The origins of singing Tibetan bowls are as mysterious as the otherworldly harmonies the bowls produce when we play them. There are more questions than answers: Where did they first come from? What are they made of? How have Tibetans and other cultures used them through the centuries? Why are they known as Tibetan singing bowls?
What we do know is this:
- Tibetan singing bowls are not Buddhist in origin, but more likely date back to the pre-Buddhist Tibetan Bon culture. Although there is no hard evidence to indicate the origins or use of the bowls, it is commonly thought that they were traditionally used both in rituals and, more mundanely, as food bowls.
- Singing bowls are actually a type of bell known as a “standing bell.” The bowls are played either by rubbing a mallet around the rim (as one might play a crystal glass with your finger), or striking the side of the bowl with the mallet. The two playing methods produce quite distinctive sounds.
- Though they are often referred to as Tibetan Singing Bowls, they are more accurately called Himalayan Bowls, as they are present throughout the Himalayan regions of Tibet, Nepal, India and Nepal. They can also be found in various manifestations in Japan, Korea, China and Mongolia.
- Today, singing bowls are used to aid meditation, religious practice, relaxation and healthcare.
- When used in sound healing, singing bowls are sometimes referred to as healing bowls or chakra bowls. In sound healing, or “sound massage,” the bowls are played around and sometimes placed on the body of the receiver of the treatment. The practitioner uses the resonance of the bowls’ harmonic vibrations within the human body for balancing and relaxation. Some sound healers seek to activate or balance the body’s chakras, or energy centers.
- The “singing” sound is remarkable, a powerful, long-lasting harmonic hum that can be both invigorating and calming at the same time.
- The traditional methods of producing the bowls has been lost for at least 50 years, but the manufacturing methods used today can produce bowls with beautiful tones. Today, bowls are both hand-hammered and machine-made, or a combination of the two. The best modern bowls are considered to come from Nepal.
- Modern bowls are most likely to be made of a type of bronze called “bell metal,” composed of a mix of copper and tin.
- Antique bowls were also typically made of high-quality bronze, with combinations of various other metals, including gold, silver and even highly-prized meteoric iron, which the Tibetans call “sky-metal” or thogcha. The presence of multiple kinds of ore is thought to to be the source of the multiphonic overtones of some antique bowls, and along with the mellow tones created by age, accounts for the high value placed on antique singing bowls.
- It can be very challenging to tell the difference between a true antique singing bowl and a new bowl, as it is relatively easy to “age” the appearance of a new bowl so that it closely resembles an antique. High-quality new bowls are capable of beautiful tones, but only age can produce the richest, mellowest tones. Only a handful of experts in the world can authenticate the age and value of singing bowls, so you should use caution with sellers who offer “antique” or even “old” bowls without evidence of authentication.