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Nepal 2014

Singing bowls of Kathmandu

NEPAL | Sunday, 30 March 2014 | Views [2574]

Arrived at 11pm at airport at Kathmandu. Was expecting an Indian-like scrummage but pleasantly surprised how low key the taxi touts were. Prepaid taxi to Thamel Rs800 and a bumpy ride to the hotel in the gloomy night. Several hours later, awake, much refreshed, breakfasted and stepped out into Katmandu. Again very pleasantly surprised. Some reports I've read by other visitors complain of chaos and unsafe roads and dirt, but in comparison to many of India's crowded cities, Kathmandu doesn't seethe with pedestrians, bikes, motor scooters and vehicles and scream with the sound of horns and moped beepers. They're all here but in fewer numbers but to my eyes there's an underlying sense of order. I expect that many Westerners would find the experience raw and abrasive but I didn't. 

Wandered the streets of Thamel somewhat aimlessly getting bearings and spotting the occasional landmark identified in other blogs. The attitude on the streets is polite: careful weaving by vehicles, vendors don't harass you, and if you talk with someone it always begins with "Namaste", a word with many translations, all of which amount to honouring and respecting the other person. So much more meaningful than "Hi".

i have a commission to bring back a Tibetan singing bowl so I stopped into a couple of brass shops to learn more. There is a lot more to them than I'd thought. The best bowls are made by hand hammering a brass alloy while mass-produced ones are sand cast and turned on a lathe. Ram, the proprietor of Mata Laxmi Handicraft and Singing Bowl House on JP-Chaksibari road happily shared his knowledge of the bowls. "The act of hammering adds energy to the bowls which you can hear in the sound, the way it is sustained for minutes after striking." Machining, he claimed, extracts energy and a bowl's sound will not sustain for as long. Machined bowls give a pure single note with maybe one harmonic, while hammered bowls because of their imperfections, sing with many notes, overtones and underones and harmonics. Ram pointed to plain hammered bowls and others with the hand-carved mantra "Om Mani Pudme Hum" repeated around the outside and others with the mantra and other sacred motifs and images of the Buddha.

Holding a large hande made bowl in his left hand and gently stroking the rim in a circular motion with a leather-bound mallet in his right hand, he made the bowl sing. "Listen'" he said, "the bowl is singing in three notes." Listening closely I could hear the fundamental frequency, the first harmonic, and if I strained my dull Western ears I could also make out other harmonic overtones, the second and third harmonics.  The bowl sang for minutes, seeming to reinforce itself as it faded.

The brass alloys used vary and add another variable to the bowls. in the finest, nine metals are used including gold, zinc and mercury; in lesser bowls seven and five metals are alloyed. Each alloy imparts a characteristic to the tones produced. Sophisticated meditation practitioners request certain tones to address certain chkras, and bowls can be characterised by measuring their output in tones and frequencies.

I tried replicating his actions with the bowl and mallet but couldn't eliciting a single note by stroking. Ram explained the secret is aligning the energy of the body; the combination of the hand cradling the bowl, the grip on the mallet, the pressure and motion of the mallet. I suspect the heart is also involved. He didn't say the latter but I could see his obvious delight at creating such a beautiful sound touched him inside.

"Each bowl has a unique voice and we will respond differently to them," Ram claims. "The body will take the sound, the frequency and direct it to the part of the body that responds to it." 

Tags: kathmandu, thamel streets, tibetan bowls


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