There was a little cafe in front of the meditation place in Pokhara, where I was instructed to go to for my sound therapy session. Umbrella Cafe was a hippy sort of place, with Buddha relief and prayer flag decorations, raw vegan and vegetarian on the menu, pathwork rugs over rustic furniture.
In my trekking clothes and hiking boots, I felt self-conscious – too martial for the pacifist scene.
But I was determined to go through with the ‘sound massage’. The singing bowl master I met in the Pokhara music shop had offered to give me one. I was curious, and at since a sound therapy session was only 1500 Nepalese rupees (about $15), it was an experience easily within reach.
The Singing Bowls of Nepal
I was intrigued by the singing bowls the moment I saw them played in the music bowl master’s shop. Yes, saw.
The metallic bowls come in a range of sizes, but are made to sing the same way. I watched as the Nepali master, Arjun Chainpure, ran a wooden pestle around the rim of the bowl, continuously. And then – somehow – a hum rises from the bowl.
As the master kept going, the vibration amplifies to a loud crescendo, filling the air with a rich, clear tone. But what fascinated me, was that he seemed to barely touch the bowl at all.
Yet there it was – a ringing, an unmistakably loud and sustained ringing, whining and echoing against the walls for some time even after he had completely stopped touching the bowl.
It’s because of the alloy, he said. Seven metal alloy, and crafted to precise dimensions. He showed me his range, playing different ones to demonstrate the difference in tone and purity of sound. The rougher hand finished ones sustain the tone less reliably than the machined ones. And the cheaper souvenir bowls raise a tone with more difficulty than the better quality, professional bowls.
I tried it myself. After a few tries I learned to raise the sound – but nothing as loud as he could coax from the bowl. I was trying too hard. Clearly, a significant degree of skill was involved.
And what is a sound massage? I had asked, referring to the sign outside his shop. I’d never heard of a sound massage before.
Many singing bowls, all different sizes. Played like an orchestra – it is very healing for the body. He was keen to show me. I was still quite sore from trekking in the Annapurnas. And even if it wasn’t quite a massage, it would still be a unique musical experience.
I readily agreed.
Arriving for the Musical Sound Massage
I made up my mind and strode purposely past the cafe, and into the courtyard behind. Several young hippies were preparing to do some painting and called out to me. I told them what I was there for, and they pointed me to the meditation hall.
I settled down on the floor, cross-legged. The hall was empty, except for a set of metallic bowls and hanging gongs laid neatly by one of the walls.
“We also do yoga in the mornings, you should come,” they invited, as I waited for Arjun to arrive.
I asked them what time, and they told me. I smiled. Far too early for my post-trekking mood.
Soon enough, Arjun came. He bid me sit, as he prepared the healing space. A yoga mat in the centre, where I was to lay down. An array of bowls around, with the hanging gongs behind the head. Some he half-filled with water.
He fussed over the bowl placements a little, moving one here and there, or swapping bowls around.
Finally, he bid me lie down on my back on the mat, surrounded by the bowls. Laying a circle of cushion on my stomach, he laid the final bowl on top. It was actually surprisingly heavy. But I relaxed into it, and let the weight settle.
Arjun told me the therapy would begin, and asked me to close my eyes. As I did so, he laid a cover over them.
The Sound Healing Begins
The music began with a single high hum.
And then other hums rose around me. I could hear Arjun’s footfalls on the carpet, as he swept around the bowls.
The humming began to overlay each other, sonorous and ringing, all around the single high note that he sustained. He struck the bowls at intervals, adding chimes to the performance. My ear caught the sounds from different directions, the blindfold amplifying the sense of spatial movement, though my body lay still.
Gradually, he moved to the hanging gongs, striking them rhythmically. Adding their brassy notes in a kind of bridge between the humming song of the bowls.
Occasionally he lifted smaller bowls, making them sing and passing them all around my head. The metallic ringing meandered around in a curious wreath of high pitched sound around me.
As I lay there, listening to more sounds added into the mix – tinkling bells and striking chimes – I thought about the novel mixture I was hearing. It was like a cross between church bells, and Southeast Asian gamelan. Dropping occasionally to a deep bass drone, almost like an Australian didgeridoo.
A combination that felt, somehow, wonderfully endearing.
The singing bowl stories
The singing bowl performance was free form. The master plays his instruments seemingly by intuition, crafting the music as he goes along, rather than having a clear musical structure.
But interestingly, Arjun’s rendition moved across a series of ‘stories’.
A whining hum, rising high to the ceiling in its distress.
As it faded to give way to a low ringing, the sound of rain pattering on a tin roof.
But the rain eased into a shoreline, where the ocean drones on in rhythmic breaking waves. Making me long for the foaming water and salt of the sea. The bowl on my stomach began to feel heavy. I shifted, then started as the master struck that very bowl. The vibration coursed through my body down to my toes.
All of a sudden, a sound like the canter of hooves. Horses on the move, their shod hooves striking stone as they passed. Something urgent was happening.
A rise of ringing sounds, intermixing between the tones of the differently-pitched bowls, and then – actual ‘rain splatter’! Water droplets fell upon my skin from the resonance of the small water-filled bowl singing aloft, over my body. The rain resumed, heavy on the tin roof.
But the storm finally broke. Melodious fairy tinkles fell away to a meditative hum.
All too soon, the sound therapy was over.
Meditating over Sound Therapy
The last hum faded away, and I mentally released it away into the ether. Only a slight regret at its passing.
I lay a moment longer, coming to terms with the end of the experience. But the weight of the bowl on my stomach kept getting heavier and heavier, and reminded me it was time to open my eyes.
So I removed the cover, and made to rise. Arjun moved to lift the bowl from my stomach.
How was it? He asked eagerly, in the way of an artist preparing for a critique.
Really good, and very interesting. Arjun’s face broke in pleasure.
With the excitement of a child, he went over to a few of the bowls, raising different hums, and telling me how he made the sounds. Picking up one of the water-filled bowls, he ran a pestle around the rim, round and round, showing me how the vibrations made the water start to bubble and pop – it was the rain on the tin roof.
As we parted, he exhorted me to regularly play my own singing bowl – souvenir quality though it was – and meditate with it. It is good for your health, he insisted.
I nodded to him. Personally, I did not feel any physical difference from having gone through the singing bowl therapy.
But making a bowl sing with resonance still fascinates me. And up in a tower overlooking the big city bustle, it brings me back to the unique musical performance in Pokhara, far away in the foothills of the Himalayas.