drums, as well as, the bhanda vadya, the modern pakhawaj and the khole. The puskara consisted of three drums, two horizontal and one leaning drum.

They tuned these drums to defined pitches. The bhanda vadya, mrdanga, and the pakhawaj all have similar designs. Played horizontally, these barrel shaped (almost cylindrical) drums, feature a tuned multi-layered composite membranes covering both ends (connected by leather straps).

Other drums found in India during this period include the madal, which features a similar, but less sophisticated design. This drum is found among the Santals, Oraons, Baigans, and Ghasias (all the non-Aryan people of the central Indian belt).

Similar drums existed throughout India with variations on this name: maddale (Kannada), madol (Bengalic), mandar (Hindi), mardal (Sanskrit), maddelam (Tamil). Other double membrane drums from this period include: the tavil (Tamil), the pung (Manipur), and the khole (Bengal).

The tabla developed as a hybridized drum, influenced by all of these varieties, in particular, the mrdangm and the puskara. Muktesvara temple (6th-7th century) and Bhuranesvara (and three other cave temples) of Badari in Bombay (6th century) contain depictions of the Puskara.

Musicians often placed the puskara’s smaller verticle drum (called ‘alinga’), on their lap and played more than one drum at a time. Given the design, technology, and musical structure for drums common in this this period, we can piece together numerious features of the tabla.

The name ‘tabla’, probably derived from the Arabic word for a drum (generic), called the ‘tabl’; and possibly to some extent the Turkish word ‘dawal’. Another popular notion is that Amir Khursuro invented the tabla by splitting the Pakawaj into two drums. This is highly disputed.

Abul Fazil, the court recorder neither mentions nor describes the tabla, leaving doubt that Amir Khursuro invented the tabla, contrary to a previously popular notion. The Muslim invaders undoubtedly influenced the culture and structure of the tabla. However, the earliest depictions and literature describing the tabla as we recognize it today come from the 18th century.

Details available from this point on enable us to chart the development to modern day. Over the last two centuries the tabla begins to take the forefront of percussion instruments in north Indian classical music. We can trace the family lineage of the gharanas from the 18th century onward.

Over this time, the tabla slowly changed, the dayan decreasing in size while the bayan increased. During this time the instrument slowly became the primary drum for both classical and popular music of north India.