How to estimate the age of an old singing bowl from the Himalayas
Determining the age of antique brass objects is a mixture of art, science and experience. Any antique brass object will have its own set of unique characteristics that will offer clues to its age. In some areas, such as statues, the art of dating old brass objects is well-developed. Singing bowls have not enjoyed this kind of academic attention. which leaves a lot of room for different antiquity estimates.
Antique singing bowls are most easily identified by both their unique sounds and a combination of detailed physical characteristics. It is unrealistic to try to come up with an exact date as even century level estimates are subject to uncertainty. Some individuals have studied singing bowls’ characteristics, consulted with experts and built a gestalt for dating. The factors that influence these judgments of age are style, construction, markings, patina and wear.
Are Singing Bowls Brass or Bronze?
Back in the last century when I started with singing bowls they were always referred to as brass. For the most part the bowls are still called brass while technically they are a bronze – sort of. Bronze is a mixture of copper and tin which is generally what singing bowls are made out of. However there is a mixture of metal known in the west as “bell brass” which is used to make instruments such as cymbals that is also copper and tin. I suspect calling singing bowls brass comes from the fact that they are percussion and mostly copper. They also have a lot of tin in them – like bell brass. Brass in English refers to copper mixes including ones that are technically bronze. Just like tin cans have no tin in them and tin foil is made of aluminum, common and technical language often diverge when it comes to metal. Instruments in the brass section of the orchestra may be made of metallic combinations including silver and gold, Non-reed “brass” instruments such as flutes can be made without any copper at all. Since the bowls are mostly referred to as brass in the world I generally do so on this website.
Brass Singing Bowls – Through the Centuries
The oldest singing bowls were likely plain, thick and made of metal that was not of uniform consistency. In cultural evolution the basic form and function come first, then artistic ingenuity is applied. Singing bowls from the 16th century onwards can have decorative markings; though in many bowls of this age these have been worn off. Bowls from the 18th, 19th and early 20th century can have quite elaborate markings and on these newer bowls they can look quite fresh. Occasionally bowls will have inscriptions on them. These are almost always new workings on an old bowl and usually contain a name, place or occasion.
One theory is that a worn singing bowl, say a large Jambati that is silky smooth inside, is an old bowl because it takes many washings to wear away the hammer marks, same with thinner smaller Thadobati singing bowls with faint or absent markings. These singing bowls were all originally quite thick and it takes hundreds of years to wear them down. While wear may be a good marker for age, singing bowls, like old coins, can go out of circulation for a long period of time and find their way to the present in close to mint condition.
Sometimes singing bowls are lost, abandoned, or even buried, preserving their condition for a long time. Some singing bowls are used in ways where they rarely need cleaning whether as display or for grain storage. Therefore, my opinion is that some wonderfully preserved Thadobati and Jambati singing bowls can be quite ancient.
Metallic Flow as an Indication of Antiquity
Another aspect used to date old metal objects is the extent to which the bottom of those objects have flattened out. A heavy object with a relatively uneven or rounded bottom is deemed to newer than one with a flat bottom. The idea is that the metal flows over time and singing bowls are mostly stored on hard flat surfaces where the combination of pliability, resistance and gravity result in evenness. Very hard seeming objects do flow with gravity, an excellent example is 19th century windows. My experience is the singing bowl styles that are older do tend to have flatter and more even bottoms. I can’t say this will tell me the century a singing bowl was made, but it can sure point out an obviously new bowl.
Sound – One of the Best Ways
One of the best ways to date a singing bowl, or at least verify that it is very likely over 100 years old is through the sound. There are no new singing bowls on the market with the richness of good quality old singing bowls. The superior sound of antique singing bowls may have to do with metal composition, manufacturing methods or some changes that take place in singing bowls over the course of time.
It, of course, may also have to do with the fact that these singing bowls were made by masters with the intent of being instruments of sound. With Himalayan singing bowls it would make sense that ones that were produced and used with spiritual intent would have special discernible sound characteristics. I have been told that antique brass Western musical instruments also have richer sounds than modern ones.
Testing the Metal
The mixture of metals in brass singing bowls is primarily copper and tin which are combined with a wide range of trace metals. There was no exact formula or even a general list of metals. Each maker had his own source of raw materials and his preferred methods. In the past many of the bowls were made by individuals in their homes. Often they did not have the means to properly smelt metals by virtue of being unable to provide sufficient heat for a long enough period of time. The result is still a strong metal but one with concentrations of some elements such as copper. Singing bowls described as having bloom or intrusions evidence this characteristic.
What You’ll find on This Website
It is the judgment of other experts that the types of singing bowls you see on this website are between 80 and 800 years old with the vast majority dating from the 16th to 19th centuries. Believe me, I’d love to assign a date to each of the singing bowls but I have not been able to find an objective source with sufficient specificity to do so with confidence.
To be clear – Best Singing Bowls are antique singing bowls, as old as any available in the West. However, between the inconsistencies in the stories I’ve been told and the generalities used in dating gestalts I’ve seen, no precise dates can be assigned. My own sense of integrity says it is better to use generalities that are supportable than comforting but questionable specificity.