Welcome to the complete guide to singing bowls and their history! In this post, we explain what singing bowls are, their history, how they are made, and what kinds of materials are use to make them. We also explain how cultures have used singing bowls for centuries for spiritual and medicinal purposes. Let's dive in!
Singing Bowls: An Introduction
For many centuries, music and sound have been used as tools to promote healing and meditation. One of the first instruments created by mankind to be used for this purpose are called singing bowls. These mystical metal bowls, when struck, can create contemplative and heavenly sounds, which resonate as if the universe is manifesting itself upon one’s soul.
What is a Singing Bowl?
A singing bowl is a type of idiophone, which is a musical instrument that when struck, shaken or scraped, produces sound through vibration. Singing bowls come in a single, inverted bell form, but come in different sizes, ranging from a few centimetres to a meter in diameter. The smaller ones produce more delicate sounds, while the larger bowls produce deeper, full-bodied sounds. To produce a sound, singing bowls are often struck on their rim or side using a mallet. Each method produces very distinctive sounds.
These bowls are often used in religious and spiritual settings, invoking meditation and relaxation. They can also be used in healing and for treating various illnesses through sound therapy. The sounds singing bowls produce create a kind of energy medicine that is said to fix the broken frequencies of the body, mind and soul. Playing these bowls creates a centering effect, which causes the left and right sides of the human brain to synchronize with one another. Thus, various activities such as yoga and other forms of meditative practices sometimes employ singing bowls, as they have the miraculous ability to bring the listener to peace and calmness.
Singing bowls go by various names throughout the world. While they go by many different names, the unifying concept is that singing bowls are often associated with Tibet or Buddhism, create an incredible immersive sound and can have astonishing healing effects. Depending on where you are in the world, your singing bowl may be referred to as a "Tibetan singing bowl", "meditation bowl", "sound bowl", "Tibetan bowl", "Himalayan singing bowl", Tibetan healing bowl", "sound bowl", "Tibetan sound bowl", "Buddhist singing bowl", "Tibetan bell", "prayer bowl", or simply "healing bowl".
Where Did Singing Bowls Originate?
Singing bowls have a mysterious past and not much is known about their origins. Their history began at a time long before the dawn of modern civilization, with the result that written information about them is almost close to non-existent. The first singing bowls were said to be made in Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago. As such, singing bowls are believed to be one of the most ancient artisan crafts in human history. Although folklore about the artisans behind singing bowls existed in the later centuries, knowledge of that folklore unfortunately died along with the singing bowls’ succeeding owners.
The very first singing bowls were said to be made of pure copper and produced for both medicinal and musical purposes. They were produced primarily inside the homes of the artisans. Knowledge about the metalwork was passed on from generation to generation, although eventually this knowledge chain was broken. Some time later, singing bowls began to be made of brass, which is a combination of various earth metals, including copper. Some anecdotal references say that 2,000-year old brass singing bowls appeared in a Chinese region called Tibet at the dawn of the last century.
The singing bowls’ Tibetan origins added to their historical ambiguity. Although singing bowls could be found inside monasteries and homes, it was said that monks were not allowed to discuss anything about these bowls. As a matter of fact, the monks’ sacred text, called the Tibetan Buddhist Canon, also contained no information about the bowls. Anecdotal references say that Tibetan lamas and monks used these bowls for secret, sacred rituals. It is even said that these rituals were so spiritual in nature that it gave the monks the ability to astral project and travel into other realms and dimensions.
During the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the middle of the 19th century, the lamas and monks were forced to flee, taking all of their valued possessions with them, including their singing bowls. In order to survive the crisis, the lamas and monks were forced to sell their singing bowls and other items of significant value. This circumstance led to singing bowls spreading around the world, as well as causing the esoteric knowledge about them to disappear. Today, singing bowls’ mystical sounds can now be heard in many different places such as healing centers, yoga studios, classrooms, temples, and much more. But one thing remains – singing bowls are still as powerful of a spiritual, medicinal and musical tool as they were thousands of years ago.
What Materials are Used in Singing Bowls?
One of the unique qualities of antique singing bowls is the peculiarity of their composition. Local Tibetan legends say that one of the primary metals used in making singing bowls in the past was meteorite iron. Meteorites found in Tibet were said to have come through an atmosphere with very low oxygen levels. These meteorites were usually found in the uppermost parts of the Himalayas. Having come from a location closer to the heavens, these meteorites were considered to be of sacred origins, and thus were highly regarded by the Tibetans. Moreover, the low oxygen composition of these meteorites may explain the miraculous healing powers of singing bowls.
Historically, singing bowls made in the succeeding centuries were believed to have been crafted by combining several types of metals, anywhere between five to nine, and sometimes even twelve types of metals. The most common composition was of seven metals. These metals were consecrated with each metal believed to represent a heavenly body or a planet: Gold (Sun), Silver (Moon), Mercury (Mercury), Copper (Venus), Iron (Mars), Tin (Jupiter) and Lead (Saturn). These metals were smelted and purified prior to being cast, reheated and hammered into form. Old singing bowls were believed to have been imbued with wishes, usually through singing chants or mantras.
Although there were also small traces of other metals, old singing bowls were crafted predominantly with copper and tin, which, when combined, form a type of bronze called “bell metal”. Combining these two metals produces a harder yet elastic enough metal that, when struck, creates better reverberation. This type of metal has been used for ages in creating bells. In India, this type of metal was historically used to create cookware and eating utensils as it is believed to possess potent antibacterial properties.
The manufacturing of more modern singing bowls typically involves only five metals at most, and oftentimes only two. Due to cost, gold and silver are typically no longer used, but the new singing bowls are still of excellent quality.
How Are Singing Bowls Made?
There are two known methods of creating singing bowls. Hammering was, and still is, a common method used today, wherein a flat sheet of metal is hammered by at least three individuals over a bowl pattern or form until it takes on the same shape. The edges are then bent over and hammered further until smooth, while the inside is often machine-polished. Traditionalists prefer singing bowls that have been hammered and can easily distinguish them by checking the hammer marks.
The other method involves pouring a molten metal into a mold, which forms the first of two parts of the modern singing bowl. The other part is called the neck, which is formed and welded together with the bowl, before being polished. This method creates a more confined shape, which produces longer lasting vibrations and sound when struck. The tonal quality is also significantly improved. This type of bowl is usually embellished by acid etching or enameling.
There are many singing bowls on the market today. They often differ by the sound they produce, which can be attributed to their design and shape, thickness, smoothness, and the combination of metals used. Some singing bowls are even made of crystal. In general, the best singing bowls are those that resonate most with whoever is playing them.
How Have Various Cultures Used Singing Bowls Throughout the Years?
Regardless of their truest origin, singing bowls have been used for a variety of purposes throughout the course of history – meditation, alternative healing, religion, music and even as a currency. Today, they have become a popular tool for sound healers, music therapists and yoga practitioners in different parts of the world.
Spirituality and Meditative Uses
With its calming and meditative sound, singing bowls were often used in Himalayan monasteries and homes to indicate the start or end of a meditation period. It was also said that singing bowls were played during an entire session, to help the mind focus and obtain a state of pure relaxation. It is believed that whenever a singing bowl is played, the mantras and good wishes imbued within it while it is was made are released to flow freely into the universe. Hindus and Buddhists have also traditionally used singing bowls in their rituals to aid in their spiritual focus, harmony and inner peace.
Medicinal and Alternative Healing Uses
Hindus believe that the world began with a sound, and thus sound plays a very important role in our bodies and in the universe as a whole. Sound as an alternative healing method has been practiced in many cultures for many centuries. It is believed that the delicate and unique sound of singing bowls can deeply affect our bodies, and can beneficially affect the body’s physical and psychological state. Our bodies contain several energy centers, or chakras, running from head to toe. These energy centers are believed to correspond to specific tones which the singing bowls can naturally produce.
Alternative healing practitioners typically use several smaller bowls with flatter bottoms, and place them on top of these energy centers. The resonance and vibration of singing bowls when placed on top of these energy centers are believed to penetrate more deeply than bigger and heavier bowls which are typically placed above or beside the body. In the traditional Tibetan healing practice, singing bowls are also believed to increase the efficacy of various medicinal herbs. Additionally, when used as an alternative healing method, singing bowls are said to alleviate the negative effects of chemotherapy and radiation in cancer patients, although there are no scientific studies to support this conclusion yet. However, reports say that singing bowls helped patients develop a sense of peace and well-being, and also reduced pain.
Physical Relaxation Uses
Sound massage using singing bowls is a great natural way to restore harmony to the body. Its soothing properties can naturally bring peace and focus the mind. The vibration and sound produced by singing bowls creates a type of energy that works with the body in many ways and which can engender several positive results, such as a deep sense of tranquility and reduced psychological and emotional stress.
Singing bowls used in sound massages are typically engineered for long periods of use and focus more on the vibration than the sound produced. Vibrational sound massage allows the body to become at peace both at an inner and outer level. Singing bowls of different weights and sizes are usually placed directly on top of the body while being struck. They can also be placed surrounding the body.
The body is composed of approximately 50 to 65 percent water. Water synergizes with vibrational patterns and connects and transports important elements within the body. Vibrational sound massages can help these positive elements flow freely within the body. In most cases, this kind of therapy is said to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, and other similar conditions.
At one time, handmade singing bowls were used as common kitchen, storage and eating items. Although this use may no longer be applicable in the present day, it is worth noting that singing bowls were also used as a kind of currency in the past when coins and other precious objects were the only kind of legal tender available. Traditionally, singing bowls were valued based on their thickness, weight, and purported metal composition. Typically, the heavier the singing bowl was, the higher value it would have. Moreover, singing bowls were often given as wedding gifts or as a dowry.
Singing bowls have been used for centuries to promote healing and meditation in various contexts. We invite you to get your own singing bowl and experience some of the amazing benefits!