May 22, 2018
Today, the Western world is increasingly discovering the spiritual and metaphysical teachings of the East. We are witnessing the expanded interest of the new age community in one special musical instrument - the so-called Signing Bowls of Tibet. Mysterious by origin with vague traces in the past, the true history of Tibetan Singing Bowls is yet to be discovered.
Singing bowls are a particular kind of standing bell. In short, a standing bell is a kind of bell that is supposed to be positioned so that its rim faces upwards. Examples of such instruments can see significant variations in size, but singing bowls tend to be on the smaller end of things. This is because while some standing bells are played by being struck in much the same manner as other kinds of bells, singing bowls are played by running a mallet over the outer rim. The resulting note stands out, not least because it is sustained in nature.
As for where Tibetan singing bowls come from, well, suffice to say that their name is more than a little bit misleading. First, standing bells are believed to have been created by the Shang Dynasty of ancient China, which existed between the 16th and 11th centuries BC. Based on clues found in ancient Chinese texts, it is suspected that standing bells were derived from grain scoops, though whatever they might have come from, the sheer expense put into the beautiful examples that have survived to the present suggests that they were much-valued by the Shang Dynasty. Some people have ventured speculation about singing bowls having been derived from food bowls, but this is improbable because singing bowls need to be made with thicker rims and other important properties that would be pointless in food bowls for their full effect.
(Tibetan Copper Singing Bowl Himalayan Hammered Shaolin Temple Crafts)
Regardless, while standing bells seem to have been invented in ancient China, examples spread throughout East Asia and beyond. However, it is believed that the so-called "Tibetan singing bowls" come from Northern India and Nepal rather than Tibet proper. This is because even the records of missionaries and other travelers from the 20th century make no mention of such instruments even when they were interested in traditional Tibetan music as well as traditional Tibetan healing. As a result, it seems probable that "Tibetan singing bowls" had "Tibetan" tacked on to them by some rather cynical business-people because that label made them sell better.
Whatever the case, it is interesting to note that standing bells see a fair amount of religious use. For example, some of the Chinese and Japanese Buddhist sects are known to use standing bells in meditation, though they play them by striking rather than the "singing" method. Likewise, considering the cross-pollination between Taoism and Buddhism in China, it should come as no surprise to learn that Taoists make use of standing bells in much the same manner as well.
In the West, singing bowls have become popular with a sizable segment of people. Some of these people find singing bowls useful for meditation, meaning that playing them helps them seek rest and relaxation. Meanwhile, others believe that they have mystical healing properties, though their exact answer for the source of those properties can see significant variation from person to person. One common answer is their effect on the chakras, while another common answer is that their sound can induce an altered state of mind. Whatever the case, it is interesting to note that singing bowls are a pretty convenient way to produce the phenomenon called Faraday waves when played while containing water, which can make a fascinating sight for those who are interested in fluid dynamics.
This slow-motion video has unveiled just what occurs in the bowls; droplets can actually bounce on the water's surface. John Bush from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his co-author Denis Terwagne from the University of Liege in Belgium have developed a mathematical model for how the water behaves in the bowls.
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