How to Care for Your Antique Singing Bowls
The condition of singing bowls when found:
Most of the antique bowls in circulation today have passed through the hands of specialist bowl dealers in Kathmandu, Nepal. The condition of these bowls when found in the Himalayas varies considerably depending upon their age and the uses to which they have been put. Most will have served multiple purposes, both sacred and mundane, and a certain amount of wear and tear is inevitable. Many will be heavily tarnished and coated with dirt and grime. Some will be thick with residue while others will be heavily stained or even corroded. Only a small percentage of bowls arrive in Kathmandu clean and in a good state of preservation. However, very few bowls will be sold in their ‘as found’ condition like the one below.
Antique Lingam Singing Bowl in ‘As Found’ Condition
Your bowl has already been cleaned:
It is highly likely that your antique singing bowl has already been washed or cleaned, if not by the dealer in Nepal, then by the importer who sold it to you. No one wants a bowl that is caked in dirt and grime! A few bowl dealers go further, and try to improve the look of their bowls by using abrasive materials and a combination of chemical solvents and electric grinders and polishers, although they are unlikely to mention this to their customers. This is frequently the case with rare and valuable specimens that are in high demand by collectors around the world. Unfortunately Western dealers have little or no say in the restoration process. It’s usually fait accompli by the time they learn of a bowls existence, and while some bowls benefit from this process a great many more are ruined. This is why it is so important for an importer to inspect and hand-pick his stock at source.
It is hard to say if this beautiful antique Jambati bowl has been well preserved or skillfully cleaned
However, sensitive and skillful cleaning by a Tibetan or Nepalese singing bowl expert can also add value to an ancient bowl by removing unsightly stains and revealing hidden decorative features. Indeed, it is sometimes extremely difficult to distinguish between a beautifully restored bowl and one that has been well cared for during a lifetime of ceremonial use or dry grain storage.
It’s only natural to want our antique singing bowls to look their best and be clean and free of stains, blemishes and other disfigurements. A rinse under the tap is fine, but before we set to work systematically removing the remaining dirt, grim and patina acquired over the years, it’s worth pausing to reflect on what we are about to do. Cleaning will improve the appearance of your bowl in the sense that it will look brighter, shinier and newer, and it might even sing more readily, but it will also erase some of your bowl’s history, its life-story, and it might not look and feel quite as antique as it did before.
Antique singing bowls are made of bronze, and it’s well known to dealers and collectors in the art world that bronze acquires a colour and patina that enhances its beauty over time. The aging process generally adds interest, character and value to an item, and for some it would border on the sacrilegious to unnecessarily remove it by hearty cleaning and polishing. It would be a little like taking a treasured antique desk, a family heirloom that had gracefully aged and mellowed down the centuries, and stripping and re-polishing it to appear new. This is not the same as sensitive and skillful cleaning.
Washing and gentle cleaning to remove dirt, grime and the the residue of other substances is fine, but vigorous scouring of singing bowls to brighten the surface and remove the patina acquired from years of use somehow seems disrespectful to their venerable status as sacred musical instruments, and detrimental to their individual life-story, character and antiquity. I personally prefer my singing bowls to look, feel, and sing like the antiques they are…so if in doubt my advice is to leave well alone!
Display, Storage and Transportation:
Many of my singing bowls, including those on this website, were selected as much for their aesthetic appeal as for their quality of sound. Some people keep their bowls safely tucked away out of sight inside specially made cloth bags until required. But antique singing bowls are interesting and beautiful objects to look at, intriguing to visitors, and easy to display…and bowls that are accessible are more likely to be played. My own bowls are displayed individually and in groups on Tibetan silk brocade bowl cushions about the house…on a bookcase in the sitting room, beside a Balinese house-shrine in the hall, and on top of a large oriental sideboard on the galleried landing where I work. All the bowls have their own particular mallets or ringers inside or beside them so that they can be struck in passing, or readily picked up and played.
Ideally each bowl should have its own special place…somewhere quiet, and safely beyond the reach of small hands and pets…but if the collection is large, and space is at a premium, they will probably end up nesting inside each other…and nesting bowls rarely get played! Although this is far from ideal, they are unlikely to come to harm if sensibly stored in this way providing care is taken not to nest bowls of a similar size together, as they can prove extremely difficult to separate.
Nesting bowls may be fine for static storage in the home, but extreme care should be taken when transporting them from place to place in this fashion. They should be individually wrapped and separated one from the other between layers of paper, cloth or foam sponge, and then bound tightly together to prevent movement. Avoid packing too many together as there is a strong possibility of cracking if knocked or dropped.