How to Tell Old Singing Bowls from New


Most of the singing bowls encountered today are either commercially manufactured in brass or newly hand-beaten in bronze.  They are relatively inexpensive to buy, and often attractively etched with interesting Tibetan Buddhist iconography…but they don’t look or sound like genuine antique singing bowls.  There are also some reasonably priced hand-forged mid 20th century bowls on the market, but most lack the character and quality of sound found in older bowls.  Antique singing bowls are more expensive and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but the one thing they have in common is their superior vibrant energy and multi-harmonic healing voices.   This guide will help you distinguish between new, old, and genuine antique singing bowls.


New Singing Bowls

Brass Singing Bowls:


Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. It is softer and more malleable then bronze, and has a low melting point that makes it suitable for casting. Brass singing bowls are made by modern manufacturing processes, or by pouring molten brass into sand molds and machine-lathing them into shape when set.  Bronze is harder and more brittle, and cannot be machine-tooled in this way.


Brass is a familiar metal that is easily identified by its normally bright golden colour and smooth shiny finish, but sometimes brass singing bowls are coloured, and etched with Tibetan symbols, mantras or Buddha images.  Manufactured brass bowls are mono-tonal and easy to play.  They have a clear bright bell-like sound and a long sustain when struck.  Cheap bells are normally made from brass.


Brass singing bowls are generally small and relatively inexpensive to buy.  They are usually described as Singing Bowls and Meditation or Buddha Bowls, and commercially packaged in boxes.  They are prolific on the web , and also sold in some Tibetan Buddhist outlets, and ethnic, alternative or New Age gift shops.


NOTE: Antique singing bowls are always hand forged from a bronze alloy, never brass.  They are always hand-beaten, never cast.  And in their original form, were never etched or engraved with Tibetan iconography or Buddhist imagery, although they may carry inscriptions.  However, some old bronze bowls have been recently ‘improved’ with new etchings to enhance their commercial attractiveness.  They may look prettier or more interesting, but this treatment is always to the detriment of the bowl and its sound.


New Bronze Singing Bowls:


Traditional singing bowls are hand-forged in bronze, which is principally an alloy of copper and tin.  Some hand-beaten bronze singing bowls are still being made in India and Nepal today.  These are honestly crafted in the traditional way, sometimes to very exacting modern standards.  They usually have the popular Thadobati or beautiful Jambati form, and are very often made to order because the forging process is highly skilled and labour-intensive, and the raw materials expensive.   The bowls tend to be medium to large in size, but can be huge, and they are quite expensive to buy…though not so expensive as their antique equivalent.  These new bowls may look beautiful and sound pitch-perfect…but I believe they cannot deliver the refined sound quality or benefits of genuine antique singing bowls.


A few musicologists and singing bowl experts, mainly in the USA, import new premium quality singing bowls to sell to clients unable to afford genuine antique bowls of a comparable size.  These are reliable and trustworthy sources.  However, some new bowls are ‘antiqued’ to look old, and inexperienced importers are sometimes deliberately misled about a bowl’s provenance by unscrupulous salesmen, and then go on to unintentionally pass on this misinformation to their unsuspecting customers in the West.


Old Singing Bowls

Old Bronze Singing Bowls:


Old hand-forged singing bowls sit comfortably on the continuum between New Bowls and Antique Bowls.  They are the halfway house along the timeline and the mid-point in terms of quality; being a little heavier and thicker than modern bowls but generally not such fine quality as antique ones.  Many of these older bowls were made in the 1950s and 60s in response to the rapid rise in tourism to Nepal and the Himalayas, and the surge in interest in all things Eastern and spiritual including Singing Bowls, yoga, meditation and Buddhism.


Bronze singing bowls from this period are typically small to medium in size (10 - 20cm or 4 - 8 inches in diameter) and either plain or simply decorated with a couple of concentric circles in the centre of the basin.  They are almost exclusively high-walled and flat-bottomed Thadobati bowls, or the shallow and round-bottomed Manipuri type.   These bowls are unlikely to have been fine-tuned to specific frequencies in the way that many antique bowls are, but being hand-forged they may still sing sweetly nonetheless.  Many will have served a utilitarian purpose during their lifetime, as cups, dishes and containers, and their condition and sound quality will vary considerably.  These are the singing bowls that are wholesaled in India and Nepal by weight rather than sold by piece, and exported to the West.  They account for most of the singing bowl on the market today.


Earlier 20th century Thadobati, Manipuri and Jambati singing bowls have much in common with their antique ancestors, and in consequence there is a greater margin of error when objectively estimating age.  This is the point where personal experience counts…and the subjective feel and sound of a bowl comes into its own!


Genuine Antique Singing Bowls

Antique Bronze Singing Bowls:




Antique singing bowls are usually superbly crafted.  They are well balanced and proportional, and frequently have an individual subtlety of form that differentiates one bowl from another similar one (this is particularly noticeable when viewing bowls in profile).  Rims are level, lips are finely forged, walls are of an even thickness, and there’s a consistency and regularity to the hammered surface both inside and out, including the underneath.  The bowl will sit level when placed on a flat surface.  Decorative features such as concentric circles on the inside floor or grooving to the lip, if any, are usually incised with pinpoint accuracy.


However, not all antique bowls are quite as refined, and some metal-smiths clearly struggled with inadequate resources or an inability to generate and maintain sufficient heat in their forge to bring the bronze alloy to a malleable temperature.  This is particularly apparent in older and heavier extra-thick Thadobati bowls, some of which have slightly lumpy uneven walls.  Nonetheless they have a quality of sound that one doesn’t find in thinner and more regular bowls.


Note:  It’s not unknown for an interesting or valuable antique bowl in poor condition to be restored or refurbished before being offered for sale.  Skillful and sensitive restoration amounts to little more than cleaning, stain removal, and polishing.  But unfortunately some bowls are brutally refurbished in Kathmandu and elsewhere with mechanical grinders, wire brushes and lathes.  The former, if done well, merely results in a clean and shiny antique bowl minus some of its life-story, while the latter all but destroys an ancient bowl’s character and its unique sound.


Shape and Size:


Singing bowls come in a wide variety of shapes, some of which are usefully age specific, but the size of a bowl is of no consequence when determining its age.  Some bowl shapes such as the Jambati have remained essentially unchanged through the ages and are still in production today.  Others, like the Mani, ceased to be made long ago and one can safely say that any Mani bowl is almost certainly a genuine antique.  The same can be said for most Lingam and Naga bowls.  Of course, it’s possible for similar bowls to be newly forged using traditional methods, but other simpler forms of singing bowl are more popular and have a greater commercial appeal.


All of the basic bowl types have been described here or click Bowls on the toolbar.  You will need to refer to their descriptions and read the rest of this guide to identify additional features that will help you decide if a bowl is antique or not.




Some antique singing bowls are easy to spot by their distinctive characteristics, such as the begging-bowl (or ‘elephant’s foot’) shape of a Mani, a Naga’s pedestal, or the phallic protrusion in the centre of a Lingam bowl, but the others require closer examination.   Some decorative features are fairly standard and minimal on virtually all hand-forged bronze bowls.  These are typically some incised bands around the rim, and two or three circles inside.  But there are a few features that are particular to older and antique bowls.  Examples are a finely grooved or dotted lip, dotted bands below the rim, and a necklace of suns or mala beads (a punched dot inside a circle) around the rim, along the edge of the lip itself, or encircling the inside floor of a bowl.  The same sun or mala symbol is sometimes seen forming a downward-facing triangle at the quarter points on a bowl’s outer wall, just below the rim.


Occasionally one finds a series of regular or random gashes, small cuts or gouges, encircling the outer wall of an antique Thadobati or Manipuri bowl, just below the rim.  These are sacred, ritual or magical markings that were probably made some time after the bowl was forged, as I find it hard to believe that a smith would happily subject his lovingly-forged bowl to such apparently crude gouging!  It also seems highly likely that the seemingly random external slashes found on some bowls are the result of fine-tuning its sound by the removal of metal.




Some antique bowls carry dot-punched or engraved inscriptions on the outer wall just below the rim.  These are usually the owner or maker’s name, a mantra, or a dedication of some kind.  Very few bowls are dated.  Inscriptions are usually to be found on top quality bowls in a good state of preservation.  Inscriptions can be found on most bowl types, but especially Thadobati, Jambati and Naga bowls.  About a quarter of Naga bowls have an inscription.  Sometimes it is sandwiched between two finely engraved drawings of a lotus flower, or an animal such as a fish, peacock or elephant. Inscriptions add both interest and value to a singing bowl and, with the exception of some modern large and expensive bowls, are rarely found after the middle of the last century.


Physical Signs of Age:


Antique singing bowls usually show clear signs of having been around for some time.  Many will have served multiple purposes over the years, ranging from the sacred to the mundane, usually both, and a degree of wear and tear will be evident.    Some will have acted as household vessels and been used and cleaned countless times, often with abrasive materials, resulting in a smooth and clean appearance around the rim and inside the basin.  Others will have been played so much that any rim and lip patterns will have all but vanished.  Engraved decorations, sacred markings and inscriptions, if any, may be well worn down, and hammer marks from the forging process will be less in evidence, particularly on the inside floor and high up on the outside.  You can expect to see some scratches, stains and blemishes, and even small digs and dents.  Some antique bowls have spidery surface fractures on the bottom and outside wall.  These are not necessarily a problem if the sound is unaffected (the bowl will buzz when played if it is).  Cracked bowls are generally unacceptable and should be avoided.  Many old bowls acquire a tarnish or patina to the outside that can either be left (my preference) or removed.   All these signs are a fair indication of age, but not necessarily antiquity, so it’s important to take all the other factors into account.


Just occasionally one comes across an antique bowl in pristine or near perfect condition.  This could be evidence that it has been well cared for during its lifetime and has played a sacred or ceremonial role…or it may simply have been lost or concealed long ago and only recently discovered.  Large bowls such as the Jambati and Ultabati are frequently found in a good state of preservation and may have been used for the clean dry storage of grain.


Sound and Resonance:


Every bowl type has its own characteristic sound and acoustic range, but there is a quality to the tonality and resonance of an antique singing bowl that places it well apart from its modern day equivalent.  This subject category will be greatly expanded later, but suffice it to say that the quality of sound should be paramount when choosing a bowl, and that the most beautiful, sonorous, enduring and vibrant sounds come from genuine antique singing bowls.




Character is hard to define, but it’s often associated with maturity and old age.  It’s a certain quality of uniqueness that singles someone or something out as being special or a one-off.  It’s difficult to put your finger on but you know it when you see it, feel it, experience it!  Antique singing bowls often have character, personality, and a certain gravitas that’s just not present in younger bowls.   Look out for bowls that call out to be held and played…bowls that speak directly to your heart.


More to follow...


Click here for descriptions of the various types of antique singing bowl.  Click here for information about premium quality singing bowls.


The antique singing bowls on this website are between 100 and 400 years old, a few may be older.