All About Inscribed Bowls
There are well over 50 inscribed antique bowls in my collection…but make no mistake, inscriptions are extremely rare.
Inscribed Bowls: The majority of antique singing bowls come from India and Nepal, but they are also found in Tibet, Bhutan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Small antique bowls of all types are rarely inscribed, and fewer than 1 in 500 larger bowls carry one. Inscriptions are mainly found on superior quality Lingam and Jambati bowls…bowls that have served a ritual or ceremonial purpose, or have been dedicated to a deity or commissioned by or for a shrine, monastery, or temple. Inscriptions are also occasionally found on other bowl types, especially older Thadobati and Manipuri bowls, and sometimes on Remuna and Ultabati, as well as shaman medicine and divination bowls. The older and larger a bowl is, the more likely it will be to have an Inscription. The exception being Chalice, Naga, or Stem bowls, where inscriptions are customary and fairly commonplace.
Characteristics: Inscribed bowls are generally superior in quality and aesthetically pleasing. They are very responsive and easy to play, and have more complex harmonics or purer voices. Some are made to be struck, rather than played around the rim, and have more vibrant energy and longer sustains. Inscribed bowls also tend to be cleaner and better preserved than plain bowls because of their ritual and ceremonial status, and the high esteem in which they were held by a former keeper. Often they have a rich surface patina, built up though years of handling.
Signification: Inscriptions can be the owner or maker’s name, a sacred mantra, or a dedication to a temple or deity such as Kali, but rarely a date. They are most likely inscribed at the time of manufacture, but can be added at any time in a bowl’s life. Very Important antique ceremonial bowls may carry two or more inscriptions, sometimes made generations apart. There are two exceptional examples below.
Where to Look: Inscriptions are usually found on a bowl’s outer wall between or below a pair of incised parallel lines that form a decorative collar around its rim, but sometimes they are high up on the inside wall, and very occasionally on the bowl’s floor. They can be very subtle, and easily missed, so it’s important to check thoroughly and in daylight. If the inscriptions are old they may be quite faint, having been worn down with use and ritual cleaning over many years, perhaps centuries. They will feel smooth, and might be overlaid with scratches and stains. If they are recent they will feel rough and prickly to the touch.
Appearance: Most inscriptions are built up from tiny dots, surface punctures, that are individually punched into the metal, but they may also be engraved or cut into the surface. The latter is particularly the case on Lingams and larger bowls such as Jambati and Ultabati. Dot-punched inscriptions are more commonly found on antique Thadobati and Manipuri bowls. Engraved inscriptions tend to be shorter than punched ones, and being deeper they catch the light more readily and are easier to spot.
Inscriptions are generally composed of a series of characters in a single horizontal line. The script is typically about ¼ inch (6mm) high, and between 3 and 6 inches (8-16cm) in length, although there are exceptions. It’s not unusual to see a longer inscription, or one that extends to a second line below the first. Sometimes they will encircle the whole rim. On chalice or stem bowls they are usually set between two beautifully dot-punched drawings of a lotus flower, or an animal such as a fish, peacock or elephant.
Translation: Unfortunately, our attempts at translation are usually met with failure due to the script being unfamiliar to our Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian contacts. The 2011 National census lists 123 languages spoken as a mother tongue (first language) in Nepal alone, and another 6 not previously counted were added in 2019. Many of these languages also have multiple dialects, the Rai community, for example, has about 30 dialects some of which might be considered completely different languages. It is estimated that roughly 600 languages, representing at least six language families, are spoken across the Greater Himalayan Region, many of which remain virtually undocumented.
Why Buy an Inscribed Bowl?: An inscription always adds interest and value to an antique singing bowl, even if its significance is unknown and its meaning obscure. Inscribed bowls are usually the best of the best…older, rarer, larger, superior quality, better preserved, more responsive, with complex and beautiful harmonics and longer sustains. As fewer inscribed antique bowls come to light in the Himalayas each year their increasing rarity makes them a good investment.