The oral and written traditions from the Himalayan region are vast and still largely unknown in the West. It is unknown whether there are any traditional texts about singing bowls, but all known references to them are from the modern era.
However, a few pieces of art dating from several centuries ago depict singing bowls in detail, including Tibetan paintings and statues. Some Tibetan rinpoches and monks use singing bowls in monasteries and meditation centers today and singing bowls from at least the 15th century are found in private collections. The tradition may date significantly earlier since bronze has been used to make musical instruments for thousands of years. Bronze bells from Asia have been discovered dating from as early as the 8th–10th century BC and singing bowls are thought to go back in the Himalayas to at least the 10th-12th century AD although some believe they were made up to 1,600 years BC (there is a lot of contention about just how old Vedic civilization really is!)
According to tradition the bowls are made from seven metals – one for each of the known celestial bodies:
Gold – the Sun
Mercury – Mercury
Iron – Mars
Lead – Saturn
Silver – the Moon
Copper – Venus
Tin – Jupiter
...although recent tests have confirmed that some antique bowls have up to 12 metals including arsenic in them and there is some dispute about what alloy is "proper" to use.
Singing bowls are played in two ways: by striking the rim of the bowl with a padded mallet to produce a "gong" sound; and by the friction of rubbing a wood, plastic, or leather wrapped mallet around the rim of the bowl to emphasize the harmonic overtones and to achieve a continuous 'singing' sound.
Singing bowls produce a unique sound and also a physical vibration that can be felt through the body.
In Tibetan Buddhist practice, singing bowls are most used as a signal to begin and end periods of silent meditation (in the same way Tingsha/Mazira are used). Some practitioners, for example, Chinese Buddhists use the singing bowl to accompany the "wooden fish" (Chinese temple-block, a simple percussive instrument) during chanting, striking it when a particular phrase is chanted. In Japan and Vietnam, singing bowls are similarly used during chanting and are used to mark the passage of time or signal a change in activity, for example changing from sitting to walking meditation. In Japan, singing bowls are used in traditional funeral rites and ancestor worship and every Japanese temple holds a singing bowl. Singing bowls are found on altars and in meditation rooms, as well as homes worldwide, and both antique and new bowls are widely used as an aid to meditation, in yoga, music therapy, sound healing, religious services, musical performance and for personal pleasure.
There are two main types of singing bowl, determined by the method used to make them. Traditional bowls are hand-beaten from a single sheet of alloy, which is shaped and hammered to achieve the bowl and then finely tuned using a small hammer to achieve the desired tones - this method characterises many Tibetan and Nepalese bowls made today and all true antiques.
The modern method of singing bowl manufacture involves a sand cast into which brass alloy is poured. When the bowl has cooled the cast is removed and then the bowl is lathed to achieve the smooth finish required before being decorated using acid-etching or other techniques.
The picture at the top of the page shows an example of each sort from our selection in the showroom at Blakemere Village.
Please click here to see some exercises you can do with your singing bowl.