Journey to the Source

Singing bowls

YOU'VE HEARD that chimps can string a sentence together - but did you know that bowls can sing?

YOU'VE HEARD that chimps can string a sentence together - but did you know that bowls can sing?

OK, so that's not strictly true but, in Nepal, they come pretty close. "Singing" bowls are produced largely by Tibetan refugees and small family workshops - hand-beaten into tune from metal. To make them "sing", you slowly rub a solid wooden stick (usually carved and sold with the bowl) around the rim and listen as the eerie and beautiful sounds gradually develop.

To generate these rich sounds the bowls are constructed from special metal alloys: traditionally zinc, copper, silver, tin and lead but, more commonly, of brass (zinc and copper) and a smidgin of silver.

The origins of the bowls may be entirely practical, since they are a simple shape that would have been useful for cooking and eating the dhaals and spicy stews that typify the local cuisine. However, the quality of the sounds that are produced suggest the bowls had some kind of religious significance - other objects (such as the rim of a wet glass) will create a sound, but not one of such deep tone or harmony.

Despite the different tone of each bowl, all supposedly produce the sound of the universe ("om"). Tales exist of enormous bronze bowls, set up in monasteries, that need two young monks to run round them with sticks, developing sounds that grow so deep you feel them ripple up the hairs on your neck.

However, although associated with Tibetan buddhists, the bowls are made throughout parts of northern India, Tibet and Nepal and the oldest known singing bowls predate Buddhism.

The good news for shoppers is that modern bowls can be just as sound as the older ones. If you want to pick one up, your best bet is to browse your way through Kathmandu's colourful craft shops and markets. A small bowl should cost (depending on your bartering skills) around £7; back in the UK, singing bowls from the Tibet Shop at 10 Bloomsbury Way, WC1A 2SH (0171-405 5284) start at £26. If you bought 26 bowls in Nepal and sold them at the going rate back home, you'd have made enough profit to pay for your flight to Nepal; but, since current return fares from London to Kathmandu cost £497 on Qatar Airways (through Bridge The World on 0171-911 0900) and will shoot up to over the £600 mark later in the autumn, why not buy a bowl now at the Tibet Shop (where all profits go to the Tibet Foundation) and meditate on how to fly off to Kathmandu later in the year, when prices start to fall again.

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