Singing Bowl Provenance
I expect you’ve wondered about your singing bowl’s provenance and how it arrived at the point of sale? If you didn’t buy it here the chances are that you bought it online from an importer, or from a shop or market somewhere in Europe or the United States, but where did it actually come from and who found it? Who was its original owner, and how did it make its way from the remote Himalayan region and enter the international singing bowl market?
Antique Himalayan bowls are found in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and occasionally Tibet, but virtually all the old singing bowls now in private hands or on the market today have passed through Delhi or Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal and the Himalayan gateway to the West. Some have been transported there by Indian, Bangladeshi and Bhutanese merchants, but most will have been sourced by itinerate Nepalese and Tibetans who trek for weeks at a time to remote mountain villages in search of Himalayan antiquities, which they buy or exchange for popular modern household utensils. Their modern barter goods, together with the old things they buy (singing bowls, masks, textiles etc.) are transported on foot or on the backs of pack animals, and only when they are fully laden with collectables do they make the long trek back to the city to sell their goods to singing bowl specialists and antique dealers.
A few of these traders are independent entrepreneurs, merchants who are free to offer their finds to any of the specialist dealers in Pokhara, Kathmandu or elsewhere on their return. Others, the majority, are often poor and simple hill-people employed to source singing bowls and antiquities for wealthy city dealers in return for a wage and a little bonus. Some antique dealers have ten or more of these buyers or collectors on their payroll regularly reporting back with their finds, and naturally they expect to have the pick of the goods that are sourced on their behalf. This means that the vast majority of newly sourced antique singing bowls end up in the hands of just a dozen or so dealers who, between them, effectively control the old bowl market at home and abroad.
The singing bowls arrive in jute sacks and are roughly sorted before being weighed and paid for at a price per kilo according to size and type. Unusually large or rare bowls will command a higher price, but this is a fraction of their ultimate value on the international market. What happens next depends upon the buyer’s bowl knowledge and their standing in the Kathmandu dealer hierarchy. Smaller dealers will concentrate on supplying the domestic market…shopkeepers and market traders in the tourist districts. Larger businesses will tend to focus on the export market…wholesaling low and medium quality bowls, sold by the kilogram, to Western importers (these are the bowls that you are most likely to come across on the internet, in New Age shops and at Mind, Body and Spirit festivals). Any large, rare, and premium quality bowls will be traded between dealers until they reach one of the few specialists at the top of the tree…those with high-end international buyers and a database of serious collectors. This process of trading high-end goods between themselves exactly mirrors the way antique dealers operate the world over. My father was an antique dealer most of his life, and he never dealt with the public or end user.
Today most of the top bowl dealers (nearly all are Tibetans) are well-educated and extremely astute and successful businessmen, with antique shops in prime locations and an international clientele. Some have been dealing in antique singing bowls for 35 years or more, and they know the bowl market inside out. Their best bowls are never wholesaled or offered to the general public, so it is extremely unlikely that you will catch sight of any during a visit to Nepal. These rare bowls are individually appraised and priced accordingly, then set aside exclusively for the few international collectors willing to pay a premium price for a unique product. I am fortunate, after countless visits over 40 years, to count myself among them! Indeed, for some bowl types such as very large antique Jambati and rare Lingams, I am without doubt their top buyer, with 100s in my collection.
An unfortunate consequence of the traditional sourcing practice described above is that virtually no records are kept of a bowl’s origin. Many of the bowl hunters are uneducated and illiterate, and the places they visit so widely scattered and distant that villagers may not even speak the same dialect or language. Furthermore, unlike in the West, provenance seems to be of little interest or consequence to the bowl dealers in Delhi and Kathmandu, and it’s a sad fact that we will never really know the provenance of any singing bowl unless we trek to the Himalayas and directly source it ourselves. And even then we will only meet its current keeper and learn of its latest role in the household…and probably nothing at all about its past!
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 (on top of the official 129). 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.
The antique singing bowls offered for sale on this website were either personally selected during numerous trips to Kathmandu and Nepal’s top bowl dealers in the 1980s and 90s, or are the result of an ongoing search by myself during my 3-monthly visits to Nepal, or on my behalf by leading Tibetan and Nepali bowl dealers.