Inscribed and Engraved Antique Singing Bowls


Only a small percentage of antique singing bowls carry inscriptions.  They are found on all bowl types but are more commonly seen on Thadobati, Manipuri, Jambati and Naga or Chalice bowls.   


Inscribed bowls tend to be superior quality and in a better state of preservation than average, probably because of their ceremonial status and the high esteem in which a former keeper held them.


Inscriptions can be the owner or maker’s name, a sacred mantra, or a dedication to a temple or a deity such as Kali, but rarely a date.  Inscriptions can be added at any time in a bowl’s life and a date, if present, would anyway likely relate to the dedication and not the bowl’s age.  Important bowls may carry several inscriptions, sometimes made years apart.


Inscriptions can be very subtle, and easily missed, so it’s important to check your bowls thoroughly and in daylight.  If the inscriptions are old they may be quite faint.  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. 


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. 


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.  This is particularly the case on larger bowls such as the Jambati and Ultabati.   Engraved inscriptions tend to be shorter than punched ones, and are easier to spot.  They are deeper and catch the light more readily.


Inscriptions are generally composed of a series of characters in a single horizontal line.  The script is typically about a ¼ inch high (6mm), and between 3 and 6 inches in length (8-16cm) although there are exceptions.  It’s not unusual to see a longer inscription, or one that extends to a second line below the first.   Occasionally an inscription will be set between two beautifully dot-punched drawings of a lotus flower, or an animal such as a fish, peacock or elephant…notably on Naga or Chalice bowls, about 25% of which are inscribed.


An inscription always adds interest and value to an antique singing bowl, even if its significance is unknown and its meaning obscure.  Unfortunately, our attempts to have an inscription translated are usually met with failure due to the script being unfamiliar to our Tibetan and Nepalese contacts.   


The 2011 National census lists 123 languages spoken as a mother tongue (first language) in Nepal alone, and 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.