Whether you use them for meditation or decoration, old antique singing bowls are a beautiful addition to your home. Most collectors feel the antique bowls have a higher quality sound that can't be duplicated by newer bowls.
What Are Singing Bowls?
If you are not familiar with the term singing bowl, you might know it as a Tibetan bowl or a healing bowl. It is a large, bowl-shaped object made from a variety of metals. The bowls have been used in Buddhism as a support for meditation, prayer, and trance induction for at least 800 years. The bowls have been made for thousands of years, however, and pre-date Buddhism.
Bell Metal Bowls
The bowls are actually a "standing bell" - a large, inverted bell that sits with the opening upwards. The sides and rim of the bowl vibrate when struck or rubbed by a special mallet. Traditionally, the bowls are made from an alloy of bronze containing copper and tin with a higher percentage of tin than other types of bronze, which forms bell metal. Other metals, such as silver, gold, and meteoric iron, could be added to the alloy as well. This mixture creates a multiphonic sound during play since each metal of the alloy produces an individual tone.
Forming the Bowl
The alloy would be formed into the singing bowl by pouring the liquid bronze onto a flat rock and then hand shaping the metal as it cooled. While there is some evidence that a few bowls were cast, these are extremely rare.
Old Antique Singing Bowls vs. New Bowls
Old antique singing bowls differ from new bowls in several ways.
- The antique singing bowls are made of a bronze alloy (bell metal bronze), whereas some newer bowls are made from brass.
- The old bowls were all handmade by expert craftsmen and are distinctively different from new bowls. Some newer bowls are still handmade by artisans in the Himalayas using the old ways and materials, but others are machine-manufactured and/or made of brass instead of bell metal bronze.
- The antique bowls have a better tone. Some people believe this is due to the aging process, which mellows the tone.
Identifying an Antique Singing Bowl
Unless you are very experienced with singing bowls, it can be difficult to tell a new bowl from an old one. Some new bowls are aged to look antique.
Quality and Richness of the Sound
In general, richer-sounding bowls are older but not always. Older bowls may sound mellow or have a more complex blending of fundamental and overtones.
Older bowls will have a warm, worn patina. However, cleaning over the years may make the metal look bright. Likewise, some new bowls are artificially aged to have a patina. Look for scratches and imperfections in the patina to that show cleaning has taken place.
Random Scratches vs. Symmetrical Scratches
A symmetrical pattern of scratches is a sign of artificial aging. If the scratches are random, not uniform in size or depth, and appear along with the grain of the patina, it may indicate natural aging of the bowl.
Hand hammered singing bowls have hammer marks. These marks aren't in an even or symmetrical pattern, and they slowly get worn away by the hand as the bowl is handled. Since most bowls are picked up from the bottom up, older bowls will show a wearing away of the hammer marks starting at the bottom exterior, although they may still show well in the interior. Evenly patterned hammer marks or very distinct hammer marks may indicate a contemporary bowl. No sign of hammer marks may also indicate the bowl is new.
Dimple on the Bottom
Some newer bowls have a dimple on the bottom center (inside and outside) that indicates the bowl was formed on a lathe as opposed to created by hand. However, many modern bowl makers still hand hammer bowls using old methods, so if there isn't a dimple, it doesn't necessarily mean the bowl is antique. Look for other signs, as well.
Feel around the bowl's rim. Does it have distinct edges, or is it smooth and worn? In general, newer bowls will still have an edge to the rim while a bowl that has been played, carried, and used for many years will have a smoother rim.
As always, you can expect to get what you pay for. A bargain priced bowl is probably not an antique. There are millions of antique reproductions on the market. Antique bowls are rare and expensive and will generally only be available from antique dealers that specialize in them.
Antique singing bowls were often engraved and inscribed around the edges. The designs are usually quite simple, often just lines around the outside lip. Designs may also be on the interior of the bowl or lower down on the body. The older a bowl is, the more the design may be worn away. In fact, one way to identify an antique bowl is if the engravings are simple and worn.
Some bowls have complex patterns or written characters and may include:
- Lotus blossoms
- Owner's name
- Place name
The more complex designs are unusual and sought after by collectors. Very old bowls may have inscriptions in languages that are no longer in common use and can't be easily translated. Expect to pay premium prices for these decorated bowls.
Where to Find Singing Bowls
It is best to locate an experienced dealer in your area where you can see and hear the old antique singing bowls for yourself. If you must buy from the internet, seek sellers that have good feedback and are willing to answer questions. You will also want to check their return policy and any guarantees that they might have.
Himalayan Bowls has a plethora of information about both new and antique singing bowls, as well as bowls for sale. They have videos of bowls and instructions for playing them as well. They sell both antique and new bowls and music for download. Antique bowls are arranged by small, medium, and large as well as a section for rare and unique bowls that occasionally has listings. Each bowl has a link you can click to listen to its sound before purchase. A small bowl starts at around $300 and up to $800 although the site does have sales. Medium bowls start at around $500 up to $700, and large bowls are about $2,000 to $10,000. Bowls all come with a certificate of authenticity and a free cushion and 2 mallets. Refunds on bowls are allowed for valid reasons for up to 30 days plus a 5 percent restocking fee.
Best Singing Bowls
Featuring a wide variety of antique bowls, Best Singing Bowls has information on using the bowls and audio files of each bowl for sale. They also sell accessories for the bowls. You can search for bowls by tone, size, weight, and specific features, and there are sound files for each bowl. A search on "Rare and Distinctive" bowls has a wide variety with prices starting as low as $80 and up to $6,000. Bowls come with a certificate that lists an age estimate, description, photos, and instructions on how to play it. Bowls can be returned for up 25 days, and sets and custom bowls have a 25 percent restocking fee. Regular orders over $1,000 are subject to a 10 percent fee for returns.
Antique Singing Bowls
Headquartered in the U.K., this site lists antique singing bowls for sale from a private collection. The site has lots of resources on how to choose the best bowl for you, the history of the bowls, and proper care. Bowls are arranged by type, note, chakra, size, features, and price. You can also set the pricing to U.S. dollars, Euros and Pound Sterling. There are nine types of bowls available including Thadobati, Manipuri, Lingam, and unusual bowls. Prices range from about $200 to around $3,000. There are multiple pictures of each bowl with individual descriptions and sound files. A ringer and Tibetan silk brocade cushion comes with each order. Orders are shipped from the United Kingdom, and purchases may be returned within 14 days.
This store sells a wide selection of items from individual artisans in Nepal and Tibet such as Mala beads, prayer flags, jewelry and incense. They sell both new and antique singing bowls. The antiques are all unique from a private collection of bowls from Katmandu. Each bowl comes with a wooden striker. There are sound files available for each bowl. Bowls run from about $500 to a little over $600. There are full, in-depth descriptions of each bowl. You can return any item within 30 days, and one nice feature is shipping is free for orders over $75.
Bodhisattva sells small, medium, and large bowls as well as rare and museum quality bowls. The rare bowls come in several types such as Buddha, Bodhi, Lotus, and Void. You can sort them by century starting with the 17th. Some pricing is only available by contacting the store whereas the listed prices run from $1,200 to $2000 but they do have sales. You'll find a smaller number of rare bowls on this site. The newer bowls are 100 to 500 years old and start at a little under $400 up to $3,000. All bowls come with a certificate of authenticity, a padded mallet, and a cushion. Shipping is free for orders $150 and over, and you can return an order up to 30 day after purchase with a 10 percent restocking fee.
Silver Sky Imports
This site claims they have the world's largest selection of singing bowls. They sell both newer and antique bowls along with other items like bells, chimes, gongs, and yoga items. All of their merchandise is hand made from Tibet, India, Nepal, and other parts of Asia. Bowls can be browsed by size, and the store notes it's almost impossible to give an accurate date for each bowl, but they are at least as old as 40 years or more. The smallest bowls are about $70 to $260 with the largest bowls starting at about $550 to $1,200. Special and customer orders cannot be returned, but other items can be returned within 30 days with a 10 percent restocking fee. The company also offers a Vibrational Sound Therapy Singing Bowl Certification around the country.
Enjoying Antique Himalayan Singing Bowls
Whether you use yours for spiritual purposes or just as an interesting artifact, a singing bowl is a beautiful addition to your décor both visually and for the sounds it makes when played. Keeping your bowl dusted with a soft cloth is the best way to care for it to ensure it lasts for a lifetime.