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This unique Buddhist ritual tool gets its name from its shape. In terms of purpose, it is not a bowl at all! Rather, it is an inverted, broad-bottomed bell resting upon a base. Known by various names – Tibetan bowl, Himalayan bowl, medicine bowl and rin gong, this bell was crafted in countries where Buddhism flourished, from India, Tibet and Nepal to China, Korea and Japan. The best bowls are deemed to come from the Himalayan region.
The bowls are multi-phonic instruments, traditionally hammered into shape by hand. As they age, their tones become mellower and deeper. An alloy of copper, zinc, tin, iron and zinc – the traditional Sanskrit Panchaloha or “five metals” besides other metals was used to fashion singing bowls. Many antique bowls contain precious metals like gold and silver, while the most valuable ones contain “sky iron”, derived from fallen meteorites. Antique bowls are often engraved with abstract designs. Bowls made of simpler alloys produce a single tone.
The singing bowl is used during Buddhist practices like meditation, prayer and trance induction. Friction created by a mallet rubbed around its rim produces astonishingly complex and continuous overtones of great harmony. A more mellow tone can be produced by striking the bowl with a mallet wrapped in soft material. Typically, the bowl is struck during a particular point in the chanting of a mantra or prayer song to mark time. Chinese Buddhists are known to use another ritual tool, the wooden fish, along with the singing bowl.
These ancient musical implements, dating back perhaps to the 10th century or even earlier, are popularly used today outside Buddhist practice in alternative medicine like sound and music therapy and yoga or simply enjoyed for their rich and beautiful sound.